If you’re like me, a Nigerian-born-and-raised American, and basically any person who’s outside the culture of African-Americans, you’ve probably been socialized to raise your eyebrows at what we have been taught to see as the ‘weird’ sounding names some African-Americans have. I was in that same boat, along with many of our African-born-and-raised Africans. That is, until I started raising my American-born, African-American child.
My ex-husband is African-American and traces his roots back to a line of slaves and possibly, a few Native Americans. He was born and raised in America and that’s all he knows. I, on the other hand, was born and raised in Nigeria, West Africa, and was the product of the then British-influenced Nigeria. What this means is that although born in Nigeria, English was my first language, because I learned and spoke English before I learned my language. I learned to speak my language at ten years old, when my father put his foot down and said we (my younger sister and I) had to learn to speak Urhobo. Today, although I speak my language fluently, it is still not my first language, in that it is not the language I think in.
Raising my daughter in a community that had no other African immigrants meant that my child had no exposure to my language and my culture. So I was very surprised when at about six years old, she named one of her favorite dolls “Onu Omfaru.” I was shocked because of how closely Nigerian that name sounded and I wondered where she got it from. I asked her and she said she just made it up. I pondered this for many days. She never changed Onu’s name. Onu still leaves with us as Onu Omfaru, complete with a birth certificate and all!
As I pondered this strange ethnic pop-up name, other things about my African-American daughter popped up everywhere…From when she was two years old, she was a butt-shaking, waist-twisting African dancer! I used to be terrified of her joining other kids for dance as I feared what they would think of her dance movements, which were nevertheless very familiar to me, an African born and raised woman.
At one year old, although I hadn’t yet cooked any African dishes in my home at the time, she took like a fish to water to the fiery-spiced African dish that a church member brought us. When she was four, we visited and stayed with a Nigerian family in Houston where she had her first taste of ‘fufu.’ She immediately fell in love with it and refused to eat any of her regular American foods during the rest of the trip. Once we got back home, she constantly requested I made her some fufu and okra soup. I would comply.
At five years old, she was very conscious of and very confident of herself as an ‘African’ and I would be astounded at the conversations she initiated with me, especially since we hadn’t yet discussed race in our home (we only started those conversations in the last three years).
As I pondered my daughter’s manifestation of her African roots despite the fact she hadn’t been yet introduced to them, I began to understand her fellow African-Americans. Particularly the ones who named their children Shay-nay-nay, Dequan, LaQuiesha, Lavonté and all the other names that North America has socialized us to see and respond to as weird-sounding names.
I began to understand the divine gift of ethnicity. You can take the person away from the geography of their ethnic roots, but you cannot take away their ethnic roots from them. Those roots will always find a way to manifest and that is not a bad thing.
In responding to the Shay-nay-nays of North America, I also began to be conscious of the havoc that the Westernization of Christianity has wreaked on people of non-Western cultures. It robs non-Western Christians of their God-given ethnic identities, cultures and roots. It promotes the false ideologies that ‘White’ is better and ‘White’ is best.
This is why the Missionary Christians would change our ethnic names and instead give us ‘English’ (aka Christian) names at our Baptisms. The result is that many African Christians have both an English and an ethnic name with the former taking precedence and flat out wiping out the ethnic names!
The practice of Western Christianity has been to despise the cultures and customs of other ethnic groups – especially African groups – in the Western paternalistic approach to Evangelism and Ecclesiology.
They associate our identities, cultures and customs to idol worship, when in reality that is not necessarily the case.
They pretend they cannot pronounce our ethnic names, yet they are able to pronounce European names that have no vowels, as well as read and write in languages whose alphabets are strokes and dots! Yet, they simply cannot pronounce our names which are written in the English alphabet!
The truth is that African cultures have their own language and we name kids and people for something. Our names often tell a story, symbolize a covenant with people or God, express a hope or prayer, etc.. Yet, our Western brothers and sisters felt more comfortable erasing our ethnic names to replace them with names such as Smith, Stone, Black, Ironhead (these are real people names in many parts of Nigeria!).
One of the most miserable things that happened to me in North America was the battle over my name. My name is Oghenetega, Tega for short. I learned to spell it ‘Oghene’tega’ because of how difficult it was to convince authorities that Tega and Oghenetega were one and the same name. I’ve had to change my documents several times.
