There Is Power In Our Names

Featured Image: ‘Afrovaganza’ by Teni Oluwo, photographed by Felix Crown

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As a Nigerian, my first name is not actually Nigerian. In fact, scratch that — as much as I love being Nigerian, Nigerians tend to be homogenized as one. A country with over 250 ethnic groups and you expect every single ethnic group to be the same?

Anyways, I come from the Yoruba ethnic group. My first name actually is not Yoruba, but it is an Arabic name. I usually hate the association that an Arabic name = Muslim name, which is absolutely not true, in my opinion. Arab Christians exist, and I am sure their names are not “Muslim.” I believe that as long as you are Muslim, your name is Muslim because you are Muslim, no matter how “basic” it may be.

I was inspired to write this after speaking with a friend about how many young Nigerians of the diaspora will butcher their names for the white gaze. This is incredibly problematic and highly embarrassing, to be honest — I want better for my people.

Your name is Oluwaseun, but you claim “Sean” or “Shawn” in school? As a Yoruba, our names are powerful. Our names are prayers over our lives or wealth or royalty. Every time you hear a Yoruba name in the correct way, it is literally a prayer over the person’s life. Oluwaseun means, “God, I thank you.” Even outside of the Yoruba cultures, Muslim boys shorten their names to ‘Mo’ instead of correcting those who mispronounce it. These are the men bearing the name of the Prophet (Peace Be Upon Him) and similar to the Yoruba names, shortening it erases the significance of the name. One caveat though, nobody is saying do not have nicknames, just don’t allow your name to be chopped and screwed.

I am sure we have all heard the phrase, “there is power in the tongue” — this is why, in Yoruba cultures, speaking ill of others or a situation is a tight one. “God forbid”, “Audubillah”, and “I reject it” are common responses you would expect to hear from a Yoruba person when you speak ill or negatively of something. Likewise, this influences our names — speaking life and purpose into them.

Just because our names are not Sarah or Jenny, it does not mean they are not important, nor are they difficult to pronounce — I remember back in primary school, growing up in Ireland, I was able to pronounce all these Irish names like Aoife, Caoimhe, or Eoghan but you can’t pronounce simple Lolade? I personally believe when you allow people to call you by the wrong name or mispronounce it, you may as well not answer because they are talking to a whole other person.

During primary school, I was not aware that my name was being butchered, and I would mispronounce it because of my thick Irish accent. Gone are the days that my name will be chopped and screwed like some mixtape.

My name has power, my name has meaning.

So much meaning that it is highlighted in a number of surahs in the Quran — Surah Fussilat [41:30], Surah Al Baqarah [2:155], Surah Ali ‘Imran [3:45] and many more times within the Holy Book. That is how much power my name holds and I hope you recognize the power of your names, too.

To my beloved Nigerians: free yourself from bondage with the watered-down versions of your names. Whether you are Oluwaseun, Ngozi, Mohammed — it is your name, it has true meaning, so reclaim it and use it the right way.