My Kenyan friend put it quite succinctly a few days ago as we talked about the politics of Africa in general, and of Kenya in particular – “In Kenya, we’re not racist, you know… We’re ‘tribalist’!”
This assertion is certainly true for most of us in Africa, and it is so subtle that you may not even know that you yourself are biased, in a way. We have an interesting way of making up our minds about someone from our own country, once we hear what tribe affiliation his or her ancestors held. Or even worse, when the only thing we see is the person’s name.
Believe me when I tell you… our prejudices run deep. I am Chukwudi Adepoju; I should know. From the unbelievable reactions I have received in all these decades, especially in Nigeria, I should know.
With both of my parents being of the Yoruba ethnic group, bearing the name Chukwudi (and bearing sounds like an appropriate word here, seeing that the name can be a bit ‘heavy’ sometimes) has led to really “interesting” conversations all through my life.
The very fact that the combination of an Igbo name with a Yoruba surname raises questions and eyebrows (especially when it can’t be easily explained away with marriage) should make us a bit worried about our inter-tribal relations, and our sense of identity.
While most of the reactions I get are purely those of fascination, from my teachers asking (since Primary School days in Osogbo) “How come Shuku…?” to new acquaintances attempting to place my birth in Igboland (sorry, I was born in Ibadan) or even telling me point blank that one of my grandparents is definitely Igbo (wrong again, all known ancestors are Yoruba, though I understand one of them came, in the 18th century, from present day Niger State). All such enquiries are fine, and I’m fine with them. Truth be told, I sometimes volunteer both names myself, knowing what reactions it gets, especially when I need an ice-breaker.
You may be surprised to hear though, that one of the rudest shocks came when I applied for an International passport back in June 2003. The totally incredulous official of the Nigeria Immigration Service refused to approve my application, simply because the name is unusual. “I won’t be part of any fraud!” she said, with the finality of a bigot. “That is how people come and claim names so that they can go and confuse oyinbo people”. It took me producing more identification documents and school certificates before another colleague of hers (not the indignant woman) agreed to “risk it”.
As I keep telling Nigerians anytime I get really tired of it all, confirming for the umpteenth time that my father was not working in Enugu when I was born, nor did he work anywhere in Igboland, it is amazing that all manner of Anglo-Saxon and Arabic names go unchallenged here, but we raise an eyebrow when it is an Ijaw name for a Fulani baby. And half of the time, we have no idea what ‘James’, or ‘Mary’ or even ‘Chantel’ means.
I have had my Hausa brethren change their disposition ever so subtly once they hear that the guy they thought was Yoruba was actually a Chukwudi. (My elder brother who has ‘Danjuma’ as one of his names must fair better there). And I also know how many Igbo people have welcomed me a little bit more because I am “Chu’di”. Both experiences are ever so amusing.
Nothing however prepared me for the reaction I got from the mother of an old colleague of mine. This colleague is now in the US, and on seeing her mum on the streets of Port Harcourt about a year ago, I introduced myself, and asked after my friend. Then I told her as I attempted to leave “Say me well to Joy, and tell her Chukwudi Adepoju asked after her”. She stopped me right there; so I spent another three minutes explaining myself, why I have the effrontery to bear a non-Yoruba name even though I am from Osun State, and I grew up there.
“My son, why don’t you change the name to the Yoruba equivalent?”, asked Mama who I know is in her seventies. Then before I could give a good answer, she looked around, and then dropped her voice to a near-whisper after confirming that we were relatively alone. “Change the name, my dear. Don’t you know they are killing them? Yes, hausa people are killing igbos. Dont let them mistake you for Igbo, my son.” I could not suppress the laughter, as I assured this Efik grandmother that I was safe, and I should be worried for us all if ethnic cleansing is going on in any part of Nigeria for that matter, even if I do not bear an Igbo name.
There it was, one generation of Nigerians passing on the fears and ethnic distrusts that have held us for many decades to yet another generation.
Unfortunately, this road we have embarked on does not have a good terminus. Ask Rwanda. As we mark the 20th remembrance of the unfortunate 1994 genocide in that country, we should note that Rwandans have made it an offence for anyone to identify himself or herself as anything but “Rwandan”. NO Hutu, NO Tutsi. It can be argued that this is an extreme palliative, and it may not solve the problems in the long run, but perhaps it builds a generation that will see themselves, first as Rwandans.
Am I saying we should attempt to eradicate the ethnic identities in Nigeria? Not at all. Apart from the fact that it is near-impossible, with the ethnic groups will disappear the colourful cultures and traditions; rich languages with their artistic and musical heritage; and perhaps the little that remain of good African values. No, they should not be abolished. But we must not turn them into “evidence” of a person’s likely behaviour. Or to put it in another way, I have a dream that one day, Nigerians everywhere will not be judged by the colour (or sound) of our names but by the content of the character of the bearer(s) (apologies to Martin Luther King Jnr.)
Interestingly, respected Cable Newspapers CEO and ThisDay columnist, Simon Kolawole, has argued that the identities we brandish around and harm ourselves with today, are relatively new, and were cobbled together by the Europeans for easy identification and administration of the various groups (for example, ‘Yoruba’ is what we call the people previously known only as Ijebu, Oyo, Ijesha, Ekiti, Egba, etc). He concluded by saying “…the biggest challenge to our nationhood today is how to move away from the ethnocentric mindset of the pre-Independence era.”
Former CBN Governor, Sanusi Lamido Sanusi, in 2009 also gave an insightful remark at the Sir Olaniwun Ajayi book launching, saying inter alia, that “…our grandfathers were able to transform to being Northerners (from being Abazasage and co). We have not been able to transform to being Nigerians. The fault is ours.”
So let us move forward in our thinking, and accept Chukwudi Adepoju, Bamidele Azikiwe, as what they are: names. They are simply names with positive (and meaningful) significance for the bearers (and possibly for their parents). ‘Chukwudi’ means “God dey” or in contemporary Naija lingo “There is God o”; ‘Bamidele’ literally translated means, “This one will go back home with me”. And what does ‘James’ mean again? “Supplanter. Deceiver. 419”.
Chukwudi Adepoju is @adechuks on twitter.