24.02.2009 Feature Article

What's In A Name?

What's In A Name?
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Every now and then, thoughts, like ripples on a vast ocean, begin to gather a momentum of their own, picking up motley loads of events and still more thoughts, until they burst forth in waves of revelations about simple, ordinary, everyday occurrences. In this case, things taken for granted, like my name, Kwesi Yeboah, which I have never doubted, having being called that ever since I was born, was now being called into question by two of my own countrymen, a college professor and a celebrated journalist. Had the source of this questioning been from a member of the more anonymous 'Say it Loud' crowd, I would have laughed it off as the expected humorous ranting of crass and crude Ghanaian intellectualism short-circuiting in cyberspace.

It all started with the college professor, the not-so- great Dr Okoampa Ahoofe, after I had critiqued, in a Ghanaweb article, his attempts to replace Nkrumah with Danquah in the history leading up to independence in Ghana. In the article I had referred to the fact that we shared an Akyem kinship, him being a fellow who does not hesitate to flaunt his Akyem heritage to prove his tribal purity and even superiority at every available and sometimes unavailable opportunity.. About a third of the professor's rebuttal to my article was that I was an Akyem impostor because no one in his vast extended family, which may very well include mine, spelt his Kwesi with an 'e'. I was dumbfounded. It had never occurred to me that an 'e' could, and was actually being used to railroad me from a heritage I am rather proud of. But Okoampa Ahoofe is who he is, as those who have read his articles will attest to, so I decided not to ponder the thought too furiously. He was only probably fighting back, and following the unwritten rule of using everything he had to damage his attacker.

But then, only a couple of days ago, in an exchange with Cameron Martin Duodu, a well known Ghanaian journalist and writer, himself an Akyem from Esiakwa, Mr Duodu pronounced the same judgment against me. I had been commenting on a wish list of factories, roads and socio- economic programs that Mr. Duodu was fantasizing about in a pathetic 'letter to the president' type of article to President Atta Mills of banker-to-banker fame. I was reassuring him about our shared kinship after he accused me of invading his autonomy and not knowing anything about his background. Peremptorily, like Okoampa Ahoofe, he pronounced me non-Akyem because my Kwesi had an 'e' in it.

Now my senses and imagination were tickled. Is this just an Akyem problem, or, is there some hidden conspiracy among Ghanaians, one that I don't know about, that has standardized spelling along tribal lines. The momentum was building in the ripples. It may sound trivial to others but, let us not forget that the development of language is a clear indicator of a nation's ability to encode the whole ethos of socio-economic activity, and its study will lead to great insights into the level of consciousness of any given people. For a country, like ours, that has only recently – in historical terms – learnt to write our languages, I find it rather presumptuous of Messrs. Okoampa- Ahoofe and Duodu to impose orthographies along the lines of a moribund traditionalism.

I have always been KWESI OR AKWESI, a male born on Sunday. At various times in my life, I have spelt my name as Akwesi, Kwasi, Akwasi, or Kwesi. Outside home and a close circle of friends, each spelling has its own problems with others' pronunciations, be the Akan or not. In high school in Accra, it went from, Quasi as in Quasimodo or the harsher “Aaquashie”. How? Don't ask me. Ask the Achimotans. It didn't take long to correct those who erred though. Living with friends in the Volta region, it became more Kaw-shie. But that was good too. I was still acknowledged as a male born on Sunday. In Cape Coast it manifested as the sweet sounding Kwei-sie ,which I lived with for 5 years. Nothing prepared me for Canada, when in university I had a white colleague whose pronunciation was somewhere between Krrwee-eesh and Kwwee-eech, delivered with face as sanguine as a reticent bowel movement, and crowned with an ovation of saliva, a cross I bore sullenly yet always in perpetual awe of the singularity of this distortion of my name. I never bothered to correct her.

Now our apostles of tribal orthodoxy, Mr Duodu and Dr Ahoofe, are judging me a lost son because I have an 'e' in my Akwesi, or rather Kwesi. It is worth exploring their logic further. Take Mr. Cameron Martin Duodu, for instance. If somebody called Doodo claimed Akyem citizenship, will he be up in arm in the service of correctness and banish him from Kyebi? What about my cousin, Naa Dooduwa, the feminine form of Duodu, an Akyem beauty? Her links to her heritage would be attenuated by the tribal spelling police. War would arise between Inkumsahs and Nkumsahs; Darfoors and Dafoors; Firempongs, Frimpongs and Frempongs; Boahens and Boahenes. Agyekums shall smash the bones of Agekums; Kuffours shall visit tyranny on Kufuors, and the innocent blood of Danquahs will be spilt by Dankwas until the state atrophies into a Somaliesque clan-based republic of namesakes. Especially, now that the oil is coming!

Not even the Roman upper classes with their strict rules of Latin could enforce orthodoxy in names, and now, we live in societies where more people are experimenting with names that are even trans-ethnic or even entirely made up. My son is Kwadjo Odapagyan. His mother is white, and he loves his name and the legend associated with his namesake. Mr. Ahoofe and Mr. Duodu will probably deny him Ghanaian citizenship.

Two lessons stand out, for me, from these encounters and others; the first is the need for an effective language policy in Ghana. Dr Adam Bodomo, who, I believe, has the most enlightened philosophy on language development for our country, advocates what he calls 'localized trilingualism', that will among others, enable us to build our indigenous languages with common technical, scientific and technological vocabularies and orthographies. That this has not happened is precisely responsible for the confusions herein dealt with.

Thankfully, computer technology with fonts has made it easier to better convey the spellings that are based on our different alphabets. Take Dr Ahoofe for instance. A cursory glance at his name might induce a pronunciation of “A hoof”, as in the hoof of a horse. With a little more creativity, a Twi person might say Ahoo-fi, meaning a dirty person. But we are able to arrive at a correct pronunciation by recognizing the double 'o' as it is in the English word 'poor'; the vowel sound at the end of his name, as in the English word 'pet', has safely been accommodated by the letter 'e' in the English alphabet. Ahoofe thinks that makes him Akyem, but when I use the same logic for my Kwesi, I cease to be Akyem.

The second lesson is the alienation of especially, our senior diasporan elite. As I wrote some time ago, many of them exist in a space where they are able to perform and live in the most advanced societies, and yet when it comes to their own backyards at home, they invariably can be found imbibing the detritus of an obsolete customary system or singing high falutin wish lists of development, many of which are oft-repeated with parrot-like glibness and herd-like precision. Their recourse to obsolete traditionalism is at all times an appeal to obsolete customary rights of passage that seems to pickpocket respect from a younger person. This attempt to enforce a fictitious tribal orthography by Mr. Cameron Duodu, is a clear manifestation of such alienation.

If the elders postulated that a child who washes his hands could eat with them, they certainly implied that elders who did not wash theirs should sit with the babes and sucklings.

And let us face it; in the end, whose name sounds more Akyem, or for that matter, Ghanaian?

Kwame Okoampa-Ahoofe Jnr
Kwesi Firempong Yeboah
Cameron Martin Duodu.

Oyiwa!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Truro, Nova Scotia.

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