By Dr Selwyn R. Cudjoe
June 13, 2022
Akan people of Ghana, from which my lineage springs, have a naming ceremony eight or ten days after a child is born. It is called the Outdoor Ceremony, where the child is brought into the outdoors to see the light of day.
During that ceremony, the child is given a name that confers a specific identity upon him or her. Not a tear is shed if that child dies before the naming ceremony. It is as if that entity never existed, so precious is a person’s name in that society.
The Hindus also have their own naming ceremony. It is called Namkaran (also spelled Naamkaan). It is one of the most important of the 16 Hindu “samskaras” or rituals that celebrate the different stages of life. In the Vedic tradition, Namkaran (in Sanskrit “nam” = name; “karan” = create) is the formal naming ceremony performed to confer a newborn’s name, using traditional methods and following the astrological rules of naming (Subhamoy Das, “Indian Arts and Culture”.)
Namkaran is one of the most important Hindu rituals, and is held within 11 days after the birth of a child.
Among the Hindus, a Rashi name is even more important to them. Generally, the Rashi name is not an additional name like one’s middle name in Western culture. The main name is selected according to the newborn’s Rashi, which is based on the position of the planets at the time of birth. Getting one’s name according to one’s Rashi or sign is auspicious, auspiciousness being a core concept in the life-cycle ceremonies for Hindus.
Life-cycle ceremonies, therefore, are important to Hindus. They signify a person’s life and his/her moral purity. The name “Susheila” follows Kumbha Rashi (Aquarius). The letters of the alphabet associated with Kumbha are “ga”, “sa” and “sha”. Thus, the name Susheila signifies someone of good character: (su = good; sheila = character). That is the name that Camille Robinson-Regis and her PNM colleagues were making fun of when they ridiculed Kamla Persad-Bissessar.
The act of naming is serious business in African and Indian philosophical and theological thought. Therefore, it can be offensive and/or insulting when we trample upon another person’s name or “call someone out of her/his name”. So, when Camille and her friends called Kamla “out of her name”, she was justifiably insulted. After all, “what is fun for little boys is death for crapaud”.
The disdain and mutilation of Indian and African names stems mostly from ignorance rather than malice. Even a sophisticated scholar such as Windford James, a linguist, fell into that trap recently. We also ridiculed former prime minister ANR Robinson when he was named Chief Olokun Igbaro by the Ooni of Ife.
In her contretemps with Camille, Kamla erred not so much in calling upon Camille to cease distorting her name, but to counter-pose it with Camille’s European name, which Kamla called “her slave master’s name”. In doing so, Kamla appeared to have brought Camille’s name (and her culture) into contempt by elevating her Hindu name and culture, implying that Camille’s name/culture were inferior to hers.
Many Africans in the New World kept their African names in one variation or another (such as Cudjoe [Monday child], Cuffie [Friday child], Quamina [Saturday child]). In recent times, African-conscious groups such as the Nation of Islam (US) and NJAC (T&T) have cast aside their Anglo-Saxon names and opted for an “X” as their surname, or they adopted an African name. They’ve also given their children African names.
In condemning Kamla’s unfortunate correlation, the PNM Women’s League called her comment “blatant race baiting” and said that it not only mocks our “African ancestors’ survival of brutality of chattel slavery but also denigrates their advancement beyond that”. (Express, June 3)
The prime minister responded as though he were driven into a frenzy. He drew upon the whipping of Kunta Kinte, a character in Alex Haley’s Roots, until he accepted the white man’s name, to demonstrate his disdain for Kamla’s insult to his culture. He concluded: “Susheila, that’s how we got the name.” Is this an accurate rendition of how most of us got our European names? Even in this missive, the prime minister continued to pour scorn upon Kamla’s Rashi name.
Laurel Lezama-Lee Sing, a PNM junior leader, couldn’t resist the example set by her senior leaders. At the notorious PNM meeting, she thanked the lady vice-chairman (Camille) for “providing us with the full name (of Kamla)” and informed her audience: “Anytime you hear it, say, Shu Kamla, Shu Sheila from now on.”
In Legacy of Violence Caroline Elkins reminds us that a nation “is a cultural construction comprised of ideas and sentiments… Nations are groups of people who see themselves as sharing a common language, religion, sets of traditions, and history—or an identity—that binds them together in an ‘imagined community’”.
This episode suggests that we need to learn more about one another’s culture and religion if we wish to build a cohesive nation.
I do not believe Kamla denigrated African culture by saying Camille possessed “a slave name” or indulged in race baiting. However, the venom that resulted from these exchanges reveals the thin veil of distrust that covers up the turbulent underbelly of our national lives. Uncomfortably of “the castle within our skins”, we are unable to refrain from pelting big stones at one another.
This unfortunate incident highlights the need for more education of our citizenry and the imperative that we show more respect for the cultures and religions of our compatriots.
We can start this process by calling people “in their correct names”. It may help us come to terms with one aspect of our sordid historical past.