Life Abroad

No Shame in the Name

Because you do not have to be misrepresented by a false name.

I had just finished watching another interesting episode of Third Rail on OZY with Carlos Watson, and I was impressed with one of his guests, an NFL free agent named ‘James…,’ but I could not make out the last name, since Carlos admittedly could not quite get the pronunciation. Even James himself seemed to have Americanized the name. Carlos had commended him for his “immigrant optimism,” and so I am thinking he might be of Nigerian descent, because a portion of his name sounds Yoruba. So, I got curious because he was so cogent and articulate, and I guess I wanted some reason to feel good about Nigerians on a Friday night.

Of course, like every good cyber surfer I do a google search for a name I think they are trying to pronounce, “James Adepo.” But instead of a muscled-up footballer, a bespectacled merry faced skinny black man shows up on Wikipedia. His first name is not James, he is British-American, and was born to a “British” mother, and an African American father. His biography says nothing about Nigeria, or Benin or anything about Africa. There is nothing to explain the etymology of his Yoruba name. I wondered if he was another genetic wonder; I wondered if he had a white mother, and just turned out looking black, like the world’s only bi-racial twins, with one being black and the other white –Britain’s Lucy and Maria Aylmer. But nah, he’d be all over the news for more than just his HBO television series.

My curiosity and the nebulousness reminds me of a funny event earlier in the week, as I was chatting with some fellow Yoruba students from Nigeria at my law school in Chocolate City. I am always so excited to meet international students generally because I love interacting with new cultures—there always is something new to learn from them. And I particularly love meeting Nigerian students, who evoke nostalgic memories of my years in Nigeria.

We are all smiles in the hard lounge, a hangout at my law school, when a Yoruba classmate of mine, though born in the United States, comes along, and I enthusiastically do the introductions of the new arrivals—my fellow Nigerians. With a population approaching 200 million, Nigeria has approximately 500 different ethnic groups, and Yorubas are one of the three major tribes, with a rich cultural heritage.

My classmate tells his Yoruba countrymen that his name is “O-lamid.” My country-woman looks perplexed, since I had just told her, I was about to introduce her to a fellow Yoruba, and she tries to place the name or even figure out just what he was saying. As I try to explain, he cuts me off, since he is rushing off to a meeting. And never one to miss the opportunity for jovial sardonicism, I remark, “he is snubbing us…”

However, I tell our guests what a wonderful person he is, and “but for” his rushing off to his appointment, he would have appeared more pleasant. And I clarified that his name, was “Olamide,” after my lovely Yoruba friend asks, “ko l’oruko Yoruba ni?” Which means, “does he not have a Yoruba name?”

She beams at my reply, and mentions that he doesn’t know how to pronounce the intoned Yoruba name correctly, pronounced, “awe-lah-me-day.” I respond with a Yoruba closer, “mi o mo o!” Meaning: “I do not know!” Which is an idiom in Nigeria for politely saying, “mind your own business.”

Politeness is huge among Yorubas, whose men do a traditional “one press up” (as my American born cousin calls it) to greet elders.

But my American born classmate knew how to pronounce his name properly. Although he’d chosen a “new” pronunciation, he retained the traditional Yoruba spelling of the name. And one of the coolest professors I have ever met, a Harvard Law graduate and expert in Constitutional Law, accurately pronounces his name as, “awe-lah-me-day,” during roll call on the first day of class. However, the bearer of the name is initially silent, and then finally, insouciantly replies:

“It’s ‘O-lamid.’”

My heart sank, after my brief feeling of elation and joy for the esteemed professor, that he had tried and gotten it right.

He correctly pronounced one of those recondite looking foreign names. He had done his research…but my professor with swag, was not going to catch a break doing roll call. It appeared he had to be punished for enforcing the “authoritarian” system of taking attendance on the first day. A few names, just before his, my ebullient professor, had looked flustered as a student had chided him for the administration’s name mix-up. Something about a repeated failure to reflect her name change.

For the second time in less than five minutes, Professor “Swag,” voices his apology with a gracious smile…consistent with his perennial show of gleam – from his cross section of frontal row pearly white teeth.

It was not the first time someone of Nigerian ancestry turned denier. I had overheard the familiar Igbo language, spoken by a very Nigerian-looking man at Reykjavik airport in Iceland, where the HBO hit, Game of Thrones is filmed. I excitedly and politely walk up to him smiling and saying, “hi,” after he’d returned his phone to his pocket.

“You are Igbo. Are you Nigerian?”

He looks up suspiciously, almost fearfully, and says:

“No, I am not Nigerian. In fact, I am not Igbo,” in his unmistakable thick Igbo accent. Most of my best friends, growing up in Nigeria, were Igbo.

“I’m sorry.” I apologize and I walk away.

Despite media circulating the success and positive attributes of Nigerian Americans in academic achievement and upward mobility in America, the stigma of the bad Nigerian image lingers. It chokes off the traditional courtesy of the Nigerian culture. Although author Amy Chua, the Yale Law Professor, gives a shout-out to Nigerians in her book The Triple Package: How Three Unlikely Traits Explain the Rise and Fall of Cultural Groups in America, citing Nigerians as among the most educated and upwardly mobile ethnic groups in America, the bad image cast on Nigeria during the era of the treasonable coup plotter and former military dictator, General Ibrahim Babangida haunts the enterprising character of many Nigerians.

Babangida virtually turned the oil reserves of the resource rich nation into his personal asset, as he and his cohorts embezzled funds from oil proceeds with impunity. His corrupt regime in the ‘80s and ‘90s, witnessed the massive exodus of impoverished Nigerian professionals to the United States, as the United Kingdom, soon shut its doors to Nigeria with its imposition of sanctions. Many Nigerian professors, who criticized his brutal dictatorship escaped the murderous rage of the deceitful dictator, who was widely believed to have used a “letter bomb” to kill a prominent journalist investigating his corrupt acts.

The despot’s corruption introduced many unemployed graduates into a new form of white collar technological fraud. Nigeria became synonymous with advance-fee fraud under Babangida’s reign of corruption and carnage.

But most Nigerian Americans do not have to feel saddled by the perfidy of crooked folks and their former leader General Babangida. Nigerian Americans are the ones who were fortunate to escape the quandary. And we should reflect our cultural happiness in America. When we smile and we are happy, we put joy in others’ hearts and evoke smiles too. Try it.

Olamide’s name is too beautiful to be ashamed of. It is too auspicious not to celebrate. It means “my wealth has come.” Writing this has brought a smile to my face. And I think I am going to write professor swag to let him know, he pronounced “Olamide” perfectly. He must have practiced getting it right. Or should I just wait until another time, after he has taken another inventory of his students…after he has retrieved a bunch of chimerical outputs for the semester and reconciled his students’ names—the abstruse and the simple—with a label that he gets to dictate: “Grades?”



Professor Christopher Bracey,


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