WHAT MY NAME MEANS TO ME

I changed my name when I was 11. It was in the summer between year 6 in primary school and year 7 in secondary school. The reason why is not something I ever talk about. I just recall one day having a discussion with my dad and agreeing that I’d go by Korkor from now on. That was the name on my passport which I’d never seen up to that point.

I didn’t even know how to spell Korkor. I remember my dad saying to me ‘Introduce yourself as Koh-koh (Ghanaians don’t pronounce the the letter ‘r’ at the end of names). All my life I had gone by the name Maame which is a common name for Ghanaian girls. Even if you don’t know someone’s name in Ghana, ‘Maame’ is the equivalent to ‘Miss’ in England. I introduced myself with the pronunciation ‘Mam-my’ to most people and then switched the pronunciation to ‘Mah-may’ when I switched primary schools to reinvent. But the spelling was the same. I was always Maame.

Korkor is a much tougher name that commands the full use of tongue as Warsan Shire would say. It forces you to think. When I meet people for the first time, I startle and leap my tongue back like I am returning to the past to ask for help from my ancestors. But I always come up short and too quiet.

Afua Hirsch gave me very specific representation in the second chapter of her book Brit-ish when she spoke about having a tough time pronouncing her name even to this day. I know from the Ashanti on my mum’s side that ‘ua’ is pronounced ‘ia’. So Afua is basically pronounced ‘Afia’. Being that it’s a common Ghanaian name, I, and I’m sure a host of non-Ghanaians who have had contact with Ghanaian people or are clued up on our naming systems, would pronounce it correctly. But considering the circles Afua frequents (mostly white, male, middle-class) I recognise that it is a privilege and a much rarer occurrence that she will come across people who will know how to pronounce it.

Korkor is a much rarer name than Afua, to the point where even Ghanaians in Britain are sometimes unfamiliar with it. Like Afua, I also have a European surname which can offset the gall of my forename. I didn’t learn what Korkor actually meant until I was about 14. One day in secondary school, a Somali girl asked if my name meant plantain (a Ghanaian girl told her it did) and I went home and asked my dad why he named me after food. My mum, overhearing my inquisition, laughed.
Ironically, in the kitchen at the time, she stood beside a basket of and she explained to me that korkor does mean plantain in her language. It’s also an interchangeable word for fair/light-skinned. When you want to describe someone as having a light complexion, you say they’re korkor.

So you named me after the complexion you’ve always wanted me to be? I thought. Growing up, I already had a colourism complex since I was the darkest out of my siblings. The fact that the name I’d opted in for as a moniker represented something as searing as skin colour felt like a cruel joke. I was dark as could be. Darker than my parents even and they lived in Ghana all their lives. Why was I named after a food that represented something I could never attain.

It took a conversation with my paternal granddad to rebut this presumption. He is the extended reason I am called Korkor (it was his mum’s middle name). His tribe – the Ada people – is where the name Korkor derives from (we are a subset of Ga-Adangme people). Korkor means second female in the Ada region. And I am the second female (I have an older sister). Since my mum is Ashanti though (and very pro, might I say), she speaks Twi . Twi is the most common language in Ghana next to English and in Twi, korkor means plantain. So to most Ghanaians, korkor means plantain.

However, naming your child Korkor alone is uncommon even in Ghana. When my granddad found out that I was using the name Korkor without a precursor, he was perplexed. I am named after his mother and she was never used the name Korkor alone.’ When you use the name Korkor, you’re supposed to employ another name like ‘Maame’ before it out of respect. However at school, I just got rid of the Korkor altogether and went by Maame.

For whatever reason, my siblings couldn’t pronounce the name Maame Korkor so they bastardised it as ‘Mama Koko’ and all of my cousins copied. To this day, my brother, sister and cousins all call me ‘Mama Koko’ (Can you imagine? Small girl like me being called Mama Koko and now at our big ages, despite knowing the correct pronunciation, still being called Mama Koko). My mum, still introduces me as Maame everywhere she goes. The Ashanti in her just won’t let it go. But my dad always corrects it as Korkor if he is in her presence when she does this.

Learning to love your name shouldn’t be a thing. It should just be. My surname is easy to pronounce and often gets mistaken for my forename because many people cannot conceptualise that my parents called me Korkor at birth. Well they’re right. Korkor is not the name I was born with. But it’s not a nickname either, it’s my real name.

My multitude of names has made me a hybrid. Depending on what name is called and what intone is employed will determine my reaction to who is addressing me. If I’m being called Korkor the way I’m most comfortable [with the wrong pronunciation i.e. a hard ‘r’], I feel respectable. Whereas, when I am being referred to as Korkor in the Ghanaian way, I feel like I’m being reprimanded. When I meet Ghanaian Brits, I let them choose which pronunciation they want to call me but secretly hope for the former. The latter feels too familial and familiar.

