Names on the move: Ghanaian names in the Diaspora

I am one of Ingrid and Kimie’s PhD students. My research deals with second language learning and African resettlement in Australia. For my first guest blog, I would like to reflect on family formation and community building in the Diaspora.

A Canadian couple of Ghanaian origin was visiting Australia in November 2001. Their first stop was Brisbane. Having escaped the chill of the northern hemisphere, they enjoyed every bit of their week’s stay there and were looking forward to an even better time in Sydney. Their dream turned nightmarish when accommodation booked online fell way short of the standard shown in the brochure, and the area surrounding the hotel boasted iron bars in windows and a sea of graffiti greeted them as they made their way in the rental car. Feeling unsafe and unable to sleep that night, they decided to look up listings in the White Pages for Ghanaian names. They found Tetteh. And that is how I came to receive a telephone call late that night almost nine years ago.

They introduced themselves with their first (Anglo) names. The woman’s name turned out to be the same as my mother’s, Comfort. Intrigued, I asked her “ofai nε mεni dji ogbεi diεntsε?” [“Please what is your real/clan name?”] She hesitated and said “moko moko biko mi nεkε sane dan. Atso mi Komle, aankpa Komle.” [“Nobody has ever asked me this before. My name is Komle.”] The same clan name as that of my late sister-in-law!

The reason I had asked her for her clan name can be traced back to my first migration experience when I was eight years old. My family moved from Accra to Koforidua because of my father’s work. In our socialization in this new setting and other regions in Ghana that dad worked in, I got to observe my parents trace the family backgrounds of Ga people introduced to them through clan names, surnames and siblings’ names: “Mεni shia mli odjε?” [“Which house do you come from?”] “Mεni dji ogbεi diεntsε?” [“What is your real/clan name?”] “Mεni dji onyεmi mεi agbεi?” [“What are the names of your siblings?”] I learnt that through a person’s family name and/or their clan name their heritage and their history is preserved. This means also that families like ours living outside their hometown are able to link their kin who have settled in similar parts of the country. Many were the families and communities we forged out of these links as migrants!

As an adult on that night in Sydney many years later, we traced the family’s roots of our surprise callers to the same roots as my husband’s. We welcomed them into our home and hosted them for the remainder of their stay in Sydney. To both of them we became mi nyεmi yoo, mi nyεmi nuu wo bii [my sister, my brother and our children]. And to us and our children they became “auntie” and “uncle”. I don’t know why of all the Ghanaian names listed in the Sydney White Pages, it had to be ours that they found and why auntie bears the name of two very important people in my family’s history. What I do know is that on that fateful day a transnational family was born with links that go back in time and space and that criss-cross four continents – North America, Africa, Australia and even Europe – I had stayed with my sister-in-law and her husband in Italy during my migrant application process to Australia in 1992. Last month, I finally got to visit auntie and uncle in their home in Canada – as a sidetrip after attending AAAL in Atlanta!

What does this story tell us about language in transnational contexts? Is a name simply what people call you and what you respond to or is there something more to a name? The age-old question of “what’s in a name?” with a twist: names on the move and how they provide links in a world characterized by global (people) flows!

For Ga people, the clan name together with the person’s surname is usually traceable to a particular tsεmεi awe [fathers’ home] thus linking people to their roots. This is useful particularly for future generations born in Diasporas who go back to trace their lineage and unite with kin. As well as helping to forge family and community links, this system of naming also ensures that by checking on family backgrounds, relatives on the move do not end up marrying each other.

Thus, for Ghanaians in the Diaspora and for Ga people who seek to enjoy links with their community of origin, names provide one way of identifying and forging such links. There is an interconnectedness of lives that is embedded in names, which provide for a redefinition of family and which is worth exploring to understand community formation in lesser known linguistic and immigrant groups.

Author Vera Williams Tetteh

More posts by Vera Williams Tetteh
  • Nii Amu

    Interesting. Will forward you an article I’m just about to finish. It is related to what you have written.
    Few corrections though; ofaine is one word. The word is actually mor ko mor ko ( using as inverse c as or) eg na mor ba bie? who came here. The word is not mo. The same applies to nor ko. It is not noko eg. Na mor nor ni? Who’s is it? So who = mor, it or a thing = nor.
    In new Ga concepts the hybrid letters dj or dz to mean j is no loner used. J=J. So your word should be ji instead of dji. No need for a silent d.
    Onyemimei is one word. However nyemi yoo and nyemi nuu are two words as you wrote it. I’m sure you know why.

    Free Ga tutorial for a pretending Grandma, thanks to Aakai and husband.

  • Kimie Takahashi

    Thanks for sharing this amazing story about (global) community formation through names!

  • Kylie

    Brilliant blog. It makes me envy that you can trace your heritage so easily. I’m pleased now we gave our son a Ga middle name, especially as he’ll be growing up in a different culture.

  • Meredith Izon

    Hey Vera –
    Some wonderfully intriguing insights you’ve offered in this beautifully told story. It does put an interesting spin on global flows.

  • Britta Schneider

    This is really fascinating!

  • Vahid

    Dear Vera,

    Thanks for the nice post.
    It is interesting to note that, in my country (IRAN), too, some family names reveal a lot of information about the specific profession the holders of that specific family name have, from way back, taken in order to make a living. For instance, in Persian my family name has, roughly speaking, two meanings: a. Educating b. Shaping.
    Accordingly, my grandfather and his predecessors’ main profession was “making silver wares”. In other words, they used to professionally “shape” silver into different shapes and sizes for the customers. To be more specific, at least in the city where I live, everyone would immediately guess the main profession the majority of the people with “Parvaresh” as their family name have chosen. And this is exactly why many of my students get shocked when they see that their teacher is a Parvaresh!!! They will ask themselves why our teacher has quit his family-related lucrative job and has become a language teacher!!!

    Health & Peace,

  • This is very informative. A good starting point for those Ghanaians who have always thought about tracing their family roots but did not know how.It is important to note that in Ghana everybody’s name is part of a jig-saw puzzle. Everyone is linked to the next person through a complicated family network. Good job, Vera.

    Kwabena, New Jersey,USA

  • Jenny Zhang

    Hi, Vera, many thanks for sharing this intriguing naming story with us all. Isn’t it amazing that Ghanaian diasporas who are scattered over the world came to meet by tracing common family/clan names. It struck me that the furthest distance is never geographic distance.
    Similar to Ghana, in China, a person’s family name carries a lot message of his/her heritage and history. Traditionally, it was considered taboo to marry someone with the same family name, even if there is no direct relationship between those concerned, though in recent decades this has no longer been frowned upon. In some Chinese families, one of the two characters in the given name is shared by all members of a generation. However, generational names are rarely seen in modern Chinese urban society (one-child policy being one reason). Interestingly, the longest family tree in the world today is that of the Chinese philosopher and educator Confucius (551 BC-479 BC), and he is the descendant of King Tang (1675 BC-1646 BC). The tree spans more than 80 generations, and includes more than 2 million members. Some 1.3 million living members of the Confucius family are scattered around the world today.

    PS: I’m very happy to be the witness of your meeting with your transnational family in Canada.