Monday, June 14, 2010

What’s in a Name?

In my teens I spent hours fantasizing on the names that I would give to the countless number of children I was going to give birth to, and though I didn’t exactly do that, i.e. give birth to countless number of children, I still have a lot of names in my name bank. I take pride in the Yoruba culture of naming children, how in its original form we wait seven days before we give the child a name and it’s the oldest member of the extended family who has this honor. He or she has to meditate on the name, going into the family history that is hopefully in the vault of his psyche, and consulting with the ancestors.

The ceremony is a whole day event that begins at the crack of dawn with everyone arriving at 5.00am and sitting in a circle around a table laden with all the ingredients for the ceremony.

These are Water—the indispensable source of life. Salt – It is sweet in moderation but bitter in excess; that the baby’s life would not be full of bitterness, the kind that we bring upon ourselves by looking back on what could have been instead of moving forward. Honey—that a life of hard work like that of the busy bees yields honey. The hope is that the baby will grow to be a hard worker and a productive member of the community. Atare—these are little seeds, lots of them in a pod. And the prayer is that the child will grow up and be fertile, giving birth to millions of children. There are money, the currency of exchange, pen, symbolizing education that has the power to transport the child of a pauper to the president of a country, and kola-nut—for wisdom, and many other ingredients used for their symbolic meanings.

And as the patriarch or matriarch holding the baby in her arms take these items one by one and touching the baby’s lips or hand with them, she would say these prayers and then they are passed on to the people gathered around for them to add to the prayers as they too taste or touch these items. The names of the baby are then announced and they could be from six to ten.

This is the basic traditional naming ceremony but there are modern variations to it depending on the religious bent of the family. I love it in its entirety except that I want to name my child. Some patriarchs concur and listen to the parents’ suggestions but in some cases when parents wishes are not acknowledged, it has created animosity that rages on forever, such that the child could end up with three or more first names, each person calling him what they wanted to name him. Birth certificates have been altered, destroyed or lost and some family members have crossed lines and stolen privileges that belong to others, e.g. with the Oriki, the praise singing name, it’s an honor bestowed on the maternal grandmother to give such a name, but some paternal grandmother, either in a moment of sweet forgetfulness or because she just never gets the chance since she has given birth to all sons might co-opt that privilege. But for the most part, everyone calms down and accepts the names given to the new born with the hope and faith that the oldest member of the family and as befitting their age have commensurate amount of wisdom.

That tells us that our history do begin eons before we were born, and how deeply we believe that names are destiny, and Yoruba names are sometimes sentences and do tell stories about the circumstances of the birth of the individual, such that a total stranger on hearing your name knows some ten percent of your life story without having spoken to you at all.

Generic examples are Taiwo (first of a twin), Idowu (born after a set of twins), Iyabo (the first daughter born into the family after the death of a grandmother), Tokunbo (born in a foreign land), Bidemi (born while father was away), and Sipe (born after a tragic loss for the family).

Every parent on the face of the earth gives a lot of thoughts to their children’s names. There is the culture of e.g. Richard, Richard II, Richard III and etc. and there is the case of George Foreman recreating himself in all of his children, George I, II, III, IV… and a Georgina too.

Some friends told me they named their children after classmates they had liked, some just like the sound of the name; for some it is after a heroine in a book or a movie. I met a little boy in the 90s named Michael-Jordan, and an acquaintance’s son’s name is Mark-Anthony of Julius Caesar and not the singer, I was told. Someone named her daughter Herzegovina, “I was in labor with her and on the news they were talking about this place that was at war, I felt sorry for them, so I gave her the name.” Nelson Mandela said of his daughter’s name, “Zenani—what have you brought to the world? It is a poetic name that embodies a challenge, suggesting that one must contribute something to society. It is a name one does not simply possess, but has to live up to (Long Walk to Freedom).

We have a fantasy of a life that we want for our children as we name them, most of the time it’s with good intentions, but what about a name like Tequila? Now I have to ask which came first, is it Tequila the drink or Tequila the name? Who borrowed which from whom? I know an alcoholic woman named Tequila—be careful of the name you give your child. I am not making this up, what of a man named Rogue, a legitimate name because I asked him, and he’s in and out of prison. And I know a demanding young man named Demand. Oluwapemilerin (God has brought laughter into my life) is the name of a person I was in school with. I love that name and though we were not friends in school, 30 years later, we are now friends on Facebook. It’s a name I never forgot.

Some friends named Bimbo (Abimbola—I am born into wealth) on migrating to the US have had to shorten their names to Abey or Bim because when they had introduced themselves as Bimbo, Americans have asked them, “are you kidding?”

