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Prime Minister Kofi Blair, I presume? As we start a new year, we can reflect on how far we have come to reclaiming our African heritage, and look at what our names and the names we give our children say about us, writes Serwah.

WHAT'S IN A NAME? WHAT DO our names say about us? In traditional Africa, a name and its meaning are very important, because they are our identification and badge of honour.

It is, therefore, interesting that people of African descent in Britain, including those directly from the African continent, have European names. In contrast, most South Asians I know, whether they were born in Britain or came from the former European colonies there, have Asian names.

Within the African community in Britain, the Nigerians on the whole do relatively well with African names like Olu, Shola, Ngozi and Bola; whilst many of us from elsewhere in Africa carry the names of our former "oppressors".

It is not uncommon to see an African living on the continent with a name like John Arthur. I am not suggesting that Africans should not have non-African names, but if this appears to be the norm even at home in Africa, then we should ask ourselves why this is the case. If we think about the cruelty of the Maafa (African holocaust), it appears inconceivable that we should keep, or give our children, European names--names that link us to our former enslavers and colonisers. In some cases it is because we confuse so-called "Christian names" with European names.

On the contrary, I am yet to meet a European who calls himself or herself by an African name. Have you ever heard of Prime Minister Kofi Blair of Britain? Or Prime Minister Kwasi Cameron of the UK? But there are Presidents John Kufuot, Jerry John Rawlings, John Evans Atta Mills, Jacob Zuma, Robert Mugabe, Joseph Desire Kabila, Paul Biya, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, and a lot more in Africa. What does that tell us? Are we a people adrift from our culture and heritage? Or suffering from an inferiority complex? Or a colonial hangover?

Some rap artists are happy to "reclaim" the N-word, a derogatory way of addressing the African people, but they are not so keen to "reclaim" African names. In the epic novel, Roots, a captured Kunta Kinte endured savage beatings from his European enslavers to keep his African name. He knew how important it was, and understood why the oppressors wanted him to adopt the name Toby.

This is January 2011; nobody is forcing us to adopt European names, and yet we do it. Why do we do so? We need to reclaim our identity and heritage. Of course, our heritage does not begin and end with an African name, but it is crucial. We need to look deeply at what it means to be an African, and what we understand by the African personality. I am impressed with actor and playwright Kwame Kwei-Armah, and the steps he took to reclaim his heritage. He changed his name from Ian Roberts to Kwame Kwei-Armah and said in a 2007 article in The Guardian: "It was when I was 19 and reading the autobiography of Malcolm X that I decided I could no longer carry the name of someone who once owned my family.


"It contradicted my need to reclaim an African identity, free from the illegitimate institution that was chattel slavery. It also meant that my children would not have to be defined by that evil period of history. I traced my family tree back to the slave fort where my great-great-great-grandfather was taken from and reclaimed my ancestral name. I became Kwame Kwei-Armah."

Before he became an acclaimed thespian, he was a budding singer best known for the song, "Reclaimed". In the song, he sings about reclaiming his name and proud ancestry, and taking responsibility for teaching his son his family history.

As we start a new year, we can reflect on how far we have come to reclaiming our heritage, and look at what our names and the names we give our children say about us. If Kwame Kwei-Armah's example is too radical for us and we are not ready to change our names, we can consider acquiring an African name or a day name from a country like Ghana, where there is a name for each day of the week. If, for example, we are female and were born on a Saturday, we could call ourselves Ama or Awo. If we are male and were born on a Saturday, then it is Kwame, Kwamena or Ato. It should not be too difficult to find out which day of the week we were born.

My challenge is that we begin to reclaim our rich heritage and identity by proudly reclaiming African names.

Serwah, our guest columnist
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Title Annotation:Comment
Publication:New African
Geographic Code:60AFR
Date:Jan 1, 2011
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