“The best way to keep something intact is learning z proper WORD SOUND POWER in every word.” Teddy Ahadoo, Ethiopian musician
There is something about cold weather that triggers incubation and introspection. Ironically, I am writing this column from sunny but chilling 5 degree Celsius Florida where, if it were warm I may be basking in the sun or frolicking by the sea, instead I am browsing facebook and discharging the duties I came for, as I plan my return home to Addis Abeba. Yes! I did it! Today is the first day of my part in a campaign to start pronouncing and spelling my city of residence properly. As many of us ‘English is my first language’ speakers do, I have justified the butchering of my beloved city calling it Addis Ababa cuz ‘that’s what everyone says’. Well, to reflect on my Jamaican grandmother’s question, “If everyone jumped off a bridge, would you…”.
My junior sister from another mother, Meron, kindly posted the following on facebook, “It always irks me when I see my city s name butchered it s Addis Abeba not Addis Ababa!!! Who wants to start a petition with me to fix our name! We can ask Dr Abiy! As of right now we r New Father and not New Flower! Just saying!” Immediately, I fessed up and vowed to pronounce and spell it correctly. However, not everyone thinks the pronunciation or spelling matters as a well known western born singer whom I will not name, disapproved vehemently, saying amongst other questionable comments, “Unless there is harm being done I think its purely not that important.” WHAT???!!!
This exchange triggered a healthy and respectful debate online and in my mind as to the art and importance of naming. As a mother of ten with all Ethiopian/African names I spent the 80’s and 90’s using mispronunciation as a teachable moment with educators, friends and society in general. I used it talk about pronunciation, the origins of their name, meanings and significance of naming in Africa. However, erring on the side of caution, for the sake of this column, and to satisfy the geek in me, I did some research. According to MIT’s The Art of Naming by Michael Ohl, “Naming is the necessary next step after discovery; it is through the naming of species that we perceive and understand nature.” Hmmm. Further, Malawi born scholar, Sitinga Kachipande, blogged in The Butchering of African Names for Voice of Africa, “Africa has been treated with so much indifference over the years that a type of mental block emerges when Western journalists, talk show hosts, African country ‘experts’, and the general public are confronted with the African name. Africa is still very much the exotic ‘other’ in popular Western imagination. Therefore, names associated with Africa are perceived as somehow more exotic and different than other foreign names – leading to the perception that they are more so difficult to pronounce for Westerners. Consequently, it has become even more acceptable to accept the mispronunciation of African names.”
All corners on the continent hold naming near and dear, for instance, my ancestral land of Ghana names according to the day you are born. I am Abena, Tuesday born. In the art world artists also title their works to relay their inspiration, vision or perspective that will out live even the artist. These titles are incredibly significant and can even influence the sale of a piece or how viewers connect, or not with the work. In some cases, artists even choose not to title works, leaving it to the viewers to go deep and see what they will on their own terms. In some cases this results in deep discussion and debate as to what the title should or should not be and why not title it in the first place. It many times makes the unseasoned viewer uncomfortable as they are seeking context and hints to guide them through the journey of artists’ mind. I personally find both appropriate in art.
In the case of Addis Abeba, I am partial to the fact that, according to history the legendary Empress Taitu, beloved wife of Emperor Menelik II, chose this name after descending from cold and windy Entoto Mountain to the hot springs of FinFine to find what she described and named, Addis Abeba, beautiful flower. So in honor of this amazing Empress, who with a wink and a nod we can say established the capital for the sake of spa like comfort, let us make it a 2019 New Year’s resolution to get it right! I therefore close with my junior brother from another mother, well traveled son of a scholar and Pan African musician Teddy Ahadoo, “The best way to keep something intact is learning z proper WORD SOUND POWER in every word.”
Dr. Desta Meghoo is a Jamaican born
Creative Consultant, Curator and cultural promoter based in Ethiopia since 2005. She also serves as Liaison to the AU for the Ghana based, Diaspora