My name is Emeka. By itself, Emeka means nothing. To understand what it means you would have to say my name in full, Chukwuemeka. This means “God did well”. I was named by my maternal grandmother. I was born on the week that Chukwuemeka Odimegwu-Ojukwu came back from exile. My grand mum says she was on the line to my parents and she said “Afa ya bu Emeka ooo!” “His name is Emeka o!” And this is naming in the Igbo culture in a nutshell.
So I was named after Ojukwu. I am pretty sure that most Igbo boys named Emeka between 1967 and 1987 were all named after Ojukwu. This is indicative of Igbo names. Most Igbo names are shortened versions of the original. Edu, Ebuka, Okey, Tochi, Ekene, Uche, Ada, Chike, Chuma, Arinze or Ike. All of these are shortened versions of the original names.
In order to get a sense of what they mean, you have to spell them out in full. So Emeka could be Nnaemeka, Chukwuemeka or Chiemeka. Edu is usually Chinedu. Ebuka is Chukwuebuka. Tochi is K’anyi too Chineke. Ekene is Ekenedilichukwu. Uche is either Uchenna or Uchechukwug’eme or Uchechineke. Ada is Adaora, Adaeze, Adannia or Adadioranma. Chike is Chikezie, Chikeziri or Chinweike. Chuma is Chukwuma. Arinze is Arinzechukwu and Ike is either Ikenna, Ikechukwu or Ikemefuna.
Igbo names are usually in commemoration of a significant event that occurred at the time of the child’s birth. This is captured in the meaning of the name. My brothers’ name is Okey. This is short for Okechukwu. My brother was named after our father. My fathers’ full name is “Oke Chukwu Kelu mmadu enwero ike ikaghali ya.” This can be interpreted in many ways. I will give you two:
– What God has created, no one can ‘uncreate’ or
– the share that God has given cannot be taken away.
Before my dad was born, his mother’s family had longed for a boy for a while. She was born into a polygamous family and because her mother did not have any male children they were harshly treated. My dad had an elder brother who died as a baby. This brought a lot of distress in the family. When the baby died, my dad’s grandmother heated a metal rod and gave the dead kid a mark in the ear whilst proclaiming “e ga nata gha lili!” You must return! Legend has it that my dad was born with the mark in his ear. (Disclaimer: I haven’t noticed it). Two other boys followed after my dad. They are both grandfathers today.
My grandmothers’ name was “Mat’agu”. This is one of my favourite Igbo names. Literally, it means “Bring back a leopard”. The leopard was the king of the jungle round my area in ancient times. So the jungle is sometimes referred to as Agu. So for a people that value real estate more than anything else Mat’agu would mean “bring me lots of fortune”. This is another aspect of Igbo names; sometimes they are more intricate than they are literal.
My grandmother’s immediate younger sister was “Adimonyenma” – Who am I better than? The next in line was “Enunka”. In full it is “A no m n’enunka” – I am with my wits. The youngest sister was “Omanu” or “Omanukwueziokwu” – one who is familiar with the facts should speak the truth. From the sequence of names, you can probably infer my grandmother’s family history from her name and that of her sisters.
You don’t get names like these any more. That epoch is different from the present. In that epoch, names were not influenced by Christianity as they are now. So you didn’t get names beginning or ending with “Chukwu” or “Chi”. My grandmother died in 1997. She was in her early 70’s or very late 60’s. You will only get a handful of people that are her age mates that had names starting or ending with “Chukwu” or “Chi”.
Most people her age were probably the first converts to Christianity in their families. Names from that era are almost extinct now. You don’t get names like Nwankwo (my middle name), Uluka, Ojiugo, Ukamaka, Egozo, Anyaedo, Oluede, Ojukwu, Okeke, Ilodibe, Ilodinso and Uyanwanne any more.
Names that were common 3 decades ago are slowly disappearing now. Names like Osita, Obioma, Ijeoma, Obiageli and even Arinze are slowly disappearing. You will be hard pressed to find a 10 year old or younger Igbo kid with these names. Contemporary Igbo names usually start with a K now. Kamsiyo, Kosiso, Kobi or Kanayo. Put Chukwu or Chi at the beginning or the end of these names and you get their meaning.
These names are indicative of the sway of Christianity in Igbo land today. It is so strong that even the meaning of names have changed to suit it. For example, the name “Anaeto” today means “K’anaeto Chineke” – let us keep praising God. But its original meaning is an ode to the god Ani/Ana/Ala. In full, it is ‘Ana etoo m” – Ana has honoured me. I am not so sure but I would go out on a limb and say that anyone with this name either is a farmer or is from a lineage of farmers. That is before Christianity, obviously.
Another name whose meaning has changed is Chioma. Chioma’s meaning in today’s parlance is taking literarily as “Good God’. But if you understand Igbo culture or have read “Things fall apart” then you will know that the meaning is more complex than that. In Igbo, Chi is more akin to a guardian angel. The suffix Oma normally means good or fine. It is also used as a verb to connote luck. If you put it all together Chioma means: I have a luck-bringing-guardian-angel. Remember that old Igbo names are more complex than they are literal. So Chioma simply means “I am lucky”. I know, it’s a bit confusing, right? Igbo ebuka!
From the foregoing you can deduce that I am biased towards the older Igbo names. I think the new Igbo names are more, as my friend Hameed puts it, like prayer points. I prefer old Igbo names where a small phrase can tell a family’s history. I have a friend whose name is “Uzuegbunam”. Let the bickering not kill me. From his name, you can tell that there was a lot of speculation about his family at the time of his birth. His father was involved in a bitter ancestral land dispute.
Also, the same phrase could mean different things depending on how you say it and the meanings could all be correct. “Amobi” could be read as “a ma obi” meaning that my compound (Family) is well known/famous. It could also mean “A ma obi?” – Do you know the heart or do you know the intentions? You certainly need the name to be said out to understand the intentions of those that gave the name. Igbo Erika!
I am sure that this article will raise a lot of questions and debates amongst the native Igbo speakers that will read it. Feel free to join in the debate. Please raise questions. It can only enrich our understanding of the Igbo language and culture.
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