By Dominic K.A. deGraft Aidoo (UK)
“The beginning of wisdom is to call things by their proper name.” Confucius (Chinese Social Philosopher)
A fortnight ago while watching television with my eight-year old son he asked me an interesting question. “Papa how come my name is unique”. My son does not have a typical British name such as John Smith, James Brown, etc. I answered by explaining to him that his unique name has meaning.
“What does my name mean?”, he hurriedly asked? In a gentle voice I explained, your first name signifies your Christian identity. Your second name your tribal identity and your surname is your family identify. Judging from his stare I realised he was confused. I took my time to explain in detail that I am Ghanaian of an Akan ethnicity, specifically a Fante from Cape Coast.
I further explained that it is customary for the Fantes to name their children according to the day of the week they were born. We generally call them by their day names. With a puzzled look, he asked me a second question. “What is the meaning Ghana?” Not wanting to embarrass myself I said politely. Son its bed time. I did not know the answer and was not prepared to admit it in front of him.
Not long after my son had gone to bed, I phoned a few friends to get some answers. Their answers were no different from what I already knew. I was amused by one response though: G.H.A.N.A is the abbreviation for God Has Appointed Nkrumah for Africa. He then went on to confuse me by suggesting that the acronym was in line with Nkrumah’s African agenda. Out of frustration and dissatisfaction I decided to research the issue myself.
There seems to be no agreement on the origin nor the meaning of the name Ghana. Some believe the name came from the Gana Empire which covered the Sudan-Mali area. Others argue the point that Ghana is a compound word [Ga-na] meaning “warrior king” derived from Ouagadougou. Hence the claim that Ghanaians are originally from Burkina Faso. Before the present-day Ghana was annexed and colonised by the British, Ghana was not a national unit and thus did not have a national name.
Many parts of present Ghana were controlled by the Ashantes. It was the British that put modern-day Ghana together and christened it Gold Coast (The land of Gold). Ghana on attaining independence assumed a new identity and christened its birth with a new name, Ghana. There may not be a consensus on the true meaning of the name but at least at least we can agree that It was a message to the world of the beginning of a new season in the life of Ghana. The dawn of an era of Ghanaians charting their own path in line with Nkrumah’s speech on 6th March 1957. Today, I write on what is in a name?
It was during my research that I discovered some other interesting historical facts about Africa which I will like to share in this article. Many African countries on attaining independence followed the shining example of Ghana. For example, the present-day Zimbabwe was known as Southern Rhodesia. She was named after a British colonialist and businessman Cecil Rhodes. After independence the name was changed to Zimbabwe is a combination of two words “dzimba” and “dzamabwe” (meaning house of stones) in the Shona language.
A language widely spoken in present-day Zimbabwe. The story of Bukina Faso is no different. President Thomas Sankara, the young, energetic and charismatic leader of what was then known as Upper Volta, officially renamed the country Burkina Faso on 4th August 1984. Just like Zimabwe, the name is made up of two words “Burkina” and “Faso” which were chosen from the two major languages spoken in the country Mòoré and Dioula meaning “men of integrity” and “fatherland” respectively.
Tanzania changed its name from Tanganyika. So, did Benin under the leadership of Mathieu Kerekou. The story is slightly different for the Democratic Republic of Congo which went through a spell of name changes. It was formerly known as Leopoldville, changed to Belgian Congo, then on attaining independence changed its name again to Congo after the Congo River. Its name was changed yet again to the Republic of Zaire by Mobutu, but Laurent Kabila in 2007 returned the country to its old name Democratic Republic of Congo. Botswana and Ethiopia were formerly called the British Protectorate of Bechuanaland and Abyssinia respectively.
Interestingly not all the countries changed their names at the time of independence. Some left the name-change a bit late. For example, it was only in 2013 that the West African island country of Cape Verde mustered the courage and changed its name to “Cabo Verde”. That then became a recent precedent for Swaziland to follow.
The only absolute monarch seized the moment at the Swazi golden jubilee independence celebrations and officially announced a name change during the festivity. Coincidentally, the celebrations also marked the king’s fiftieth birthday as well. Swaziland was renamed eSwatini. Meaning “land of the Swazis”. Prior to this many speculated that King Mswati would mark the occasion by announcing another bride to his already thirteen wives as done in the past.
He instead decided to change the country’s name to the applause of many Pan Africanists. To them, it is better late than never and thus changing the name to eSwatini to mark fifty years since independence from British rule was something they welcome.
It is important to note that not all African Countries have been able to cut the umbilical cord from their colonial masters with respect to their pre-independence names. For example, South Africa is still stuck with its name even after the fall of Apartheid. The story of Nigeria is no better. Present day Nigeria was made up of the Northern and Southern Protectorate.
The North and South were formed into one country for administrative ease. The country was named Nigeria by Flora Shaw, (Lady Lugard) the wife of Frederick Lugard, who was then the Governor General of Nigeria. The name is simply a combination of the words Niger Area. Sadly, just like the name Gold Coast it has no cultural nor historical significance. Many find the name insulting and are offended by the fact that Nigerians have not seen the urgency to correct this mistake. It is not surprising that some Nigerians are agitating for a name change. Sadly, they cannot agree on one.
Names are significant. A name speaks volumes and reflects one’s cultural identity. On assuming a new identity, a name is given to reflect this. For example, in most cultures when a woman marries She assumes the surname of the husband. This is to signify that she is married. In Ghana, if a person is enstooled as a chief or a king, he assumes a new name.
For example, Nana Barima Kwaku Duah on being enthroned as the Asantehene received the royal name of Otumfuo (His Majesty) Nana Osei Tutu II. Most names follow very definite and specific rules especially in cultures that value their historical heritage. A name may encapsulate the history, culture, ancestry, religion, tribe, the family etc, in short, the identity of its bearer. It is therefore imperative and important in some cases on taking up a new identify to change one’s name to reflect this.
The unfortunate tragedy of African countries is that they way given names by their colonialists without recourse to its cultural heritage. Chinua Achebe may be right when he says: “Nobody can teach me who I am. You can describe parts of me, but who I am – and what I need – is something I have to find out myself.” In that vein, the Nigerians agitating for a name change may be doing the right thing after all.
The founding fathers of Ghana would agree with me that a question by an eight-year-old boy helped me to learn a bit more about Ghana and the African continent. I almost got embarrassed.
May the Almighty God help Africa!