My Dilemma with English, Civilized or So-called Christian Names
By Siahyonkron Nyanseor
July 10, 2004
The place of my birth is best described by David Lamb, the author of The Africans as a country where “The new settlers adopted the only desirable life style they knew – that of the ante-bellum whites who had ruled them – and they turned the sixteen indigenous tribes into an underprivileged majority, referring to them until the 1950s as ‘aborigines’. The pioneers and their ‘Americo-Liberian’ descendants became a black colonial aristocracy. They controlled the commerce, ran the government and sent their sons abroad to be educated. The men wore morning coats and top hats, drank bourbon, joined the Masons… They passed on to their children their American names such as Christian Maxwell, George Browne and Barton Bliss – army’s chief of staff in the late 1960s was General George Washington – and a member of their True Whig Party was as conservative as any Southern Republican back in the United States.
“Even today, urban Liberia seems more like William Faulkner’s South than Africa. The official currency is the U.S. dollar bills used in New York or Chicago – though they are faded and wrinkled and long were taken out of circulation by American banks. Policemen wear summer uniforms discarded by New York City Police Department, and townships have names such as Louisiana, New Georgia and Maryland. On Sundays, when the strip joints on Broad Street and Gurley streets in Monrovia are closed, American gospel music fills the radio stations, and the accents in the packed Baptist Church on Center Street are distinctly Deep South.
“For a long time Africans poked fun at Liberia, disparaging it for adopting attitudes and importing values not in keeping with African tradition” (Lamb, David, The Africans, New York: Vintage Books, 1987, pp. 124-125). Due to these foreign or imported values, it is easy to understand the dilemma our ancestors were faced with. Also, it is in this strange environment my personal saga with English or civilized names began.
My saga originated with my paternal grandfather who is of the Klao (Kru) ethnic group. According to the history of the Klao people, many of them were employed as migrant workers or deck-hand on board European ships. Also, they were heavily involved in trading along the West Coast of Africa. Perhaps, the reason was that most of their principal cities were along the coastal area.
My paternal grandfather whose name is Teah-Joeh Korlah Nyanseor is from River Cess Territory, Liberia, which has since acquired a county status. My maternal grandfather name is Kpan Sarkpah. I never got to meet him because he died before I was born. According to my mother and my aunt, Mrs. Flahn-Nimley Nyekan, Kpan Sarkpah is from Grand Cess (present day Grand Kru County). As the story goes, my grandfather, his sister and brothers migrated to Grand Bassa County when they were young. Like, my paternal grandfather, my maternal grandfather too, worked as “headman” (captain) for a fleet of cargo boats that belonged to German merchant companies known as “PZ” and “OAC.” These cargo boats transported goods along the Atlantic Ocean. Although my maternal grandfather worked and interacted with Europeans for quite sometime, he was never influenced by them to the point where he traded his African names for a set of European names. Instead, it was my paternal grandfather, who brought about my English or civilized names saga. My paternal grandfather traveled extensively throughout West Africa, parts of East and North Africa, parts of Europe and America. According to the story told to me by my mother, it was a “chief mate” on one of the European ships (Delta Line, Ferrell Line, Elder Dempster Line, and Woermann Line) where my grandfather worked as a stevedore that he got the name Myers. I was told that the chief mate befriended my grandfather, and as a token of their friendship, he named my grandfather after himself.
Personally, I feel that the chief mate’s action was based on these two factors: Either my paternal grandfather’s names, Teah-Joeh Korlah Nyanseor were too difficult for him to pronounce or the chief mate chose to impose his European cultural hegemony, in the same way most imperialists or missionaries are accustomed to doing. In this case, he gave my grandfather his surname (Myers). From here on, my grandfather became known as the African Myers or T. J. K. Myers.
My father’s names are: TeTe-Torborh Korlah Nyanseor. How on earth he too, got to be known as Anthony, I do not know. As for the surname – Myers, he inherited it from his father. Perhaps, the name “Anthony” was adopted when he relocated from River Cess to the capital, Monrovia, which too was named after President James Monroe of the United States.
I was told that in those days, people took pride in having English, Civilized (“Kwii” in Liberian parlance) or so-called Christian names. It was a common practice in Monrovia to adapt these names (European or Christian). This practice was somewhat promoted by the Americo-Liberian ruling elites and their wards (those who stayed with them, and too adopted their names at the expense of their African indigenous names).
