The real name(s) of Nwanyiocha
Igbo people hardly ever call you by your first name. Rather, they give you names depending on the situation and context. Some of them show respect, others a sense of belonging. But all of them have a function; they express a person's relationship with you.
For you to better understand, I have put together a list of all of the names I have been given over the years and their "functions":
#1 My real name
Janine (pronounced Sha-neen)
This is the name that is written in my passport. According to Google, "Janine" means "God is gracious." Yes, I had to google it, as we do not have a culture of names having meanings in Switzerland, and my parents never told me the meaning.
#2 My "easy-to-pronounce" name
I first adopted the name "Jenny" when I lived in the United States. At age 15, I was in Albany, New York, for an exchange year and realized that "Jenny" was much easier for people to remember. I got so used to answering "Jenny" that I never again bothered to introduce myself as "Janine" within the English-speaking community.
# 3 My "strangers-that-don't-know-me" name
As a white person, it is hard to hide in Nigeria. There are only a few tourists and business people that travel here. So whether you want it or not, you will stand out. Children in the villages, people in the market, and strangers on the road call me "Nwanyi Ocha," which literally means "white woman" in Igbo.
“When I first realized that people were calling me "white woman" in Nigeria, I felt strangely offended. After all I would never address a Black person as such in Switzerland.”
But I learned that calling me "Nwanyi Ocha" is in no way a negative statement; rather, it simply states the obvious: I am white, and I am a woman; therefore, I am "Nwanyi Ocha."
# 4 My "strangers-respect-me" name
Children in Nigeria are taught to address elder women they don't know as "Ma" and elder men as "Sir." I am pretty sure this term has to do with the country's colonial history, as it is a very British term, and I have never heard of an Igbo pendant to it. Sentences like "yes, Ma," "thanks, Ma," or "excuse me, Ma" are very common.
Personally, I don't like being called "Ma" at all. It sounds very archaic and colonial and puts so much distance between people. But whenever I try to convince someone to call me by my first name, they find it hard because they have learned from childhood that it is a lack of respect. Therefore, I just have to get used to being called "Ma," but not sure I ever will.
# 5 My "younger-family-respects-me" name
In Nigeria, the prefix "Aunty/Uncle" does not necessarily describe a "Niece/Nephew" to "Anty/Uncle" relationship but is more a sign of respect from a younger person towards an elder.
I, for example, am being called "Aunty Jenny" by all of the children of my husband's family. On the other hand, my children struggled to get used to calling people "Aunty/Uncle" who were not their real "Aunty/Uncle.” Because here in Switzerland, we only use the term in a "biological" sense.
Interestingly, many Nigerians coming to Switzerland for the first time are shocked to hear small children addressing them by their first name without adding "Aunty/Uncle." But that is just how it is here. We do not give any value to such prefixes and address adults we know directly by their first name.
#6 My "in-laws-love-me" name
"As soon as you are married to an Igbo man, you are married to his entire family." Even though I had heard about this before, I was still surprised to see how literal it was meant in Igbo Culture.
ANYBODY from my husband's family started calling me "Nwunye m" (my wife) or "Nwunye anyi" (our wife) as soon as we were married. Yes, even my husband's uncle calls me his wife in public. But no need to blush; it's just a way to express how close to the family you are!
After overcoming the first shock, I asked Ezenwa if it would be okay for me also to call his brother or uncle "my husband." To my surprise, he said yes. But don’t try this in Switzerland - your man/woman will immediately suspect you of adultery :-)
#7 My "family-loves-me" name
This name is used by friends or family members. Calling me your sister shows that you feel close to me and that I am part of the family.
Other than in Switzerland, the words brother/sister have little to do with the biological term. Therefore, you should not be surprised if your partner introduces someone to you as "his brother." It might just be a close friend and not necessarily his biological brother.
PS: To clarify, you can ask: "Ofu Nne na ofu Nna?" - which translates to "Same mother and same father." If the answer is yes, you know that it is a blood brother in the sense that we know it in Europe.
#8 My "family-loves-me-more" name
This term confused me when I first heard it. Nne means "mother" in the Igbo language, but people use it much broader. My husband's father, for example, used to call me Nne, even though I was way too young to be his mother :-)
But I learned that in Igbo culture, addressing someone as "Nne" is a way of showing love and appreciation to someone really close to you, regardless of age or blood relation.
Even parents call their daughters "Nne" and their sons "Nna,” just to show them love and funny enough, I have started doing that as well.
#9 My "I-know-you-have-children" name
The day you have a child in Ala Igbo, you give up your identity! Okay, this is a bit exaggerated, but honestly, anyone will start to address you by your child's name as soon as you are a mother/father.
Even though this might sound strange initially, I think this system should immediately be adapted in Switzerland. Just imagine how much easier life would be if I could call the parents of my children's school friends by their children's names instead of memorizing theirs.
PS: If you are a mother of twins, Ndi Igbo will most certainly call you "Mama Ejima," which means mother of twins. But don't feel too special - as there are many twins in Nigeria, you may not be the only one answering "Mama Ejima" in your family.
#10 My titled name
Lolo Anyanwu Ututu
When my husband Ezenwa took his chieftaincy title, I automatically received my own titled name (Afa Echichi). I was given "Lolo Anyanwu Ututu" by onye isi ndi nze na ozo, which means "the rising sun."
I love this name and hope I can live up to it.
My list of names in Ala Igbo is probably not yet completed, as they may still evolve over time with the change of age, appearance, or social status. But for now, I think I am okay with the 10 I already have.
Last but not least
I decided always to end my blog posts with an Igbo proverb or quote and a song (not necessarily Igbo) that speaks to my heart. Feel free to share your favorite proverbs or a song you are currently listening to!
Igbo quote of the week: "Ugo chara acha adịghị echu echu" – A mature eagle feather will forever remain pure.
My song this week: Chief Osita Osadebe - Morning Star