I’ve had fantasies of changing my name from Kehinde to what, Jezebel or Delilah? No, I don’t have the personality for either, but then I wondered if had I been given either of the names at the beginning of my life, would I have developed the personality to go with it? Yes, I would have, because then my parents would have raised me with that idea in mind and I would have complied with their fantasies, because that is what children do.

I have a problem with the name Kehinde. It is a name with deep and rich cultural meaning and there is a whole poetry on that name alone, but literarily it translates as the ‘last to come.” I wonder what it has done to my psyche and my expectations of myself. Have I come to see myself as the last to come and as such held myself back in many situations? More so growing up with siblings with names that are ‘The first to come,’ ‘A child for Royal adoration,’ ‘God loves me,’ Births in abundance’ and ‘Wealth in abundance.’

I read somewhere that we live our whole lives in the same way that we come into the world, unless we are conscious of it. Wow! I came into the world as the second of a twin that was unexpected (mother didn’t know she was pregnant with twins, there was no ultrasound in the early 1960s), so does it mean that not only am I not the first to come, I have also been inserting myself into places where I am not expected, or wanted, all of my life?

And to crown it all I was breech, coming into the world behind first and probably had to be coaxed out by the obstetrician with or without his forceps. Does that mean that I have been getting into situations back first, sneaking in (not expected) and shocking the hell out of everyone with “Wooh!!! Kehinde, we were not expecting that.” Actually, I have, I have always surprised the heck out of people who have underestimated me. So these things are truly powerful.

Once at the airport in Lagos, a custom officer who though was hitting me for a bribe didn’t want to disrespect me by calling me Kehinde (it is considered rude to address a stranger by their first name in our culture) so he called me Ejire (Literarily, ‘multitude of children,’ the other name for twins) and I rewarded him with a big smile and the bribe he asked for. I toyed with the idea of changing my first name to Ejire but there would be too many legal technicalities involved and I will have to re-educate a lot of people, so I settled with letting others call me Kehinde, but in my mind, I started to call myself Ejire.

The cornerstone of my profession as a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst is in helping patients name things. That is why we ask (to the amusement of all), “How does that make you feel?’ “What do you mean by that?” “Try your best to put words on the way that you feel.” What we are trying to do is to conquer the terror of namelessness.

“What woke you drenching you in sweat?”
“I don’t know Doc, it was a nightmare.”
“Tell me what it was, what did you see?”
“I don’t know, I don’t remember but it scared me shitless.”
Or, “Little John, why do you need the lights on at night, you are a big boy now?”
“There is something in the closet, and under my bed, I think they will eat me.”
“Little John, what’s its name, and what does it look like?”
“I don’t know, it’s a monster, it’s just a monster.”
Or, “Doc, I’m depressed.”
“Why are you depressed, what’s going on?”
“I don’t know, you are the doctor, you figure it out.”
“Okay, but I can’t do it alone, tell me what’s going on with you, now that you are talking about depression, what comes to your mind?”
“Oh, I don’t know. Well, I think, maybe, I think I’m going to lose my job…”

Once on surgical rotation in medical school, we arrived in a patient’s room and there was a sick fishy odor that nauseated all of us. We tried not to be rude by showing the distress on our faces; after all, the patient is with himself and his odor 24 hours a day. The surgeon knew what we were going through, and he explained to us, “that is pseudomonas, it’s usually bluish green, it has to do with the refraction of light on the bacteria and it has a sick fishy odor. Now for the rest of your professional lives as doctors, and without needing laboratory tests, you will always recognize pseudomonas infection.”

Magically, it dispelled our anxiety and we were able to settle down and listen to the lecture. A terror has been given a name and it has lost his power. What is terror? It is something that has no name, and as long as it remains nameless is like an amoeba with pseudo-pods changing shapes every second and difficult to pin down, but give it a name and it takes a firm shape, and you can grasp it. “Do not succumb to panic, these are only phantoms of your own mind,” is an advice from The Tibetan book of the Dead, and Albert Camus said, “Crushing truths perish from being acknowledged.”

In fairy tales, a very common question is “what is your name?” I always encourage my patients to ask in their dreams and nightmares for the names of whatever it is that is trying to get their attention because that is really what dreams and nightmares are.

There, in a nutshell is a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst’s weapon. We put names to terrors. Once we have put a name to them, they lose their poison and die. In technical terms, it is making a thing that is unconscious conscious and consciousness is shining light on dark things and light conquers the dark, all the time. Everything takes its rightful place and there is peace in the land.

Feasts of Phantoms a novel by Kehinde Adeola Ayeni-- ISBN 978-0981393926Available your local bookstore, a host of online booksellers and directly from Genoa House.

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