The Beginning of My Person Dilemma
When I was born, my parents named me, Jglay Kpa-kay. I got Jglay from my mother side of the family. The name, Jglay means SIGHT. Kpa-kay is from my father side of the family. Kpa-kay means MESSENGER. Since my father had made his “pseudo assimilation” into the Americo-Liberian culture in Monrovia, I too acquired the so-called civilized names – Anthony Myers Jr. I became known as Anthony J. K. Myers Jr. or “Small Anthony.”
Unlike my father, my mother inherited from my maternal grandfather, Kpan Sarkpah a pride too strong to adapt Kwii names. She remained Sarkpah Mardea Worhwinn (Worhwinn Mardea Sarkpah) until the day she died. On numerous occasions when she was asked, “What is your English name?” She too, would reply with the question, “Do I look like an English person?” It was a common practice in Monrovia those days to ask a person for his/her English or Christian name, whenever he/she visits the hospital or some government agency.
Several years later when my father’s junior brother, Robert S. Myers met me for the first time, he added to my already complicated dilemma; he gave me his first name, Robert. My uncle’s full name is Robert Sorborh Myers. The explanation he provided for naming me Robert was, I “resemble” him (I look like him). From then on, I became known as Anthony Robert Myers plus the Junior.
Somewhere down the line, when I went to register in elementary school (Government Morning School – South Beach to be exact), the Registrar did not allowed me to complete giving her my full names; she stopped me at “Anthony Robert”; she disregarded the Myers. Perhaps, she taught my names were too many for a small child. Once more, I became known as Anthony Roberts. This too did not last for long!
When my older brother who was known as Beniel Wleh Myers, relocated from Rivercess to live with us in Monrovia, my saga regarding the issue of Kwii names, took on another dimension. One of the first things my older brother did was to name himself, Anthony Wleh Roberts, Jr. At the time he felt that since he was older than I, he had to be Anthony. His rationale was, as my senior brother, he had to be the junior of our father. At this point, I was left with no other choice but to find a new name for myself; so I named myself, Sal after the American singer Sal Mineo, who I saw in a movie at Gabriel Cinema, Broad Street (Monrovia). My brother became my father’s Junior, and I became Sal Anthony Roberts. There was no FUSS about it. I felt then that these were some of the things one had to undergo to become Kwii.
The dilemma I had with English or Civilized names reminds me of the statement made by President Olusegun Obasanjo of Nigeria:
“We got caught up in the conflict of culture, of trying to graft the so-called sophistication of European society to our African society. The result so far has been an abysmal failure. We are betwixt and between” .
After the episode with my brother, I thought my dilemma with English or Civilized was going to be a thing of the past; but this was not the case. When I entered junior high school – Daniel Edward Howard (D.E.H.), during enrollment, I wrote my name on a writing tablet and handed it to the Registrar. When she saw the spelling of my first name, Sal, she assumed it was misspelled. Without asking me, she changed the spelling to SAM. When I saw what she had done, I said to her that my name was not spelled as SAM. Her response was, “What do you know? You better go to the classroom that you are assigned.” Without putting up any argument, I went to my assigned class. This episode added yet, another chapter to my personal dilemma with Civilized names. Once again, I became known as Sam or Samuel Anthony Roberts.
Whenever I narrate the story, the question most often asked is, “Why did you allow the Registrar to change you name?” Or “Why didn’t you tell your parents about the incident with the Registrar?” First of all, my mother didn’t care one way or the other for strange sounding names. In fact she did not call me by my Kwii names. She called me by Jglay or Kpa-kay. All she was concern about was that “I learn the Kwii book” (to learn to read and write like the Kwii people). As for my father, he was already a victim of the foreign name dilemma; therefore, he would have been of no help to me, had I asked him to intervene on my behalf.
