I am now used to getting quaint reactions from people, whenever I tell them my name, it does not matter if they are Igbo or not, their typical reaction is usually some kind of contorted facial exclamation, indicating surprise that even a man will bear the name, Uche. Their surprise may be as a result of their previous encounters with females who also bear the name. The issue for me has now become more interesting, especially with my partner’s name also being Uche, such that people (non-Igbo, mostly) do think we are joking when we both announce our names and introduce ourselves to them.
My interest and curiosity in the name (Uche) led me to probe deeper and, in the process, I discovered other variations. There is Uchenna, Uchechukwu, and Uchechi — which a man or woman can bear.
Igbo names like most other names (non-Igbo) have symbolic meanings. These different versions of Uche all mean the wishes or heart of God. As some people may think, Uchenna does not mean the wishes or heart of the father of the child; Nna, in this sense, means God Almighty. If it meant "the father of the child," then feminists would argue and demand for the naming of children "Uchenne" (the wishes of the mother). While there is no reason not to, I am yet to encounter or hear of anybody bearing the name "Uchenne," a task for modernists and feminists then, you may say.
My little investigation also indicates that in Igboland, certain names appear to be reserved only for males or females, while some others can be given to both a male or female child. Considering the chauvinistic nature of the Igbo society in pre-colonial times, at a time that manhood was usually associated with the detest for feminine characteristics in a man, such detestation I presume may also have been directed at men bearing women’s name (assumed female only names).
To understand the strength and magnitude of such detestation, recall Okonkwo’s character in Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, how Okonkwo drew his machete and cut off the head of Ikemefuna, a boy that calls him father. This was despite the warnings of the oracle. Okonkwo chose to disobey the gods and risk a life of exile, rather than be called a weakling like Unoka, his father.
So it may be quite interesting to know how such males who shared similar names with females fared at the time. Although the Igbo society is still predominantly chauvinistic, the correctness of giving males assumed female names and vice versa may not so much be a big issue in modern times. This is because any such demeaning distinctions and name calling will be against the spirit of current global clamour for equal opportunities between men and women, and the desire to protect both human and gender rights, including the freedom and right to be given (by parents) or called by whichever name one pleases, wishes, or inherits at birth at naming ceremonies.
In pre-colonial times, these names were favourites amongst the fathers and heads of clans: Igwe (sky, heaven, or steel — as the case may be), Igwekaala (the sky that is greater than the earth), Okonkwo (male born on Nkwo, one of the four market days) Okoro (signifying a male), Okafor (male born on Afo market day), Okorie or Okoye (male born on Orie or Oye market day) Oye and Orie are the same market days but are dialectic variations of the same word for one of the four days in an Igbo native week.
At the time, Christianity — which was later introduced by the European missionaries — hadn’t yet gained currency, and so the practice was to eulogize the Maker (Chukwu or Chi) by praising his works and creations through names.
It may be, therefore, as a result of the fear that the Igbo have of their maker or the awesomeness of his creations that informed their need for an intermediary through which they could reach out in thanks, praise, and worship of the Maker. They therefore carved representative wood figures (okpesi, alusi, ogwugwu), to which they poured libations and also sprinkled animal blood before consuming the slain animals.
The Igbo did also name their children after these wooden figures, deities and gods. In today’s Igbo society, some people still bear names such as Nwaogwugwu (son of Ogwugwu, Ogwugwu signifying a god or deity); Nwaalusi (son of Alusi, alusi meaning shrine a la Alusi Okija), etc.
I do wonder, however, if present-day events, knowledge, and religious beliefs (the Igbo are largely and predominantly Christians) have not put into question the continued usage and bearing of such names, even with their un-Christian denotations.
On their part, women at the time bore names such as Agbomma (epitome of beauty), Adaaku (a daughter born into wealth), Obiagaeli (she or he who has come to enjoy), Ugboaku (source or vehicle of wealth), etc. It may seem these names are also feminine verbs and should rightly be borne only by females. This is true to some extent especially as regards the other names I mentioned, with the exception of Obiagaeli.
In the Igbo language, o bia ga-eli could mean "he or she who has come to enjoy"; but, surprisingly the name appears to be exclusive to females, and so are the other later-day favourites amongst women; such names as Ifeoma (good omen), Chinyere (God’s gift), Ngozi (blessing) and Amarachukwu (God’s grace). With these latter names, there are still lots of controversies over who should or who should not bear them. Current preference and practice are for women to bear them although there are few males who bear the names; but, rightly, there is no reason why males should not bear such names.
There seems therefore to be lots of unresolved discrepancies and controversies surrounding Igbo names. These issues border heavily on gender rights, masculinity, and femininity. At the moment, there is no serious or concerted effort at a resolution by Igbo scholars. This, I think, is sad as the apparent confusion on the rightness or wrongness in a child’s name could be carried into the next generation.