Thursday, June 25, 2009

on names...

Last year I went to a friend’s wedding back in the UK. I was talking to a uni friend and his wife and on being told ‘Oh we have a friend from Ghana’, I replied, half in jest, ‘Is his name Kofi?’ and they looked at me slightly bewlidered and said ‘yes, how did you know?’!

I understand that many cultural groups in Ghana (including the Ashanti of Kumasi) have an Akan name relating to the day they were born, and if they are not actually known by it, they will answer to it – and thus in the above conversation I had a one-in-seven chance! For example, Kojo is a male born on a Monday, Yaa a female born on a Thursday. I know Kofi Annan was born on a Friday, as was I, and I am thus an Afia.

Other names have meanings too. Like I said on an earlier post, Duku apparently means eleventh born, and I think I have established Obaa means lady. There are also names for twins, and what circumstances you were born in. I once met a guy called ‘Gracious’, ‘Justice’ is a fairly common man’s name, I know a ‘Perfect’, not to mention the supervisor called ‘Bonaventure’ (but known as 'Coach')!

I also know the culture of naming your baby after someone is very widely used here -someone who you respect or who has helped you out somehow, someone you would like your child to take after. A great guy I worked with at Barekese had a daughter in February and told me he would name her after me – when it turned out he had done, I asked if he would call her just Alison or if she would have another name too. He said ‘no she will be Kesewa Alison’. I asked what Kesewa meant and he looked like he was struggling with the English for a minute then said ‘aa like fat dis-ting’ (‘dis-ting’ being the general word when you can’t think of the word… like ‘whatsit’). This amused me for a moment, calling your baby Fat Alison. But here, being ‘fat’ is good, it is a sign of health and wealth, and so Kesewa was probably a blessing over the baby that she didn’t turn out to be a skinny runt like the person she was named after!

But names seem to have a slightly different significance here and I can’t work it out. My name is Alison, I expect to be called Alison, and if anyone tried to call me anything else I would not like it. Being called by my surname without a Miss before it feels impersonal and impolite. Yet one of our surveyors told me his name was ‘Sarni’ and so I used that name. However, when asking for him everyone looked at me blankly and said ‘we don’t have a Sarni!’ It later turned out everyone else called him Ibrahim. There was also a guy called Joseph who’s boss called him Chris, and he answered to it. Often I’ll be told one name for someone and yet it’s not their used name. And often I’ll ask a colleague the name of someone who I have seen them conversing with regularly and they don’t know! People get referred to by their job title not their name. And white people will often get called ‘Akosia’ – Sunday born – in the street (several different explanations have been given to me on this one, maybe something to do with the fact that the original white people were missionaries).

I can't work it out - despite the care and attention it seems Ghanaians put into a name, names don’t appear to have the same meaning they do in our culture, but I can't put my finger on exactly what it is!

1 comment:

Liz said...

The Bishop of the church in Zambia is called Committee because his dad was at one when he was born! Very appropriate name for a vicar...