The fact of the matter is, in those days, one could hardly question the authority of a teacher or for that matter, those who were in position of authority. Those individuals were thought to be few steps below God. For some reasons, many of them behaved as if they knew or had the answer to almost everything that was asked of them. It was that kind of “Jack-of-all-trades”. This attitude was prevalent throughout the entire Liberian society. To illustrate this point, let me share with you a classic example:
The Liberian society in which many of my generation grew up was a society in which teachers were perceived as supreme. Also, it was the general feeling that they had monopoly over knowledge. Moreover, almost everyone acted as if teachers knew the answers to most problems, especially, academic ones. During the 1940s, and throughout the 1950s, one teacher alone taught almost all subjects. There was no such thing as “specialization.” One teacher could teach English, Math, Science, History, Geography, Civics, Arts, etc.
Due to this perception, teachers were placed in a class all by themselves. As a result, they could never say, “I don’t know, let me look up the correct answer.” This is what happened in the case of a teacher called: Professor G. Aloysius Tugbeh Woljlu.
I was told that the actual incident occurred in the 1950s, in Grandcess Territory, now Grand Kru County, Liberia. The incident took place during Professor Woljlu’s American Literature Class. And it happens that he was a Kru man who had attended school “down the coast” (either Ghana or Nigeria). On this particular day, he was put on the spot when a male student named Dohbeoh Klah was reading an old American Classic when he came across the word, TV. The passage contained the phrase: “At their coaster home, the family gathered around to watch the TV.” Not known what the word, TV meant, Dohbeoh and his classmates became curious. They wanted to know the meaning of TV. So Dohbeoh asked Professor Woljlu what was the meaning of TV. Instead, he instructed Dohbeoh to read the passage again.
The fact of the matter is Professor Woljlu did not have any clue what the word, TV meant. Instead of telling Dohbeoh that he does not know, and that he would look it up, he tried to come up with a meaning not necessarily the correct meaning to save himself from the embarrassment. That is the reason he instructed Dohbeoh to read the passage over.
Professor Woljlu’s basic attitude typifies the general behavior of most teachers of that period. For him to admit to the class that he does not know the meaning of TV would have spelled disasters for him. Therefore, the poor guy had to make up a lie to save himself the embarrassment. The answer or what he thought was the answer came quite easy for him because of his Klao ethnic background. The Klaos are known for their adventures as migrant workers or deck-hand on European ships. It was from this experience, Professor derived the meaning of TV or what he thought the word TV meant.
When he came up with what appeared to be his answer for TV, he could hardly wait for Dohbeoh to complete the passage. However, he waited patiently until Dohbeoh came to word, TV. He then instructed Dohbeoh to read the passage once more. Dohbeoh followed his instruction and read: “At their coaster home, the family gathered around to watch the TV.” At that point, the Professor interrupted and added TRAVELING VESSEL as the meaning of TV. He then read the passage out loud: “At their coaster home, the family gathered around to watch the TRAVELING VESSEL.”
Professor Woljlu’s failure to tell the class the truth, demonstrates a lack of a level of high moral standard. This reminds me of the way that some Liberians behave today. This circle is been repeated over and over because are not committed to seeking the truth. Even though, all of us were born with conscience, yet, many of us failed to follow the dictates of our conscience regarding what is just. As a people, this is one of our problems.
You see, high moral standards or principles strengthen one’s convictions in the face of enormous pressure. Furthermore, individuals that possessed these principles, risk their lives to abstain from corrupt practices. But it is the lack of these cardinal principles that have led many African countries to end up with corrupt regimes and leaders. Living in such environment also has the tendency to force decent people to commit terrible crimes – like what has taken place in Liberia these past 14 years.
The lie told by Professor G. Aloysius Tugbeh Woljlu is what the English novelist Sir. Walter Scott referred to when he wrote, “What a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive.” These endless proliferations of little prevarications do matters. After the first lie, others can come more easily. We can avoid going in this direction if we follow the advice of the Liberian proverb that says, “Small shame is better than big shame.” In other words, Liberians should do what is right and not what is expedient. And if we’re not sure, Mark Twain has given us the rule of thumb. “When in doubt, tell the truth. It will confound your enemies and astound your friends.”
The moral to the story is that the poor teacher had no need to lie. All he had to do was admit that he did not know the meaning of the word, TV. But this behavior was, and is prevalent today in our society.
