Names. Such an important aspect of one’s identity. A marker of existence. An illustration of one’s being.
Rewinding back to my elementary years, I remember the look that would frequently make an appearance on the faces of my classmates and teachers. It was a look that I knew all too well. Confusion and frustration, followed by an attempt at pronunciation. They would say “... I’m gonna need some help with this one!” or “I’m gonna butcher this, my apologies!” and then there was the very original “Is it m&m??? Like the candy???”
It was all way too familiar for my liking. But what could I do? Could I blame them? I mean, it’s not every day a student in United States classroom has a name like Emem-Esther Ikpot. Being so young, I found my name to be a hassle and a source of embarrassment. Having to explain it to every acquaintance was so frustrating to me. At times, I longed for a more Western-sounding name. My name was tiring.
Then, something changed. I was in first grade, and I had a substitute teacher. As he did roll call, I mentally prepared myself for the ensuing awkwardness that would no doubt follow the pronunciation attempt. I was counting down the seconds to the look, the attempt, and my resulting correction. 5...4...3...2...1... he said, “Emem-Esther Ikpot?” Every consonant, every vowel, and every sound flowed right off his tongue harmoniously and in pure perfection. I was so caught off guard that I began to correct him. Then I actually heard what he said and I replied “He-here!”
After class, my heaven-sent substitute told me how he recently moved to the United States. He explained that this was his first time having a Nigerian student, and naturally, he was overjoyed. I then remember him saying, “You have a beautiful name, embrace it!” These words resonated with me in a way that I have never forgotten. The connection made me realize how important my name is. Yes, it may seem confusing, and hard to pronounce at first, but my name is me. It is who I am. We may not know each other personally, but once a fellow Nigerian hears your name, there is an automatic connection formed as we realize we are children of the motherland- and to me, that is truly beautiful. The power of African names is a power inexplicable to most. However to those who understand the importance of names, it draws us together, as one united front.
My name is Emem, which means “peace” in the Efik language that is native to the Efik people of Southern Nigeria. I was born in the United States, but my parents raised me with the values and the culture of Nigeria. I was raised to understand the significance of family, the love of God, the fellowship of the church, the importance of education, and the respect I am to afford to all. These are all integral to my being and make me who I am. To me, Africa is a family. Despite the boundaries and divisions amongst the African countries, we are one. In regards to Nigeria, I wouldn’t be who I was today without my culture. From Nigerian food, to Nigerian wear, customs, traditions, and the plethora of languages, the beauty of my country is indescribable. The native wear in and of itself represents the beauty of Africa. Each design, each color, each pattern, so intricate and beautiful. Our beauty works to shame the problematic misconceptions many people have about Africa. We are not defined by our issues but rather by our successes and our triumphs.
What do you think when you think of Africa? Do you think of a small “country”, with no civilization, everyone running around with animals, with huts as houses, with all people living in complete destitution and poverty?
Africa is the second largest continent in the world. The Sahara is the largest desert in the world and is bigger than the continental USA. Nigeria is the fourth largest oil exporter in the world, as well as Africa’s biggest oil producer; with millions of barrels produced every day. The continent has the most reserves of precious metals, including gold, cobalt, and platinum. Of course Africa has issues of poverty and hunger, but what place in the world doesn’t? When the media paints a picture of Africa as a desolate and poor place, people assume that is the core of who we are. The world at large has issues of poverty and destitution, but that is not the only aspect of the world that we focus on. Preconceived negative ideas of what we think Africa is like, rob us from experiencing and knowing the true beauty that this continent embodies.
Africa is home. Africa is beauty. Africa is life. Africa is me.