JANET OGUNDEPO writes about the religious, personal and cultural reasons some people change their native, ancestral names and surnames
An engineer from Imo State, Kelechi, has dropped his family name, Agwo. The name, Agwo, which is the Igbo word for snake, had become a source of torment to him. While growing up, he was often taunted by his peers and others in the community, who found the name amusing and often played pranks with it.
Often when he showed up in a place, it was common to hear someone shout: “Le nu agwo!’, which translates in English to “see snake!” or “a snake is coming!”
The result was that those unfamiliar with the joke would panic and scamper, believing a snake was indeed in the vicinity and that they were in danger. On the other hand, however, the mischief-maker would burst into laughs, catching their fun at Kelechi’s expense.
At adulthood, Kelechi had had enough. The matter became particularly worrisome for his family when in church the priest pointed out that from the biblical account of the role played by the snake in human history, it wasn’t a nice creature to associate it. So, Kelechi dropped his family name Agwo and picked Chukwuma, which means ‘God knows’, instead.
Speaking to our correspondent about the experience, the engineer said, “In Igbo language, Agwo means snake. And every now and then, we were being made jest of.
“At times, while we were on the way, someone would just shout, ‘le na agwo’ that is: ‘a snake is coming,’ and people would start to run for cover. People would want to know where the agwo (snake) was, so they could kill it. Only for the person who raised the alarm to laugh and say, ‘Can’t you see that this person is the agwo I am talking about?’
“When you check the Bible, the snake did not play a very good role in the creation and other references to it. Everyone that sees a snake will want to kill it, so it got to a point that we were no longer comfortable with the name.
“It was not just me; it started with my mum. In the church, when our name was mentioned, the priest would advise my mum and us that we should change the name. So we just had to change it. The name I now bear is the direct name of my father,Chukwuma, which was his Igbo name. That is the name that my siblings and children now bear.”
Kelechi explained to Saturday PUNCH that his family name ‘Agwo’, was originally Agwolaogu, which means, “a drug that can heal a fight.”
He said the advent of colonialism was to blame for the corruption of Agwolaogu to Agwo, which means snake.
He added, “Ogu means fight and the agwo did not mean snake (in the original context). The name in full meant ‘you can cure a fight’, that is, a medicine that would prevent people from fighting again.
“The coming of the white men into Igbo land saw to the shortening of the name to Agwo, which now sounds like snake. Originally, the name was about a drug that people could take and would never fight again.”
Kelechi told our correspondent that his was not an isolated case in the South-East, as very many other people, whose ancestral names were associated with different animals, have had to opt for a change of name.
A shoemaker, Odinaka, told Saturday PUNCH, he dropped his family name, Ogankwo, which means hawk, for the same reason that Kelechi ceased to be called Agwo.
“My great grandfather’s name was Ogankwo, which is translated as hawk. In our place, if you answer that name, people will make mockery of you and you will become a laughing stock. So, we decided not to answer Ogankwu anymore,” Odinaka said.
The shoemaker said in place of Ogankwu, his family had since settled for Nwachukwu, which means “Son of God.”
What’s in a name?
Oxford Learners’ Dictionary defines name as “a word or words that a particular person, animal, place or thing is known by.”
The mention or sight of a person’s name immediately reveals a lot of information about their race, tribe, background and culture. A name sometimes also tells about the circumstances of the bearer’s birth.
In a 2020 joint research titled, “Name as a designate of culture in traditional and contemporary Yoruba society,” John Faloju and Opeyemi Fadairo explain that an individual’s names may be a reflection of the condition of their family at the time of their birth.
According to them, names can also be indicative of the bearer’s family’s religion, occupation, economic status and so on.
History shows that many Africans who were sold into slavery had their name changed by their white masters for ease of pronunciation.
At the advent of colonialism many Africans dropped their native names for English names as a pledge of allegiance to the colonialists.
For others, the change of name was because they didn’t like their native names being mispronounced by foreigners. Others shortened their names to make it easy for non-natives to pronounce.
Falolu and Fadairo, in their research, pointed out that modernity may be eroding African values and beliefs, which are embedded in indigenous names.
Meanwhile, religion has been identified as one major factor influencing Africans to drop their ancestral names.
There are those who believe that a name has a way of shaping or influencing the bearer’s destiny or fate in life. It is believed that a name, depending on its meaning and origin, can either bring the bearer fortune or misfortune.
Timi Orokoya’s case
Popular gospel musician and former National President, Gospel Musicians Association of Nigeria, Timi Orokoya, is one of those who believe that names have a deep spiritual influence on the bearer’s well-being.