Now back to my original thesis. At an early age, I became a victim of the so-called Christian names “confusion” because on the entire West Coast of Africa, with the exception of the Creoles in Sierra Leone and the Fantes in Ghana, we Liberians tried “too hard” to run from what God Almighty has created us to be. So sometime in the 1960s when I transferred to Charles Dunbar Burgess King (C.D.B. King) junior high school, my name dilemma continued. Another problem was added to my already complicated dilemma.
At C.D.B. King, students with English or civilized names made fun of students with African names. Most of the students at C.D.B. King at the time had English or civilized names. The humiliation occurred during roll call. It was a custom for one to answer present when his/her name is called. When students with African names, names were called, the students with the so-called civilized names made fun of them. Some of our Kwii schoolmates had junior, the 2nd and the 3rd after their surnames. To me, the 3rd sounded so good to me, I too, added 3rd after my Kwii surname – Roberts.
The following semester, I became known as Sam Anthony Roberts, III. The rationale I came up with was since my father was the first, my brother the second (junior), I had to be the third. So, I added 3rd to my name. I became so proud of my civilized names until I, too, began to poke fun at those without “good” names like mine. My “country or native” names, Jglay Kpa-kay, were used only by my immediate relatives and close friends.
It was not until the 1970s that I finally became progressively aware and conscious of my true African identity. I realized then that it was not only wrong but also stupid to take on other people’s identity – names. From the 1970s, I knew what a beautiful person I was culturally. Many factors were responsible for the development my social consciousness; some of them were, the US Civil Rights movement, the Black Power movement in the US, the Black Consciousness Movement in South Africa, the Liberian Students Association in the Americas (later became the Union of Liberian Associations in the Americas (ULAA – 1972), AWINA National Association, USA, and of course, the Movement for Justice in Africa (MOJA – Liberia). The activities of these organizations, helped to shape my outlook and philosophy of life. Since then, I have become pro black, pro African, and went on to participate in various Pan African organizations and activities. Moreover, I made it an obligation to search for materials regarding the African people, study our history as well as educate those who were still ignorant (some by choice) about who we truly are – African people created in the “spitting” (exact – Liberian parlance) image of the living God.
As the result of my newly found social consciousness, in 1977, I took a trip to Liberia, filed an application with the Clerk of the Probate Court, Susanna E. Williams, and on August 10, 1977, a decree was issued by Gladys Johnson, then the Acting Probate Commissioner for Montserrado County, which finally restored my rightful names.
Sometimes I am asked the question, “How did you come up with the name -SIAHYONKRON? Or “Who named you SIAHYONKRON? The name Siahyonkron is a Klao (Kru) equivalent of Osagyefo, the name conferred on Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana. The name Osagyefo means Savior. In order not to drop the “S” in my two previous first names, Sal and Sam, I had to find me a name that starts with the letter “S”; and the most appropriate one that I selected was Siahyonkron since Nkrumah was an African leader that I admired and respected. That’s how I came up with the name – Siahyonkron. Henceforth, I became known as Siahyonkron Jglay Kpa-kay Nyanseor, which is translated literarily as Savior, Sight, Messenger, Front Runner or Leader.
My Cultural Re-birth
Since my cultural re-birth, I have advocated and continue to do so, today, on behalf of Africans and individuals of African origin – to be proud of who God created them to be. As a firm believer in the Almighty God, I know He does not make mistakes. He was right in the beginning, and will be right to the end. Therefore, the fuss regarding English or Civilized name is plain ignorant. What makes one to believe or even think that an African name is not a civilized name? The last time I consulted Mr. Webster, I found out that civilize means refine. No where did it say, civilized names were meant to be ONLY European.
In light of the above, we cannot continue to promote other people’s culture and let ours die out. If for some reasons there are some individuals would prefer to remain ignorant to think that it is civilized to be called by European names, that’s their choice; they are entitled to think that way. But please don’t engage those of us who have resolved to do the right thing – in useless dissertation about how you got it and try to justify keeping it. It is your prerogative! However, what you need to ask yourself is – with all the contact Africans have had with Europeans, why haven’t they or some of them called themselves by African names? And if you ever come up with the reason(s), please do not hesitate to share it with us.
