Ever since my essay with the same title as above appeared in The Guardian of Thursday June 1, I have been asked how my longsuffering name ‘Hope’ functions outside my home country and continent. I have gladly replied that it is a name easily assessed, easily recalled by people of the Western world. Not so with my middle name, ‘Oghenerukevbe’ or my cousin’s ‘Obukowho’ or my surname ‘Eghagha’. I will not add my wife’s paternal surname ‘Ukostovbera’ or where she hails from ‘Eruemukowharien’ in Delta State to the discussion lest they think I am being mischievous and consider withdrawing my spouse of over 30 years from me! As you know, an insult to one’s spouse could be tolerated; but when you extend it to their family it becomes a communal matter – the type of insult Achebe says we feel in the bones!
So whereas at home my name became a password to different levels of social experience by situating me within an ethnic framework, abroad, the middle and last names which connote my ‘Nigerianness’ signal a socio-cultural disadvantage. Out there, ‘Hope’ as a name is ambiguous; it is ‘neither nor’. It does not tell the history of my ancestry. When deeply probed however, it tells the history of the colonial encounter, my encounter with religion, how after when the white man came we had the land and he had the bible and he asked my ancestors to close their eyes in prayer and how by the time they opened their eyes, the white man had the land and my progenitors had the bible. For, without that encounter I would simply have been ‘Rukevbe’ or ‘Atemejeraivwo’ or ‘Akpomuetata’ or ‘Obebeduo’.
So, ‘Hope’ still carries a baggage; yet abroad it is a positive baggage; it suggests to my foreign hosts that I have been civilised or Christianised. If I travel out with the name ‘Assad’ or ‘Osama’ or ‘Gadafi’, of course I would be singled out for special interrogation. My younger brother ‘Gamaliel’ received special attention from the Israelis once when he landed in Ben Gurion Airport. Was he a Jew in the Diaspora? What they did not know was that we had Elijah, Benjamin, Racheal and Abel in the house of a most ardent Christian father. Also, whereas ‘Adamu’ would not ask me in Kano whether I know ‘Adebayo’ because we are fellow southerners, an American who sees my African name would ask whether I know this friend of his ‘Njoroge’ from Kenya! As far as he is concerned, all Africans live in one country and we know one another!
I once spent a night somewhere in Charleston, West Virginia in 2007, because I could not connect a flight to my ultimate destination, hampered by inclement weather. Before long, an African-American man, darker than the darkest brother I had ever encountered back at home, (the type the Urhobo call ‘awhinawhi’, meaning ‘shiny black) showed up in the lounge, where I was fiddling with my laptop. I automatically had a friend, or so I thought. Although his complexion was a brother, his accent was not; his mission was also not brotherly. I found myself pausing, listening carefully as we did in pronunciation classes, to pick his words. When he said I spoke with an accent. I said to him that he had an accent too! Then he warmed up extra hard, asked whether I knew Kanu and Emeka (very cool guys, he said) who lived in Florida, that they used to hang out together and have a good time doing the ‘high things and other stuff. Hmmmm! My ears stood on alert like those of a hunting dog. Drugs! He seemed to want to know whether I was into such high stuff too. The image of associations! Was this an agent trying to fathom what a Nigerian on a one-way ticket was doing in this winterly-miserable cold city? I read between the lines and promptly gave him my complimentary card – Senior Lecturer, University of Lagos on a research programme sponsored by the very Ford Foundation itself!
So at the international airport, say in Detroit or Atlanta or New York, my name carries a tag, another meaning, especially in the era of Trump. If it’s a Muslim name, it carries a question mark, sometimes very loud, sometimes muffled. Are you a potential threat to our peace and security? If it’s a Nigerian name, the silent question is: are you going to do 419 things, internet fraud or arranged marriage? The polite ones say nothing, but stare something into your head. So when he asks ‘how do you intend to sustain your stay here in the United States with cash of only one hundred and fifty dollars? ‘I am a guest of the Government of the United States,’ I announce proudly. Really? He takes a closer look at this tall yellow fellow from the jungle of Africa. ‘You want to Google my name? He ignores this request. ‘Tell me, what exactly do you do that makes you a guest of the United States Government? ‘The letter says it all, I say. ‘I can read, he says. ‘But I want to hear it from you.’ A senior official looks in and nods me on after a brief quiet chat with my ignorant white interrogator.
In the days of our highly-rated and advertised footballers, your identity could be referenced with one of them. Like when our female team went far in the world cup in what year now? ‘Was it your country that won the match against? O yes! As we know the international passport is the major name one carries as we jet out. Its name carries water or paper. When our Nigerian brothers, citizens of America come home, they carry the Nigerian passport. It is different on their return home to America. The American passport carries more weight. So, it is a question of adopting a greater and stronger name that fits into your location.
This makes identity flexible. So a man may be born in Nigeria, but carries a British passport, just as his children who were born in America. They have British-Nigerian parents though they are Americans. As British-Americans, they would rather bear John Thomas Hope or Lester Watson Harris than Rukevbe Eruemukowharien Carrington!