Why Igbo attach importance to names

NDIGBO attach a lot of importance to the names they bear; both individual names and names of their communities. There are varied reasons for this. The names are so valued that in case of community names, any attempt to change it without the agreement of the entire community always led to crisis.

Most communities in Igboland derived their names from their forefathers, rivers/streams, deities, hills, markets and other landmarks while families and individuals usually take their names after family members, market days and known heroes and heroines, among other important institutions. In the olden days, Igbo people named their children after the four market days of Eke, Orie, Afor and Nkwo. That is why there are such names as Mgboafo, Mgborie, Nwanyinkwo, Mgbeke, Nkwomma, for women, while the men were named Okonkwo, Okoli, Okeke, Okafor Nwafor, Nweke, among others.

In addition, families name their children to symbolise their experiences in life or circumstances surrounding the birth of such children, deceased family members, time or place of birth. For instance, families that experience many deaths before the birth of a particular child might decide to name him Onwubiko, Ozoemena, Onwuteaka, Afamefuna, etc, while those who experienced difficulty having children gave such names as Oluchi, Tabugbo.

If families had issues with other families in their localities, they often named their children Onyebuchi, Maduabuchukwu, Asikabulu, among others. In some communities, some families give their great grandfather’s name to their children to differentiate them from others. Also, the Catholic Church has a combination of Western names, principally saints and traditional Igbo names.

Initially, the Church tried to insist that only saints’ names were used and then shifted to saying that children must, if they have a traditional name, also have a Catholic saint’s name for baptism. That transition became easier as people transformed their perception of traditional Igbo names to refer to the Christian God. Discussing the concept of giving names, a native doctor in Achala, Awka North Local Government Area of Anambra State, Chief Nnadi Okoroafor said when a person is given a name, his gods (or spirits) accept it.

According to him: “It is not a surprise that people put so many things into consideration before giving names to their children. Sometimes I have had cause to force some parents to change the name of their child after observing negative impacts of such names on the child. “Those who are not wise enough to read meaning into the unusual behaviour of their children fail to find out that it was the name of the child that was responsible for his or her problem.

Once they come to me and I change the name, which might be one of their ancestors demanding that the child should bear his name, the person’s problem would vanish and the person begins to make progress in life. “Sometimes each family will call the child by the name which the eldest member of the family chose. In some cases, an influential uncle of the child, for instance, may have his own suggestion for a name which although not acceptable to the other family members, will nevertheless be added since the uncle’s social prestige cannot be ignored.

“If the mother’s relatives are better placed in the society than those of the father, their choice will be given preference; conversely if the father belongs to a large and powerful clan, the paternal family’s choice is accepted with little or no dispute”, Okoroafor said. He also explained why certain names are common in many communities in Igboland, adding that such names showed their link with those communities. For instance, many communities in Anambra State with names that begin with Ndi shows that they originated from Arochukwu. He named some of them to include Ndikelionwu, Ndiowu, Ndiukwuenu, Ndiakwu, Ndiokpaleke.

For the President-General of Ishi-Ozalla community in Nkanu West Local Government Area of Enugu State, Chief Obinna Nveneh, his community names were usually associated with the family lineage which they strive to preserve and ensure that such names don’t go into extinction. Nveneh disagreed that one’s surname must be associated with streams or rivers, noting that even though Nveneh is a name of a stream in nearby Akaegbe-Ugwu and Udi communities, there was no such stream as Nveneh in the whole of old Ozalla town.

“Nveneh was a great man as I was told; (it is an ancient name) he had five sons and some have changed their names. I am supposed to answer my own father’s direct name. Some of our family members answer Okaibe, others Okorie, Okonkwo which is my own direct grandfather’s name but I chose that Nveneh so that the name will not go extinct. It is being canonized with our village name, Nze na Oha. I am the only one now that bears Nveneh.

“There is a stream in Akaegbe-Ugwu called Nveneh but there is no stream in Ozalla with such name. What we have in Ozalla is Ufam. If one is a chief priest or a priestess, he or she could be crowned with the name such as Ufam, but mine is different. “Nveneh Ngene was a great hunter in Ishi-Ozalla and one of the blessings he gave his sons and generations unborn was the blessing of leadership and I use myself as an example.

If I come into any organisation, even if I try to hide at the back of anybody, somebody must point me out to come and become a leader. “For instance, my being the President-General of Ishi-Ozalla was not my making, I didn’t dream about it; it was a unanimous decision,” Ngene said. The Traditional Prime Minister of Ibeku ancient kingdom, High Chief Uche Akwukuegbu, said names are very important to Ndigbo because they reflect the attachment of the people to their gods.

He, however, said that communities or individuals who bear names given to them by their parents that are affecting them negatively can opt for a change of such names. According to Akwukuegbu, people or communities who were given names that reflect idols like Amadioha or Kamalu could go for a change of name. In Ibeku, there is this community formerly known as Apu Agwu where Ogurube Ibeku came from, but they now answer Okwoyi because they felt the former name sounded fetish.”

According to Chief Jerry Obasi, most names have significant meanings in Igboland and such names could have ancestral meanings pertaining to every family or community. He also explained that such names continue to revolve from history to history as families uphold it from their ancestors as their heritage. “In every ancestral home, there are ancestral heritages that can’t be taken away. Some people bear names after their deity.

The deities may be what protected them during the war. Others bear names of trees, snakes, mountains, animals, etc. There is no amount of religion that can stop the people from bearing these names. It is their history, it is their heritage. “Some people bear names after warriors who annexed their communities or villages during wars. Others bear names of their ancestors that did exploits during important events in history.

