My wife, Tracy, is writing a book set in the town of Kano

My wife, Tracy, is writing a book set in the town of Kano

Postby fw12 » Mon Aug 07, 2006 10:29 pm

Jon Carroll

My wife, Tracy, is writing a book set in the town of Kano in northern Nigeria. The story concerns a woman in a polygamous Islamic marriage and the complications that ensue when her husband takes a co-wife. (It's about a lot of other stuff, too, but that's one thread.) Tracy spent a lot of time in Kano, but she's also done a lot of research. As you might imagine, books about Kano and Hausa culture are not easy to find, but she's found them anyway.

We have "The Virtuous Woman" by Zaynab Alkali, a teenage romance published by Longman Nigeria; "Milestones" by Sayyid Qutb, a book of Quranic exegesis published by Islamic Book Service; "The Marabout & the Muse: New Approaches to Islam in African Culture," an anthology edited by Kenneth W. Harrow, which began life as the "Property of Cuyahoga Public Library, Parma, Ohio"; "Where I Stand," by Sheikh Abubakar Gumi, a book about where the sheikh stands; "Yoruba Girl Dancing" by Simi Bedford, a Penguin paperback; and "Hausa Sayings and Folklore," a reprint of a 1912 book by anthropologist Roland S. Fletcher; and about 100 more volumes on similar topics.

(I am reciting this litany of titles because it makes me happy. Pick a topic, any topic, and there are more books on it than you can possibly imagine. The treasure house of human knowledge is vast indeed; I only hope we don't lose the keys.)

I was paging through the last-named book one day when I happened on the section about proper names. Here's a bit of it, 1912 syntax and vocabulary intact: "Yayan wabi, that is, children born after the death in infancy of two or more brothers or sisters, are given special names which reveal this fact and are thought to protect their owners from a similar untimely fate. (The names) are chosen because of their association with Koranic or traditional stories. ... The masculine name tanko means the bearer of it was preceded by two or more girls; and similarly to a girl born after two or more boys the name kandi is given."

I have no idea whether those customs still apply today -- or indeed, whether they ever did. Anthropologists sometimes get it wrong, in part because it's so much fun to lie to anthropologists. But let's say it's right. Note that the naming traditions assume both high infant mortality and very large families, the latter being something of an antidote to the former.

Note also how pallid and boring our naming customs are compared to those of the Hausa. Some of us can't even be said to have a custom at all; people just name kids after whatever is on their minds that day, or whatever sounds pretty, or whoever scored the touchdown that won the game. But names that describe the circumstance of the birth of the bearer would be pretty cool. It would be a nice way to start a conversation too.

"Hello, my name is Randy."

"Oh, I'm so sorry. I had a brother who was in that same earthquake."

People born during the administrations of Republican presidents could have the suffix "urp," thus: Rachel-urp, Alice-urp, even Wyatt-urp. Those born in Democratic administrations could have the suffix "awk," thus: Ronnie-awk, Jason-awk and Sandor-awk. People born as the result of an unfortunate collision between a weekend professional conference and a snowstorm could have names that included the phrase "uh-oh." People born after their parents had been trying forever and had almost given up could have the suffix "-gift."

"Hello, my name is Benson-gift."

"And I bet you're a little charmer, too."

Parents who have ambitions for their children could include the word "Doctor" in their names. "This is my son, Doctor Bob Takehashi. Do you like his booties?" I think "billionaire" would be nice too -- "this is Billionaire Susan Anderson. Sorry about the smell." And the media has a host of titles that it invariably links to certain names. "Consumer advocate" is a good one; there's also "longtime gadfly," "controversial artist," "former porn star" and "deposed dictator." OK, maybe not.

Names might also indicate aspects of your family history. The media epithet "much married" would be descriptive -- and an interesting warning to prospective spouses. Another choice could be "clinically depressed." It would be reverse word magic -- if you name a kid "Clinically Depressed Tortelli," you can ward off evil brain chemicals, although he'd have to put up with everyone asking, "How do you feel today?"

In Hausa culture, there are also secret names, whispered into the baby's ear shortly after birth. These names are kept as secret as possible. I think it would be cool to think up a secret name for a kid. Call her "Elizabeth," but whisper into her ear: "She-who-can-tame-lions." Oh, I like it.

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fw12
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