The musician, also popularly known as Telemi, had at some point tweaked his family name from Osukoya to his current surname, Orokoya.
He said the decision to change or tweak his family name was based on the divine instructions he received from God while seeking solutions to some problems in his family.
According to him ‘Osu’, which he dropped, means deity, while Oro, which he adopted in replacement, means the word (of God). The change, he explained, was to break free from his family’s ties with the deity, Osu.
He said since changing the name, there has been a breath of fresh air in his life.
Narrating to our correspondent the circumstances surrounding his change of name, Orokoya, who hails from Osun State, said, “In my dealings with God, I noticed some things ought to have happened to me but those things did not happen. It is always good as a child to seek spiritual counselling and take some spiritual steps in finding solutions to some things happening in your life; don’t just sit down and say that those things are part of life.
“I think it was around 2012 or 2014. I noticed that some things were happening in my life and the situation was affecting my children regarding their progress. I took some steps but nothing worked. So I decided to seek God’s face to know what was wrong and I embarked on a spiritual adventure to pray on seven mountains for seven days.
“By the grace of God, I was on the fourth mountain when I had the leading that I had been limited by (my) name. In the scriptures, there were people like that. God helped me, I took a decision and while I was there, I called my siblings that I ceased bearing the name.”
The musician said he got to know that his former surname Osukoya, was coined and adopted by his grandfather to venerate a deity.
“The name of that deity was Osu. Whenever he (my grandfather) wanted to deal with some of the situations that were brought to him, he consulted the deity. He believed the deity helped him a lot in his assignments. So, he adopted the name Osukoya, which means ‘a deity that fights and shields one from attacks or molestation.’”
However, Telemi said soon after dropping the name Osukoya, himself and his family members began to experience progress in their endeavours.
He, however, stressed that dropping the old family name did not mean that he had cut ties with his family.
A new wave of name change
African traditional religions have taken the back seat, while Christianity and Islam have loomed large, dominating the landscape.
As a result, many adherents of the non-indigenous faiths are dropping their ancestral names.
Like Telemi, a realtor, Fifi, told Saturday PUNCH that her family had to drop their ancestral name, Ifakunle, which is associated with the Yoruba deity, Ifa.
She said having become Christians, her family saw no reason to continue to bear the name, as they hold no allegiance to Ifa that their forebears worshipped.
In place of Ifakunle, the family adopted the name Olakunle (Ola means wealth).
In a chat with our correspondent, Fifi said, “I don’t know much about why we changed except for religion issues. We stopped serving Ifa and decided it (the name) doesn’t suit us anymore.”
It is the same story with a chef and event planner, Cornelius Oluwabiyi, whose surname was originally Ogunbiyi, indicating association with Ogun, the Yoruba god of iron.
“My first surname is Ogunbiyi. My family had the traditional religion of the god of iron and that has been for a long time. But that has stopped because my grandfather was an evangelist. The reason for the name change was personal to me; it was not the whole family that changed the name. So I changed from Ogubiyi to Oluwabiyi,” Cornelius said.
The chef said since he dropped Ogun from his name, his immediate family members had taken their cue from him.
A business woman, Wendy Umoren, told our correspondent that it was a huge relief when she got to drop her first name after she got married.
Umoren explained, “For me, I changed my name because of religious beliefs and personal reasons. While I was growing up, I used to be very sick as a child. What I heard from my mum was that my given name at birth, Odotukana, was being used for incantations and that could be a part of the reason I kept falling sick.
“It is not a common name. I only know of three people bearing that name, including the person I was named after. I did a Google search and it turned up two other people bearing the name. So it is not a common name. So basically, that’s my reason (for dropping the name).
“I officially changed my name, when I got married. I had to change my surname to my husband’s, so I also took that opportunity to change my first name. The previous name is Odotukana and I don’t know what it means but I know that it was used during incantations. My new name is Wendy.”
Push-back against imperialism
Renowned novelist, the late Chinua Achebe, did exactly the opposite of what Umoren, who dropped her native name, Odotukana, for an English name, Wendy, did.
Achebe initially had his full name as Albert Chinualumogu Achebe. But according to the African Studies Centre of the University of Leiden, The Netherlands, the novelist rejected his English first name, Albert, when he was a college student in 1948, to embrace “his indigenous Igbo name, Chinualumogu — Chinua for short — which means ‘God fought for me.’”
It was said that Achebe’s decision had a political undertone.
It was his way of rejecting the “social and psychological disorientation” that came with Western cultures brought to Africa by the colonialists.
