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How I Learned to Embrace My Traditional Nigerian Name

Edisana Stephen

My name, Edisanaobong, means ‘Holy God’ in Efik-Ibibio (a Southeastern Nigerian dialect). Some of you would think it’s a lovely name, and you’d be right. Who wouldn’t want to be associated with the Creator of the Universe? It encapsulates something extensive and far beyond my comprehension — but it’s not an easy name, and I’ve long struggled with my attachment to my culture and identity as a result.

I grew up in Nigeria and, as kids, we’re sometimes not the best version of ourselves. Most kids grow up desperate to fit in and I was no exception. Growing up, I didn’t like my name much, because it was long, boring, and very traditional; I always wanted a different one. It has always been a mess trying to explain where I am from and what my name means, even though I’ve lived close to home all my life. That prickly name of mine made me stand out when I wanted to blend in.

When people tweak your name deliberately or accidentally as a child, it sticks with you. I can recall numerous occasions when my name was intentionally mispronounced by other children and adults, or when teachers were taking attendance and got intrigued to put a face to the name. Or how, still today, people still cannot pronounce my name. It sticks with you, even when you tell yourself it doesn’t matter.

It can be unnerving and exhausting to have to repeat yourself over and over again to strangers. Over time, because it was easier to introduce myself that way, I started going by “Ana,” a nickname that had once been used only by close friends but was now a free pass for everybody. Even then, it wasn’t because I disliked the name Edisanaobong that I shortened it: I just didn’t want to keep having to recite my full name multiple times or listen to others make a mess of it.

You lose a part of your identity when you abbreviate or tweak your name for convenience or to meet people’s assumptions of what a “normal” name should sound like. When I shortened my name to make other people’s lives easier, I allowed them to take away a piece of my identity — and it wasn’t until I moved away from home that I realized how much.

When I got the opportunity to live away from home, moving to the Northern part of Nigeria in which the dominant culture is Gbagyi, I was suddenly desperate for something that would remind me of home. No longer in sync with the culture around me, I realized how little I had to represent my own culture without the unique name I’d been given. I don’t have an accent, speak very little of my native language, and rarely dress traditionally, opting instead for the modernized chic “Ankara” that is currently in vogue. If I went out into the world beyond Nigeria, what would truly distinguish me as a Nigerian or African except my black skin? When people met me, what would “Ana Stephen” tell them about me?

I decided I wanted to reclaim my discarded name. I wanted to dig it out of the closet where I stashed it away for so many years and put it back on. It may not seem significant to many people, but it provides me with a link to my culture, heritage, language, and family. It still isn’t easy to introduce myself to others, but I’ve embraced a new plan.

I’ll only use my full name to introduce myself. I’ll repeat it if necessary, try not to take offense, and hold firm, not letting myself get so upset or uncomfortable that I give out the “Ana” free pass. I’ve become more proactive in expressing my name’s pronunciation, demonstrating to anyone I meet that they, too, can learn it. It’s been a journey of discovering how to respect my name and what it means to me, but with time, I’ve grown to appreciate it. It shouldn’t be up to me to modify my name for others, so I’ll keep using my full name, even when it’s hard.

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Diana Ross

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