Monday, September 7, 2009

What Is In A Name?

At my mother’s inaugural, she talked about the peculiarly Ghanaian habit of having 50 names: the school name, Christian name, pet name, home name, nick name, and sometimes hidden name, all this before the surname. The school name is the name on your school’s register, the Christian name is what you get at baptism, especially true of Catholics. Your home name-what they call you at home- often a day name. Your hidden name- you don’t really hide it. Its just so deep into the arrangement that it doesn’t come up in casual introductions. It is considered your “real” name. Then comes your surname and finally your nick name. So you have Clarence John Kofi Abaka Egyir Sackey alias (SWAGGA). Add to this length our puzzling hobby of rearranging the names every so often for no particular reason. So that John Abaka Sackey, Clarence Kofi Sackey, John Egyir Sackey, Clarence Kofi Egyir Abaka Sackey are all the same person. We all laughed as she talked about the kind of confusion that this causes. I don’t know about others but I haven’t done anything about my own name puzzle. My trip to the bank this week gave me reason to remember this lecture and this time not with a chortle.

I always encourage my help to save. We open an account and they deposit however much they want in it every month. I got a new girl two months ago and last week I finally got round to taking her to the bank. As she is illiterate I had to help her fill the form. That is when I discover that the young lady I know as Maame Afia Nyarko is not called Afia at all. In fact she is not even Akan. She is actually called Fatima Iddrissu. I felt really rather betrayed. When I hired her I asked her name and she told me Maame Afia Nyarko. I assumed ‘Nyarko’ was her surname. It could as easily be her middle name. Its one of those few unisex Akan names. She did tell me she was Northern but was born and raised in Kumasi and I was content to leave it at that. So I guess it serves me right if I learn her real name only thanks to a bank form.

I’ve since been reflecting on our relations with domestic staff. Guess what? I find I don’t know the name of my father’s watchman beyond Razak. His gardener is just Divine. I know his housekeeper’s full name. But I don’t know where she lives and she’s been with them for 3 years. My gardener is Alhassan. My nanny has a guardian here in Accra whom I know. But beyond vague hand gestures and area names, I have no idea how to find her.

I don’t know that this bad behaviour is typical of Ghanaians/Ghanaians with domestic staff. I do know that it is typical of me. Usually I know the names and surnames of my help. I take a picture of them so if they ever go missing –or run away with my children- I can make an effective report. But I think now that perhaps I am not sufficiently informed about who they are.

I wonder, is this a remnant of the trusting nature that small town life has bred in all of us? Or just a lapse in vigilance and courtesy? These are after all people who come into contact with my family, my person and my food. One would expect me to have a more vigorous screening system and a bit more interest in their life stories. Whatever it is. It has to go. It is great folly indeed.

As if to drive home the lesson, she ran away only a few days later. Since my aunt had asked me the day before her great getaway if I knew she was pregnant, I have taken that to be the reason for her hasty departure. But the point it makes is this. Had she ran off while alone in the house with one of the boys, could I have found her? The answer is no. I didn’t know her real name till only a few days before. I certainly didn’t know where she went off to on her day off. The person who found her for me didn’t know her either; she was referred to him by a work colleague, on a construction site. Where would I even have begun?!

A scare - even to the foolish- should be enough. And indeed it suffices for me. Pressed as I am these days for time, I will go with Veronica soon to her aunt’s house. And when I find a replacement, I will do the same with her too. It’s a wonder and blessing, we’ve escaped tragedy for so long. But from now, it’s a new order. I am going to invent a screening and tracking system so tight the CIA will want it. It’ll take some work around here. But no worries, I’ll get around the obstacles. If ever you hear I’ve helped the Police track my former staff who stole my headgear and ran off to hide in the Wassa area, know that is wasn’t by sheer luck.