Indeed, Achebe’s acclaimed novel, Things Fall of Apart, explored the theme of imperialism.
Findings by our correspondent showed that Achebe was not alone. Some accounts posited that two late Nigerian nationalists,Obafemi Awolowo and Nnamdi Azikiwe, also rejected their given English names, Jeremiah and Benjamin, respectively.
But there are also those who, despite embracing Christianity and Islam, see no reason to change their native or ancestral names.
A criminologist, Tosin Adojutelegan, said he is proud of his native ancestral name and wouldn’t change it for anything.
Narrating the story behind the name, he said, “It is the name of my great-great-grandfather. He was so strong that he managed to marry the fiercest and metaphysically powerful woman of his time, known as Baálè.
“During one of the inter-village battles, he (my great-great-grandfather) went missing. His fellow warriors went back home to announce his death. However, a few days later, he returned unscathed with the spoils of the battle; and he had single-handedly defeated the attackers, to the surprise of everyone. Thereafter, he was named Adójútelegàn, meaning, ‘the one who shames a slanderer.’”
Tosin said though the mention of his name often gets people raising an eyebrow, he is proud of the name wouldn’t drop it for anything.
“With the rich meaning the name carries, I’ve retained the family name, and my children will likewise bear the name,” he said.
Alterations, change cause partial loss of identity – Historians
An associate professor of History and International Studies at the Lagos State University, Olawale Lawal, told Saturday PUNCH that the idea or trend of people altering or changing their names was ignited by the arrival of western religions and culture.
Lawal said the trend can be blamed on the misrepresentation of the African traditional religion.
He said, “Talking specifically about the change of name, the first way to start is to look at it from the influence of the western religion, Judaism and Christianity, but dominantly Christianity. I think what happened is that during the process of translating Yoruba to English, there were certain misrepresentations of names. For example, some of our gods were misinterpreted to having certain equivalence to the Christian religion, whereas many of these gods do not have equivalence anywhere. An example is an assumption that Esu is equivalent to Satan.
“Those involved in traditional religion studies have shown that Satan is an angel of God while Esu is a deity in Yoruba land. Now, when you say Esu, the assumption is that Esu is not necessarily the representation of Satan. Now, a name like Esugbayi, from the perspective of somebody who has believed in the interpretation of Esu and is now a Christian, the tendency to change that Esu to something else is very high because what he has come to see or know is that Esu is same as Satan. So, the religious influence on changing of name is so clear in our system.
“Apart from all this, Islam also has its own input. For instance, there are many Muslims out there that will prefer to name their children, Kabir, in place of names like Adebayo, Adekunle, Olawale etc, just to show that they are affiliated with Islam. Before the advent of Islam, our people believe that if you give a child a good name, the tendency of that child to behave well is very high other than when you give a child a name whose meaning he does not know.”
The don added that the trend has resulted in the erosion of African culture and belief system.
He said some people who changed their names to break away from their ancestry have got their fingers burnt as a result of inconsistency in their credentials.
The lecturer explained that a change of name had in many cases affected the verification of documents, especially at the embassy, leading to people being denied visas.
Lawal warned that identity problems and potential family disintegration were further problems that might arise with name change.
He added, “For example, there are some higher institutions of learning, especially state-owned institutions the Lagos State University, where I work, we have two categories of admission; those we admit on the merit of being Lagosians and those we admit on the merit list. If you have people who now claim to be indigenes of Lagos and somewhere along the line the family name, which we all know, has been changed, that means there’s no clear connection with Lagos.
“There are some people that once their name is mentioned, one knows where the person is from. For example, people from Abeokuta have ‘Sho’ preceding their names. Now, if you remove that, you have lost some substantial part of your identity. If you appear before an institution where you need your indigenous verification, you will need to get letters even from the village head, chairman and communities and you go to them and they don’t know the name you are talking about, so it becomes difficult to establish your identity. So, those are some of the disadvantages arising from the change of name.”
Renowned Ifa priest from Osogbo, Osun State, Chief Ifayemi Elebuibon, expressed sadness over the trend, saying is being fuelled by ignorance.
He said, “People are doing it (changing the prefix of their surnames) and it is shameful that we can allow Western religions to influence us to that extent. Those doing that have no genuine reason and should not be regarded as true Yoruba blood.
“As we can see, majority of Yoruba names are meaningful and they reflect who we are as people. You can’t see a Yoruba name without a tangible meaning, unlike the English people whose names do not have meaning. They bear Stones, Wood and the rest. Are those names meaningful?
