Nwanyi Ukwuoma and the Complexities of Igbo Names

by Wayo Guy

Her name was Akwaoma but the naughty boys called her Ukwuoma. She was 26 years old. You have seen her type if you have ever been to the small towns and villages. Youhave seen her because ukwu na-aga wara wara, anya n’ele zara zara n’ahu ya (the legs that walk fast are invariably captured by the eyes that see fast).

She was the type of girl who, dressed up, walked down the street with carefree, hesitant, almost-lazy shuffle on a cool evening as the men sat in front of street-corner shops drinking local gins. Watching her, you knew right away that while she appeared to be headed in a direction, she really had no destination. An exceptional village beauty, wherever she went, eyes followed her because ihe oma na anya bu nwanne (a thing of beauty and eyes are relatives).

Rumors of her promiscuity remained unsubstantiated slanderous rumors because she had never admitted them; she let the rumor-mongers continue their premature celebration for, afterall, onye a na-gbara ama ya na-anuri, onye eboro ohi okwerela? (while you rejoice prematurely at the news from an informer, has the accused thief admitted the offence?).

I was just 15 years old and a member of a naughty gang of boys ages 14 to 17. Although no boy in my age group had actually been inside her house, I was nominated by my peers to make the journey and report a detailed description of her in her birthday suit (and I mean the suit she was wearing the very day she was born). My findings were due at our pre-arranged meeting the following Sunday. Was it teenage curiosity or adolescent coming of age or both that informed the gang’s interest in this woman? I cannot now recall. How I would accomplish this difficult task was entirely my problem, the bigger boys warned me. If I failed, I would be kicked out of the gang after a serious beating. Yes, it was like nwanne m mu na ya jere ichu mmuo n’asi na m n’esi mmuo mmuo (my brother with whom I went to exorcise evil spirits who was now saying that I smell like evil spirits). I now felt like a target of the gang.

To raise money for my mission, I sold a small radio that my uncle had given me on my birthday for twenty naira. And I sent word through the village drunk to Akwaoma that I wanted to meet with her and the location of the meeting. I knew she would be there because she was, after all, a “business” woman. But I was fully aware that I kunye enwe mmiri abughi nsogbu, kama obu inata ya iko bu ebe nsogbu di (to give a monkey a cup of water is not a problem, the difficulty is how to get the cup back from him). What would I say to her once I met her? How would I get what I was told to get? That was the real difficulty. Would she chase me away, considering my age?

I met her at the pre-arranged time and place, a street corner, behind the barbershop, where the palm wine-taper used to sell his booze in the early morning. That corner was deserted in the evenings. As the drunks and village gossips watched from a distance, I turned my back at them so that they would not see me hand over a twenty naira note to her. She grabbed the money and quickly took me by the hand and we disappeared through the crumbling mud walls of the old stalls, and taking the back narrow road, to avoid the curious eyes, she led me to her house.

As soon as we got inside, she drew the curtains, raised the wick of the kerosene lantern to a flickering flame and started to unbutton her dress before I stopped her. I freaked out! “Please”, I said, nervously “that’s not what I came for”.

Puzzled, she buttoned her dress and asked me, suspiciously, what I wanted.

“What does your name mean?” I mumbled, still a little nervous. How that question got into my head at that moment, I did not know.

“My name? Do you mean my names Akwaoma or Ukwuoma?” she asked, looking sternly in my eyes, perhaps to see what type of madness I was suffering from. “You gave me twenty naira for that? Please get out, GET OUT OF MY HOUSE! YOU ARE A STRANGE ONE! GET OUT!”

But it was not as easy as she thought. I really needed to stay in her house for a few minutes because I knew that my peers, from the nearby bushes, were watching the entrance to her house at that moment to verify that I actually went in and that I spent some time inside. And so I fell on my knees and pleaded, with my palms held together as if in prayers. I pleaded as quickly as my voice allowed. I pleaded like a thief caught in the act although I was far from a thief. It was five minutes of continuous begging before she relented and sat down on her bed regarding me with chastising eyes.

She told me to sit down and closed her eyes for five long minutes, apparently contemplating her next move; then she opened her eyes and, like a patient teacher, finally took the time to talk to me. Still she must have thought I had gone mad for giving her such a big sum of money for nothing although she showed no inclination to return my money to me.

Why did I want to know the meaning of her names, she asked. I mumbled some inaudible and incomprehensible words. She laughed out loud, seemingly enjoying my discomfort and confusion. Still laughing, and peering at me with a puzzled look, she explained the names to me.

Akwaoma, she said, was a name coined from a marriage of two words, Akwa and oma, a compound name. While oma means ‘beautiful’ or ‘good‘, akwa was more complex; akwa meant either ‘cloth’ or ‘crying’ or ‘bed’ or ‘egg’ or ‘bridge’. She told me to take my pick from the smorgasbord: Akwaoma (beautiful cloth); Akwaoma (beautiful crying); Akwaoma (beautiful bed); Akwaoma (beautiful egg); Akwaoma (beautiful bridge). She told me to take one, if I wished, because they were all her names.

I sat there thinking of the labyrinths of the possible coinages, a buffet of words, imagery, synonyms, and sheer metaphors, all personified in one woman: suddenly, I no longer saw her as an object of the prurient interest of naughty adolescents: this was a walking study in the complexities and beauty of Igbo words. I thanked her profusely and asked her how she got the name. Her father, she answered, pointing at a photograph on the wall.

She did not have to tell me why the naughty boys called her Ukwuoma. I knew that Ukwu meant ‘rear-end’, ‘buttocks’, ‘ass’, ‘behind’. And since she had a big one, the meaning of the naughty name was obvious because anya k’eji ahu uka kara aka (it is with the eyes that we see a ripe maize). Nevertheless, she took the time to explain to me that ukwu also means ‘leg‘.

When, rather reluctantly, I got up to leave, after the lessons, still laughing, she released a bombshell: “when your friends ask you how it went, tell them that the kola nut is every bit as sweet as its crunchy sound suggests. Do you understand?” I nodded with a smile of gratitude, and she handed me back my twenty naira note. Apparently she had figured out why I really came to see her.

I could not wait to see my gang that Sunday. When I told the gang, with a few imaginative details, that the kolanut they sent me to sample was every bit as sweet as rumored, they immediately nicknamed me the conqueror of the British Empire. Having noticed that they believed me, I got even bolder: I told them that after she had taken off her beautiful cloths, and lay on her beautiful bed, with a skin as smooth as a beautiful egg, my skills slowly lifted her into some beautiful crying just as I crossed the beautiful bridge. In fact, I said, Ukwuoma was indeed elewe ukwu egbue ewu (one the sight of whose buttocks deserves a sacrificial goat). “The conqueror! The conqueror!!” they clapped with a rousing applause. To this day, yes to this day, I am still a hero among my peers – false hero that is.

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Mua June 20, 2009 - 2:20 pm

Enjoyed the story through and through, especially with the spicing of Igbo proverbs and phrases.

unknown December 14, 2006 - 4:58 pm

i loved your story

Chi December 12, 2006 - 4:45 pm

Wayo, (or is it Jibiti?)

Although highly improbable, your story was quite witty and enlightening.


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