I actually like my full name. I like that it has a half-rhyme and it stands out and the first letter of both match. I like the meaning and how unique it is and how deep a representation I am of the Ada people. Both my brother and sister only have European names; my parents, extended family of cousins, grandparents so on and so forth also have European names with Ghanaian home names. I’m the only one that doesn’t have any European name whatsoever. So many times I am asked by other Ghanaians what my ‘English’ name is and I always say I don’t have one. Apparently this was deliberate. Before I was born, my mum considered naming me Yvette but upon my premature birth decided against an English name.

Because of the point in time I changed my name, I often feel a detachment to my previous self. This year will officially mark being called Korkor for longer than I was called Maame and it’s an interesting feeling. Looking back at old images, I feel like the girl staring back is a different person. I know for a lot of people, a name change is significant in identity e.g. marriage. Ok you chose to change your name, but why Korkor? Like I said it was a conversation I had with my dad. I never would have changed it if it wasn’t for him. And when it happened, I felt split. Because sometimes I look at old pictures of myself and don’t even recognise the girl staring back. She is Maame. But I am Korkor. And the gulf between is Ghana. But I have never set foot there. I’m from London.

None of this may seem like a big deal but for me it is. My many names bifurcated my identity. Answering to completely different sounds can play tricks on your mind. I now live in the area I was born in after moving house about 6 times over the years so I am no stranger to hearing or seeing people from my childhood who knew me as Maame and it is always the weirdest blast from the past. They are not privy to the name change because I did not have social media or kept contact to tell them. Plus it’s hard to explain because people always ask why and I refuse to explain why. It just is. I’m still the same person but different.

Funnily enough, in sixth form I met an old friend of mine whom I attended primary school with. When we were introduced, I knew exactly who she was but I wasn’t forthcoming with my recognition of her. For some reason, she complied and we literally acted like strangers meeting for the first time until a random moment, months into the school year. She randomly came up and asked me if I had ever gone by a different name; I asked her why and she said she knew a girl who looked exactly like me in primary school. I asked her what the girl’s name was and she said Maame. I then sighed and admitted it was me (dramatic I know lol).

Her reaction was priceless. It was supposed to be silent study and she kind of squealed so it drew attention. She went on to shout ‘Oh my God’ a few times before saying ‘I can’t believe it’s you!’ over and over. Apparently me leaving my first primary school was abrupt; one day I was there, next day I wasn’t. I don’t remember much about that day. My first primary school and many childhood events are pretty well locked away in a chamber of amnesia I induced for reasons I don’t remember.

I think I lost myself when I changed my name. The complete difference in tonality and frequency of this new title the latitude of my character. What was once a curious girl quickly became a shy more reserved one who seemed afraid of herself. To be fair this was partly stimulated by my moving primary schools. I went from an ethnically and religious diverse, poorly-funded, under-staffed, over-admitted comprehensive school where SATs results and uniform standards were poor, to a mostly black Catholic school where everyone was Christian and and strict rules. If my memory serves correct, I think that was the moment I began writing. Unable to express not only my name but myself, I chose paper and pen and began to scrawl in diaries before migrating to keyboards in desktops. It was ironic because although my appearance suited the main demography of the school on the outside, on the inside I never fit in.

Secondary school was supposed to be a re-brand but again, it was another leap. I was in a different borough so knew nobody. And now I had a new name. It was reinvention 2.0. I was shy and dormantly autistic (but didn’t know it at the time). I had my ups and downs as we all do and came more into my own by year 10 and 11. By the time I was in 6th form I was affirmed as Korkor. Even though I was coming into more frequent contact with people who knew me as Maame (the council, after moving my family around half a dozen times, had moved me back to the area I took my first steps – 10 minutes from the road I was born in to be exact). Besides the one aforementioned person I presented in the previous paragraph, nobody who knew about my name change asked about it. They just accepted it without question.

University posed another identity complex but that was less so about name, more so about Ghanaian-ness. I’ve always thought of myself as Ghanaian. My parents were both born and raised in Ghana, my mum leaving every once in a while to see my grandma who’d moved to Nigeria to live with my grandad who was from Nigeria. But university was an affront. I met international students who had a contemporary understanding of Africa and Ghana that eclipsed my book knowledge. I could harp on about The Big 6 and Nkrumah all I liked. I didn’t know the sense of Ghana – its rhythms and contours and tastes. All I had was hearsay and backhanded bildungsromans to go off of. Pronouncing my name as a first impression became a complex. As soon as I did it. I wasn’t Ghanaian. I was a Brit with a Ghanaian name.

Names are important to Ghanaian people so as a result are important to me. When you have a Ghanaian name and can’t speak a Ghanaian language, already you are seen as an abomination so that’s the first strike. Never having been there is the second. Not being able to pronounce your own name if the third. Throughout the years I have been called many variations of Korkor: some people (mostly white) pronounce it ‘corker’ which is really funny because corker means astonishing/excellent which I like to believe I am sometimes (lol). Friends call me Korkz. A few workplaces have insisted on calling me Coco. KK is a common abbreviation. Most of my social media accounts post-2009 have been under the pseudonym ‘doublethekor’. I know that if I have kids, I want to keep an element of Ghana in their names not for show but for meaning. Honouring your people and their backgrounds is an imperative to me but enshrining it in your name – the item people use to reference you in everyday lingo – is almost everything and more.

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