What's in a Name?

My name is Enobong E Essien.  The extra E stands for Essien.  My name is Enobong Essien Essien (so good they named me twice).  In Ibibio culture (the Ibibio are a Nigerian Tribe - one of hundreds) when a woman gets married she takes on the first and last name of her husband as her middle and last name and her children do likewise so myself, my mum and all my sisters are Essien Essien's (at least we were before the two oldest got married).  You wouldn't believe the number of forms that have either changed my name or come back to me corrected because they think I made a mistake putting Essien there twice.  I'm not stupid, people, I know my own name.

Growing up a pretty much the only black family in the city was interesting.  Either through naivety or the grace of God it wasn't difficult per se but it was interesting.  What was  difficult was growing up with my "unusual" name.

At school the problems always began with class registration.  My advice to teachers, young, old, seasoned or novices is: when teaching a new class read through the class register before you meet your class for the first time and if you come across any names that are unfamiliar to you ask a friend or colleague for pronunciation.  The boy or girl to whom the name belongs will appreciate the effort, I can promise you that.   

My experiences of the register always went a little something like this: 

Teacher: Abigail, Brian, Cassandra... (Pause) Eee... Ee-no... ( pauses again and looks up helplessly at the class). 

In first and middle school, when I was still shy and retiring, I would put my hand up and kindly let the teacher know that I was the owner of the awkward name.  In highschool I would put my hand up and kindly say my name out loud for the teacher and repeat it back however many times the teacher attempted to say it correctly until they finally either got it right or gave up.  In university and thereafter I just sit in silence and watch them struggle.  If they ask for help I will help but they have to use their words and not just flounder there waiting for assistance.  For them it's just one moment of awkwardness in their life; for me it's a whole life of awkwardness.

Heres where I have to confess something; depending on who I'm talking to there are two pronunciations to my name.  If I'm talking to Nigerians or sometimes Africans in general my name is pronounced (correctly) Eh-nor-bong with the emphasis on the middle syllable.   To everyone else I use the "English" pronunciation of Eh-no-bong with the emphasis on the first syllable.  The emphasis is never  on the last syllable.  Even when I give the correct pronunciation the western tongue ends up with the "English" pronunciation so I just roll with it.  The confusion comes when my friends hear my mum or sisters call my name and they're like, "what did they call you?" and I'm like, "yeah guys, that's my actual name".  But I'm fine with Eh-no-bong; that girl doesn't offend me.  I'll tell who does offend me: Anabel (yup, that's the most common mispronunciation, believe it or not), Emmabong, Ebonong, Annabong... The list goes on.  In the words of The Ting Tings "that's not my name".

The irony is (is it irony) that my name is one of the most common names in Nigeria. Walk the streets of Uyo and you'll bump into an Enobong Essien every five steps.  But I don't live in Nigeria.  

One of the best things about moving to Germany and joining the cast of The Lion King (Der Koenig der Lowen and Deutsch) was that I no longer had the most "unusual" name in the room.  Not only was I met with a plethora of Zulu, Xhosa, and Tswana names but also the German names that my tongue sometimes feels it has to do somersaults around to say correctly.  Finally I can stand in the shoes of all those that have massacred my name and experience their struggle.  But do you know what valuable skills I've learnt in my many years of being a name-martyr?  I've learnt the art of listening and patience.  Hear what people say, not what you think they've said.

I write all this because my name is an important part of who I am.  It's an important part of who we all are.  It's our first introduction to the world and how we will be remembered.  A person's name can tell who where that person is from, who their family are, how they grew up... My mum can hear any Nigerian name and tell you which tribe or which part of Nigeria they come from.  And my name means something.  Enobong means "gift of God".  Anabel means "gracious or lovable beauty" which is cute but not my name.  Emmabong and Ebonong don't mean anything.  I am Enobong and my mother named me Enobong because I am a gift from God. 

We all know how important names are.  Names are part if what makes us human.  Why else would we be so invested in awful celebrity baby names?

I have friends called Jessica who are Jess, not Jessie, and friends called Jessie who hate Jessica.  Why does Isobel with an "o" specify it's an "o" not an "a" and why is it suddenly difficult to slaughtered that turkey you were fattening up for Christmas after you name it?  Because our names are part of who we are and therefore must be treated with respect.

So here's a short list of what not to do when you meet someone with a name you are unfamiliar with: 

1. Don't guess.

If you know you didn't hear what was said correctly ask the person to repeat themselves.  Don't just make a blind guess or assumption. 

2. Don't stay silent  

Ask the person to repeat themselves, to spell it out, to say it slowly... I will personally keep repeating my name until you get it.  I'll even give you a powerpoint presentation if need be.  I want you to succeed and I want to help you.  I understand you're unfamiliar with the name, that doesn't offend me.  I get offended when people don't at least try.  All I ask is that you try. 

3. Don't change the name  

Don't shorten the name, don't give the person a nickname... like why would you?  It's so disrespectful.  If I introduce myself as Enobong then call me Enobong.  Especially if you've only known me for like 5 seconds.   Don't ask me about a shortened version of my name or a nickname and don't just give me a nickname either.  As an introvert I won't tell you not to call me by my false name if you do but know that each time you do I will resent you in my heart.  By changing my name all you're showing me is that my name isn't worth learning and therefore I am not worth knowing.  Once we have a relationship, once you're my friend, then and only then can we discuss variations on the theme.  The operative word being discuss.

Shakespeare said that a rose by any other name would smell as sweet but I don't think so many of us would be quick to brag about the dozen Poop flowers we received on Valentine's Day.

#saytheirnames #dontrehamilton #ericgarner #johncrawfordIII #michaelbrownjr #ezellford #danteparker #tanishaanderson #akaigurley #tamirrice #rumainbrisbon jeramereid #tonyrobinson #philipwhite #ericharris #walterscott #freddiegray #philandocastile #altonsterling #sandrabland  and many more.

(In four of the cases the perpetrators (police officers) have been charged criminally)