Extract from Brit(ish) by Afua Hirsch, published by Vintage on 15 October 2018, RRP $22.99. Hear Afua speak at the upcoming Antidote talk End of Empire.
I cannot pronounce my name.
I know it looks simple. Afua. Four letters, two syllables, almost a palindrome, so nearly a simple word. It should be my most uncomplicated label, the easiest description of myself. But instead, it has always been a word steeped in mystery and confusion, which makes encounters with new people fraught with potential strife. Each of its four, innocent- seeming letters has its demons. The ‘A’ is really more of an ‘E’. Not the way ‘E’ sounds in ‘eating’ or ‘email’, but more of an ‘eh’, like in ‘elephant’ or ‘exercise’. The teeth are meant to linger on the ‘f’, hovering over the lips for a split second too long. The ‘ua’ is like ‘wah’, not ‘oooa’. The word as a whole needs to be said in such a sing- song, musical manner, descending gently at the end, that I sometimes think it simply cannot be learned.
“Thirty- five years into bearing this name, I have failed to master it.”
Thirty- five years into bearing this name, I have failed to master it. In this, I am not alone. One of the less often appreciated consequences of Ghana’s five centuries of mingling its people, and economic fate, with people from the British Isles, is that Britain is now littered with people like me; Ghanaians – many high profile – who either mispronounce their own names, or have given into other people doing it for them. There is Paul Boateng, once the most senior black politician in Western Europe when he was chief secretary to the Treasury under Tony Blair, who seems to have resigned himself to his name, which should be pronounced ‘ Bo- waat- eng’, being changed to ‘ B- oh- teng’. Kwasi Kwarteng, permanent private secretary to the House of Lords, introduces himself as ‘Kwaaasi’, when, like my name, the ‘a’ in Kwasi should be pronounced more like an ‘e’ – ‘Kwesi’ – with, again like my name, a little sing- song rhythm from the first syllable to the second. And, on the world stage, there is Kofi Annan, former secretary general 30 BRIT(ISH) of the United Nations, whose name should be pronounced ‘Ko e’, but who settles for ‘ Koh- fey’, and seems to have done so all his life.
Simcha Jacobovici, Afua Hirsch and Samuel L. Jackson in Epix' television series Enslaved. Image: Epix
When it comes to identity, names matter. When my father’s father, a Jewish teenager in Berlin, boarded a train in 1938 that would carry him out of Nazi Germany, to safety in Britain, the first thing he did was change his name. ‘Hans’ became ‘John’, and with it, he sought to recraft his identity into something British. ‘Hans’ was buried forever, along with the blissful ignorance of not knowing what it’s like to bear a heritage that is grounds, all on its own, to be put to death. When my daughter was born, we were not allowed to call her by name until the eighth day, until a gathering of clans could be organised – according to the Akan custom of Ghana – and herded to my parents’ house in Wimbledon, wearing cloth and bearing traditions, so that her spirit could be fixed properly in time, place and title. And when she was finally allowed a name, there had to be five of them.
“ Names can do that; they plant a seed that influences how your sense of self will grow, and what it will become.”
My parents named me Afua – which means girl born on Friday – to give me, the half- white, half- black, fully confused child, a connection to my mother’s ancestral land and the practices of the Akan, Ghana’s largest ethnic group, and the Twi (pronounced tchwree) language they speak. I thank my parents for this now; I think it worked. Names can do that; they plant a seed that influences how your sense of self will grow, and what it will become.
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