Illustration by Ben Beechener
My name is Ayomilekan Jonathan Adegunwa. It’s in my passport, my driving license, and any legal document – as far as the law is concerned, it is my name. However, when my parents named me, there were several other names that are now forgotten and never even made it to my birth certificate. This doesn’t make sense to most people – unless you’re familiar with Yoruba naming customs.
Both my parents speak Yoruba, a West African language which is most common in Nigeria (my parents’ home nation), where it is one of the three main languages, alongside Igbo and Hausa. Yoruba culture places large amounts of value on names, an example of which can be seen in the traditional names for twins: Taiye or Taiwo (which are given to the first twin, as the name means that this child has tasted the world – and then wants their twin to join them) and Kehinde (meaning late arrival, for the second twin). This is why a naming ceremony is integral to Yoruba culture.
A naming ceremony is a party that takes place 8 days after the child is born, where the child is given up to 10, or even more, different names; as many (usually older) people, like grandparents, contribute names in addition to all the names the parents give. There are slightly different variations on the actual events, depending on the religion (Christianity, Islam or traditional Yoruba pagan religion) and personal preference. The events are usually some sort of prayer or thanks for the child, followed by the names (read out in order, with a short explanation of its meaning and why it was chosen) and more prayers for the names to come to pass in the life of that child. Traditionally, the prayers made use of seven symbols, each rubbed against the child’s lips, each with symbolic significance. Palm oil (used to prevent rust and to soothe the body) is given for a smooth and easy life, and pepper (which has many seeds in it) is given for a fruitful life with many children. This symbolic section is not as common in diaspora communities but waiting 8 days to have a party to name and pray for the child still persists.
After the naming ceremony, the parents clarify which names they would like their child to use. I was left with the name Ayomilekan Jonathan Adegunwa, which is quite different to most people’s names, especially in areas which had as few black people (never mind Yoruba people) as Lancaster, where I went to school, and Preston, where I live. My name being different comes with some issues. For starters, writing this piece in Microsoft Word means constantly having to battle with the red lines telling me my name isn’t a word! A more conventional issue is that my name is hard to pronounce – even I cannot pronounce my name without a Nigerian accent. This makes introducing myself quite stressful – I can pronounce my name in a more ‘English’ way (which is wrong, but pronounceable) or I can pronounce it properly (which is right but difficult to pronounce if you’re not used to similar names). This stress of introduction doesn’t even touch on the variations which can be derived from Ayomilekan. Most people call me Ayomi, which also has the same pronunciation issues, albeit to a lesser extent due to the reduced length. The best way to try and pronounce my name is ah-yo-me (‘ah’ as in the exclamation, ‘yo’ with a hard ‘o’ like the start of octopus, and me as, well me). Most say it as ‘i’-‘o’-‘me’, pronouncing them as they appear. The former is more accurate, the latter is easier to say. Some also call me Ayo, which also can be pronounced differently. This often leads to me introducing myself as “Ayomi, Ayomi, Ayo or Ayo” – offering different pronunciations. This dilemma faces many children with names like mine, names which don’t transfer easily into the English language. Many therefore choose to go by an English name, often a middle name like mine (Jonathan) becomes the name they go by, just to avoid this confusion.
Another advantage of going by an English name is seen in the job market. There are many studies which back this – one, for example, found that people of Nigerian origin had to send 80% more applications to get an interview when compared to their white counterparts. Another example is found in Freakonomics, where the authors find that a white sounding name can give an advantage over an identical candidate with a black sounding name. These studies show that even if I overcome the barrier of people actually knowing what to call me, I will often still be judged because of my name before I even get the chance to have that conversation. Since I’m no Tom Haverford (an Indian fictional character from Parks and Recreation, who changed his name for employability purposes), my name will continue to adversely affect me in this way.
Despite this, I still like my name. I’m still proud of my name, and its meaning. A name is important, especially in my culture where a name is like a prayer, or a blessing. It seems wrong not to appreciate the name Ayomilekan – my name literally means ‘my joy is abundant’, so I should feel at least some joy about it? Even if my name meant something different, even if it didn’t really mean anything, a name is still important – it is often the first thing people find out about you, and often can begin to help them form an idea of your culture.
A name is an important part of who you are. It plays a central role in your identity, and I hope that this can be recognised and appreciated, rather than used as a reason for discrimination.