“Here, you have names like Sangodapo, Olateju, Ifatooki, Osunfunke and the rest. Without even interrogating these names much, you can understand their meanings and the reasons the bearers have them.
“I am surprise that despite our independence, we still have people, who are still not independent in thinking even about themselves and their existence. They will still choose to put themselves in bondage of the foreign religion.
“But we should realise at this point that even if anyone removes Sango from his surname and puts the name of a prophet, it is only the good deeds of such a person that can make him gain eternity.
“The name given to someone are mostly about their lineage and sometimes, define their culture and traditions. Those people changing their names are destroyers of culture. Ignorant and slavish embrace of foreign religions are the causes of that.
“If anyone thinks changing names will stop misfortune or discharge him or her from ancestral bondage, the person is missing it. Prayers to Olodumare is the only way out. Such an attitude portends a danger to the Yoruba culture and tradition and it must not continue.”
Also, a professor of Culture History at the Tai Solarin University of Education, Ijagun, Ogun State, Raheed Ajetunmobi, feared that the growing disinterest of Africans in their culture and religion would further lead to Europeans coming to teach Africans their traditions.
Ajetunmobi, who said this in his inaugural lecture, which he recently delivered, said, “Rather than denouncing witches and wizards, we must encourage them to positively use their knowledge towards the development of society. We can rely on our culture for technological evolution and development rather than technology transfer, which is an illusion.”
We do not insist on name change – Christian, Islamic leaders
The Catholic Priest of Uromi Diocese, Edo State, Fr Oselumhense Anetor, said a name was important in both African society and religion.
He clarified that though the Catholic Church always insists that children be given names with positive meanings rather than names associated with traditional deities, the church does not compel members to change their names.
The priest added that the cultural implications of the change differed among individuals, adding that in some cases, a refusal to change could indicate a lack of total conversion.
Anetor said, “During baptisms, we insist that children are given names with positive connotations. This is because names are particularly important in the life of people, whether in traditional African society or in religious parlance.
“We generally believe that one’s name can sharpen their life’s paths. However, I must say that there are also those who after conversion didn’t change their surname from what it used to be. While we insist that newly baptised kids be given positive names, we do not insist that those who already had such names, change them at baptism. A clear example is seen in the present Catholic Bishop of Uromi Diocese, who’s surname is Ogun, which is god of iron.
“The religious implications would differ from person to person, and from society to society. Here in Nigeria, retaining names of African deities might be seen as a subtle form of syncretism. There might be a lingering concern that the conversion isn’t total, even though this isn’t necessarily the case.”
On whether alterations and changes to names affect the cultural values of individuals, Anetor said, “Yes and no. Yes, because our names affect us, even psychologically. So, if you were once called Judas, and now you’re Joseph, one would expect some self-retrospection that engenders behaviour that is more in tandem with a Joseph rather than a Judas.
“Yes, because since Africans are deeply religious, there is a tendency to be more trustful of an Inegbenose than an Inegbenosun. Conversely, we cannot deny that name changes do no automatically change behavioural traits or character uniqueness. So, yes, a Judas might be much more of a better human being than a Joseph, in reality. And nothing suggests that an Inegbenosun wouldn’t be more morally conscious than an Inegbenose.”
Also, the Chief Missioner of Nasrul-lahi-li Fathi Society of Nigeria, Imam Abdul-azeez Onike, said Islam does not mandate that cultures and established names of foods, modes of greetings that were not contrary to the Qur’an and teachings of Prophet Muhammad be changed.
He said, “Regarding the issue of names, our prophet encourages naming our children good names devoid of traces of idol worshipping, war, immorality or generally what denotes violation of shariah.
“Abu Wahb al-Jushami reported: The Messenger of Allah (PBUH) said name yourselves with the names of the prophets. The most beloved names to Allah are Abdullah, the servant of Allah, and Abdur Rahman, the servant of the merciful. The most truthful of them is Harith, the harvester of good, and Hamam, the brave one. The worst names are names of war and bitterness.”
The NASFAT chief missioner also noted that there were instances where the prophet changed the names of persons with rebellious names and those without a good meaning to better ones.
Onike stated, “Islam has not come to obliterate our culture, inasmuch as such culture does not run contrary to Qur’an and Sunnah. At the same time, our identity as Muslims should not be put into question. Whatever is regarded as a means of identity of other religious adherents should be discouraged. Islam forbids the Muslims to imitate the kuffaar (unbelievers), but this prohibition does not apply to all their affairs, rather it applies to matters of their religion and things that are unique to them, by which they are known.”