When you see people bearing names like Ndi Okereke, Ndi Obasi, Ndi Nkume, among others, such names have histories associated with them. It has ancestral meanings. “Many people bear names of rivers; the history is that such rivers saved or served them during wars or other crisis situations. During wars, the rivers prevented the enemies from passing while it protected the indigenous community from destruction.

You can’t stop them from answering names of such rivers. “In my place in Ebonyi, there is the history of a river that produced fishes which sustained the people during the war. And you may never know the agreement the ancestors reached about the names they bear. In Igboland, names have serious significance associated with families, communities and places,” Obasi explained.

A former university don and chairman, Eastern District Society of the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Nigeria, ICAN, Deacon John Nwichi, in his opinion, explained that Ndigbo attach much importance to names because names represent the experience of the people in their day-to-day lives. Nwichi, a former Bursar of Michael Okpara University, MOUAU, also said names represent the spiritual allegiance and social lives of the people. “Names help to recognise the attitude of forces external to the people and explain their relationship with their deities.

Names also tell seasons.” On why an attempt to change a community name usually generates crisis he said: “The people may not always feel comfortable if the desire to change their names runs contrary to the reasons the name was given in the first instance. There is usually crisis if there is no general acceptance of the need for the change being proposed.

There is also crisis if the proposed change will negatively impact the values of the community.” And for the people of Umujimeniri kindred in Uburu Ahiara village in Egwuedo, Njaba Local Government Area of Imo State, their name means a lot to them because, according to them, it brings good luck, progress and ensures safety for them. The President-General of Egwuedo community, Chief Eric Uwaoma, who is from Umujimebiri, said the people are known for planting yam. And they attach so much importance to yam because they use it to marry in the community.

According to him, any family in Umujimebiri that is giving out a daughter in marriage ensures that there are a lot of yams to be given out to adult members of the kindred after the visitors must have gone. Chief Uwaoma also said that the name, Umujimebiri, also helps them in war time. “We believe that no son or daughter of Umujimebiri, Uburu Ahiara will be trapped or die in war front and that belief had been saving us; so in my kindred, Umujimebiri, there is no family that does not cultivate yam or have the Uburu Ahiara tree.

“Then in Uburu Ahiara, which is the name of our village, there is a tree we call Uburu Ahiara, our name is derived from that tree; we eat fruit from the tree. We have plenty of that tree in our village and we do not play with it because it is a tree we value so much, and there is no family that does not have the tree. “We believe that the tree brings good luck to us as far as we do not put hands in any bad thing. We are not defeated in any battle as far as you are from Uburu Ahiara.

That has made us to continue to keep our culture of good behaviour that has brought progress for us in Uburu Ahiara. “Then for my family, we answer Uwaoma, which means things are good and bright for us; we do not lack and we progress in any good thing we put our hand into. First of all, we work hard and achieve success by hard work and once we do that, success and progress are sure, that is the secret behind the name Uwaoma.

So, I think that we should continue to attach importance to our names and respect what our names signify. For me, we do not have any plan of changing our name for whatever reason.” For the oldest man in Amufie autonomous community, Igbo-Eze North Local Government Area of Enugu State, elder Ogbonna Idoko, Igbo names remind them of the memories of past events in their lives.

They are at times associated with emotional issues of a parent or incident in one’s life; they are intimately associated with various events in the life of the individual as well as those of the family and the larger social groups.

“The social significance of Igbo names clearly indicates how intimately they are connected with events which have either direct or indirect bearing upon the birth of the child. Once the circumstance or life history connected with the individual or his parents is known, the name, which may contain a whole story in itself, becomes meaningful. “Several Igbo names express circumstances related to the birth of the child such as his place of birth, his appearance, the financial status of his parents at the time of birth, etc.

Other names connote a certain concern for the child’s future and express the hope that the child may live and thrive.” For Chief Ignatius Amadi, a resident of Owerri, Imo State, Igbo attach importance to names to remind them of their past experience in life. “The kind of name you give to your children is very important in Igboland. They mean a lot. Some people give names because of the pains they went through during pregnancy. In giving such name, they use it in praising God for a successful child delivery.

Some named their children to immortalise their late parent; that is for those who believe in reincarnation,” Amadi said. For a professor of anthropology and the Head of Department, Sociology and Anthropology of the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, UNN, P- J Ezeh, names are ways of expressing the philosophical world view by societies.

According to Prof. Eze, it is not only the Igbo society that attaches much importance to names. He said if by divination, a woman who had difficulty in getting a child gives birth through a deity, she could name the child after the god as a way to commemorate the phenomenon. He said that some names are replicated throughout Igbo societies because the Igbos moved around for trade before the coming of Europeans. “Certain groups tend to philosophize with their names, especially in non-literate societies or where literacy is not sufficiently widespread. Calling someone a particular name tend to say something about the person.

For instance, names like Chukwubuikem, Nnadozie and Ndidiamaka x-ray the circumstances surrounding the birth of the bearers. There are also other things; for instance, the name may honour one event or phenomenon. “If it is suggested by a diviner to woman who had difficulty in child-bearing that Ibini Ukpabi deity in Arochukwu could give her a child, and if it so happens, she could name the child after the deity to commemorate the phenomenon,” Eze explained.

He further explained that Onomastics which studies the meaning, history and geographical distribution of names is the formal scientific study of names in Anthropology. He said that it has two main branches namely: Toponymy, study of place and names and Anthroponomy, the study of human names.



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