One of the most beautiful things that has happened to me in America comes from my American (white and non-white) friends sending me inquiries about the right way to pronounce my name. Some also ask if there’s a meaning to my name.
Such friends and acquaintances have no idea how their simple request has greatly affirmed me, as I not only get to tell them the meaning of my name, but also got to share the story behind my name!
Despite the struggle with affirming my name, I resolved never to resort to using my ‘English’ name. Instead, I have chosen to continue the battle to use my ‘real’ name because of its underlying story and meaning.
My name is Oghenetega, Tega for short. It is pronouced Or-heh(hard Hebrew ‘h’)-neh-tay-gah.
‘Oghene‘ means ‘God;’ ‘te’ means ‘worthy’ and ‘ga’ means ‘worship/serve.’ So Oghenetega means “God is worthy to be worshiped/served!”
My mother named me out of her victory over near-death experiences and challenges in marriage in a severe patriarchal culture that through lack of knowledge of gynecology and obstretics, jeopardized her health and her life.
The name has also developed a profound personal significance for me, as I came to apprehend and appreciate my Christian faith at an early age, culminating in a call to ministry at age fourteen. The significance of my name increased for me as I walked my own Israelites’ journey and spent some years in the belly of the fish to answer that call. My name would repeatedly remind me of the sovereignty of the God of our Lord Jesus Christ Who has walked with me through every valley of the shadow of death and repeatedly restored my soul. My name would remind me of God’s call on my life while I was still in my mother’s womb and remind me I was divinely ordained to serve God in every capacity that I do today. My name would constantly make clear to me my life’s purpose.
I don’t know what power and comfort my name would afford me if either my parents or I had chosen to go by my English name.
No doubt, English names also have their meanings, but those meanings are not rooted in the African custom of naming. A custom that has been stolen from our African-American family through the systematic erasure of their African identities and in the mocking and shaming of their association with anything that is remotely African.
I am glad God gave me my daughter to remind me in more ways than one, that the representation of our ethnic identities matter; to remind me that ethnicity was created by God for a reason; to remind me that God is pleased to see and hear the variety of expressions of life and worship in all the ‘nations and tongues’ He and She created!
I don’t know the meaning of Onu Omfaru, but if you are reading this and happen to be from the Ibo regions of Nigeria or one of the African cultures where this name has meaning, please let me know by leaving a comment below.
In the meantime, let’s cultivate a healthy respect and regard for all the Shay-nay-nays, LaQuieshas, etc., that we come across.
Let’s respect the deep call of their souls to express their presence in the world according to their ethnicity and acknowledge that that’s nothing to be ashamed of. Let’s affirm ‘who’ they are, by attributing dignity to their names, regardless of how those names sound to us.
Let’s practice respecting and pronouncing African (and African-American) names because every name tells a story. A story of belonging in society and of belonging in God’s Kingdom.
-Rev. Oghene’tega Swann
Rev. Oghene’tega Swann is an ordained Teaching Elder (Pastor) in her beloved Presbyterian Church(USA) and a member of Beaver-Butler Presbytery. She is honored to be serving her first term on the Committee on Representation of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) –GACOR. In partnership with the Holy Spirit and the beautiful people of Beaver-Butler Presbytery, Rev. Swann planted the first African American congregation in the Beaver-Butler Presbytery, Refreshing Springs Mission Church (PCUSA). She graduated from: Ahmadu Bello University, Nigeria, with a Bachelor of Science in Human Anatomy; Trinity School for Ministry, Ambridge Pa, with a Masters of Religion in Church Ministry & Missiology and is currently pursuing her Doctor of Ministry in Missional Leadership at her favorite seminary, Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. A self-described spiritual mutt, Rev. Swann joyfully identifies as a PresbyCostAng (Presbyterian-Pentecostal-Anglican) in honor of the Christian traditions that shaped and formed her discipleship. Rev. Swann is committed to the teaching, practice, and advocacy of racial and gender equity and along with a few sisters of color, created the first and only dedicated space and chapter in CBE International for discussing the intersection of gender and race, CBE-Voices of Color Chapter, which recently separated from CBE International and is now independently known as Voices of Color: Christians United (VOCCU). Having lived as and among the poor for twelve years, she is an avid encourager of the poor and single mothers and is committed to reforming systems that foster poverty. As a single mother under God’s grace, she has the honor and privilege of being mother to one wonderful child.