I Will Not Change My Name Because You Can’t Pronounce It
The roots of name discrimination are an extension of the harms caused by slavery and colonialism
For the Urhobo people of southern Nigeria, like many Africans across the continent, names are a serious matter. Traditionally, an Urhobo child is given a name according to their family’s desire for who they might become, the hope being that a child will live up to the likeness of what their name means. Today, Urhobo children are often named by one of their parents, but historically it was common for a grandparent or an older relative to name a child in keeping with the gerontocratic culture.
In my family, the story goes that when my maternal grandfather was born, his grandfather, Abogor (“something you give respect to”), saw the baby and declared his name Shifikovie. In Urhobo, this means “this chief is a king.” His grandfather, Emoefe (“children are riches”), was a king of an Urhobo ẹkpotọ or kingdom. My grandfather would be a chief until his death, the year I was born. We never met, but my mother was pregnant with me when he died, and in honor of him, she called me Shifikovie too.
I’ve gone by the latter half of the full name for as long as I can remember — Kovie. It’s pronounced “kov-yay,” and consequently, people sometimes think it is French. But as a child, once my family departed from Nigeria, I allowed people to call me “kov-ee.” I didn’t mind it much until an ordinary day in secondary school that would later become a distinct memory, my mother asked, “Why do you let people pronounce your name like that? It’s not your name.”
I remembered that day recently when I learned that Love Island (U.K.) 2019 contestant Yewande Biala was involved in an online brouhaha with her former cast mate, Lucie Donlan. Details of the pair’s interactions on the popular dating reality show having come to light. Biala alleged that Donlan didn’t respect the pronunciation of her name. Biala also claims that Donlan asked if she could call Biala another name.
The names we are called — the names we respond to — are reflections of history, space, and culture… They might be the prayer and hope a community has…