To commemorate the 400 years since enslaved African people departed from West African shores and landed in the United States, Ghana declared 2019 the “Year of Return.” Hundreds of thousands of people from the African diaspora around the world went to Ghana to rebuild a lost past and connect with their roots and ancestry. I heard countless stories of people adopting new Ghanaian names that connected them to their unknown history. There was an electrifying atmosphere and I felt proud to be a Ghanaian with a Ghanaian name. My name is one of royalty and purpose. I own my name; it’s who I am and I’m proud of it.
My name is NaaDei, pronounced ‘Naa’ (like in ‘na’tural) and ‘Dei’ (as in ‘day’). These two ordinary syllables have perplexed many for my entire existence, causing much confusion, dismissal, disapproval, and negativity. When I was younger, I didn’t appreciate my name and, if I’m being honest, I wished I had an English, easy-to-pronounce name. Sadly, campaigns like My Name, My Identity didn’t exist in my childhood, so as a consequence, my sister and I literally changed what we called ourselves. That uncomfortable, constant, lengthy, arduous, and repetitious dialogue about my name was so draining that I ended up using an easier “nickname” until my late teens.
That uncomfortable, constant, lengthy, arduous, and repetitious dialogue about my name was so draining that I ended up using an easier “nickname” until my late teens.
Unsurprisingly, many people have a similar experience. Whether it’s too ethnic, too different, or too awkward, I know I’m not the only one who has shortened, changed, or abbreviated their name to make it “easier” for others. We change it because we don’t want to constantly reinforce, explain, and justify our identity. I say “we” because this happens far too often in society. Our society is diverse and multicultural, so differences should be expected and accepted. Yes, a name may sound different, but it still deserves enough respect to be pronounced correctly.
My most vivid memory in relation to my name is from my university graduation ceremony. The school asked us to write any “unusual” names phonetically on paper to make it easier for the announcer. My name phonetically is ‘Nah–Day Neek-Way’ and this is exactly what I wrote in bold black marker. As I walked up to the podium, I handed the paper over and smiled, as I was about to walk across the stage after four years of hard work. But to my dismay and embarrassment, I heard, and I quote, “Natalie Negwalski!” What? How? I was horrified! I had a million thoughts running through my mind in that millisecond but the loudest one was, “NO, NaaDei, you need to correct her!” And, so I did! Normally I’d let it slide, but not that day. With thousands of onlookers, I politely shook my head and index finger simultaneously, saying NO, please say it correctly! After three attempts, she got it, and I finally walked across the stage feeling an immense sense of pride.
Our society is diverse and multicultural, so differences should be expected and accepted. Yes, a name may sound different, but it still deserves enough respect to be pronounced correctly.
That was the first time in my life that I wouldn’t accept being called anything else but my exact name. And what made it more empowering was that several strangers of different races approached me after the ceremony either giving me high fives, hugs, or applauding what I had done, because they too knew how I felt. They shared my experience and were happy to see someone stand up unapologetically about something that was different.
While my name appears to be different, it’s not. The Ga-Dangbe tribe’s cultural norms are based on the family surname, gender, and birth order. The prefix “Naa” signifies respect and royalty and “Dei” is given to all first-born females in my family’s clan. I’m a first-born girl that can be traced back to the Neequayes in Accra from centuries-long ago, and I’m connected to all of this because of my name. These types of rich customs and traditions exist all around the world. Millions of people have different types of names with deep-rooted meanings signifying a meaningful family, culture, or legacy. My identity is part of who I am and my name connects me to my ancestors, and that is not strange.
Millions of people have different types of names with deep-rooted meanings signifying a meaningful family, culture, or legacy. My identity is part of who I am and my name connects me to my ancestors, and that is not strange.
I acknowledge that saying new names can be uncomfortable, even for me. However, if you find yourself in that predicament of saying a new name: ask how to say the name correctly, clarify if needed, apologize if you mispronounce it, make an effort to learn from your mistakes, and lastly, don’t make excuses. The old excuse of “I’m sorry, I’m just horrible with names” doesn’t cut it anymore. People should no longer dismiss their identity in an attempt to appease others. Be respectful of the millions of people with “unusual” or “strange” names. It’s not only courteous to pronounce someone’s name correctly, but it shows an effort in creating an inclusive and diverse environment.
Your name is arguably the most important thing about you because it’s the one word people use to identify you. It’s part of who you are, and that will always matter! So, to all the women and girls like me with “ethnic,” “different,” or “unique” names I say to you, be proud of your name and where it comes from. And correct them, sis! Correct them—EVERY TIME!