Meanwhile, we still have amongst us, individuals with this “plantation mentality” (sometimes referred to as House Negro mentality). These individuals take pride in maintaining their so-called Christian names. I don’t know from what part of the Bible they got that idea! It is not written anywhere in the Bible that when you become a Christian, you must acquire a so-called Christian name. There is no such passage in the Bible. Names are cultural symbols or for that matter, identifications. It is the reason why, a Chinese person is called Cho Chen; an English person is known as Lord Chesterfield, a French person is identified as Jean Claude Pierre and a German, Hans Blumenthal. Why then must Africans be the only exception to the rule? I think we Africans find ourselves in this predicament because of our history, which is associated with slavery, colonialism and Americo-Liberianism. Nevertheless, our argument could be rendered irrelevant if Europeans had names like Kofa, Togba, Kwame, Jabari Simama or Kwesi Mfume. Until this point can be proven otherwise, the issue regarding English or Christian names is irrelevant, stupid and does not make sense.
As Africans, we need to hold onto our African identity. The Jews, the Italian, and people of other cultures take pride in their cultural heritage. We could do the same by calling ourselves by our African names, and renaming (those things in our immediate environment) counties, cities, major towns, lakes, rivers, mountains, parks, schools, hospitals, the whole nine yards.
We need to remember that the most difficult thing to do in life is to try to take on another person’s identity. In Africa, we have a saying that goes like this – “you cannot take on another person’s shadow.” A good example of this kind of practice is found in Liberia. In Liberia one will find individuals who go by such names like: General George Washington, Martha Washington, MacArthur, Eisenhower, Rockefeller, Robert Kennedy, Julius and Augustus Caesar. What is wrong with African names? I know that there is nothing wrong with our names because I have four of them; and they have never prevented me from going anywhere I choose to go. It is only when some individuals are confused they tend to do all the wrong things; like an African naming himself George Washington or Julius Caesar! These are all foreign names, why keep them?
Finally, as Africans, we should realize that God does not make mistakes and that He created us in His own likeness. The same case can be made regarding the five fingers on each of our hands. According to H. Boima Fahnbulleh, Jr.:
“The five fingers are not equal (they are different), but neither is any one superior to the other. Remove one and the other look abnormal. They all perform equal functions and are very much dependent on each other for the smooth functioning of the hand. In this sense, we can say that they are equal: equal in their contribution to man’s existence.”
The same is true with our African names. Being that God gave them to us, that’s all the reason way we need to keep and use them, and to continue to proudly wear other people’s identity is like taking on another person’s shadow, which is NOT POSSIBLE. With this let me close with the poem entitled, “It Wasn’t Any Choice of Mine” (written by me).
It wasn’t any choice of mine to be born a Liberian!
But I thank God to be born a Liberian
You see, I have never questioned why God ordained
That I be born in Dukor, the Land of Liberty
Out of the combination of the rising sun
And the multi color dust of the cradle of civilization.
In fact, I was born with diversity as diverse as
The four cardinal elements, Air, Water, Fire and Earth
I am all that I was created to be:
But most of all,
A Native, Country, and a Civilized person
All of these I am proud to be called!
For to be Native is to share something with the Land
And the Land is also referred to as Country
And to be Civilized, is the creative stage of our development
Which is common to all humanities
This is what makes all of us, “KU-KA TONOR.”
So, in the first place
There shouldn’t have been any fuss
About Native, Country, Kongor and Civilized
Therefore, from here on
I need to send YOU this clear message
To think you were insulting me
By calling me
Is to forget that being born a Liberian
Wasn’t any choice of mine!
It was ordained that I be born a Liberian
And I am proud of who I am
Therefore, my message again to you, my brothers and sisters
It is in our best interest
To celebrate our reunion
Share in PEACE, the LAND called Liberia
Learn to accept
And appreciate each other
Because you and I are related through the Grace of God.
So from here on
All that I ask of you, is to tell those who oppose
Our union or re-union
To hush, get out of the way or get lost
Because I’ve truly seen what division had done
To our once “Land of Liberty” and its friendly people
Therefore, if you are not for PEACE and RECONCILIATION
You need to please excuse me
I am on a mission to build a new Liberia
Where KU-KA TONOR will be our new battle cry.
For God has shown me the ultimate truth
Why He ordained that
I be born a Liberian
And to be called by all of my names –
First, by Native
And than Country
Follow by Civilized, Kongor
But most of all,
To be a Liberian in all manifestations.