Feature Article of Thursday, 8 October 2015

Columnist: Kwarteng, Francis

Nkrumah’s Name & Birthdate Are Not Set In Moses’ Tablets Of Stone 1


In his acclaimed autobiography “Ghana: The Autobiography of Kwame Nkrumah,” an important piece of canonized literary work ranked among “Africa’s 100 Best Books of the 20th Century” by the Pan-African Booksellers Association, Book Development Councils, African Writers’ Associations, Library Associations and African Publishers Network, and launched on February 18, 2002, Nkrumah set out to make sense of certain aspects of his personal and family demographics. This included questions of competing dates of birth and name change among others. He did this by providing insights into alternative theories. Among these was one explanation his mother gave him—which made 1912 his birthdate. This is set against the background that his parents were illiterate.

Plus, if we understand this fact and also acknowledge the lack of official recording of birthdates, a general practice in those days, then it becomes difficult to see why those who hate Nkrumah will capitalize on common discrepancies in personal and family demographics peculiar to the era, and for the most part, attempt to explain those discrepancies rigidly from the standpoint of the age of technology and of the modern era of the relative spread of literacy, all this in spite of the relative spread of functional illiteracy. Perhaps it is not widely known that enforcement of registering births with government bureaucracies in the UK, for instance, probably began in the early days of the second half of the nineteen century. Birth registration was introduced into the Gold Coast in 1912 (see the website of the Births and Deaths Registry). Some Gold Coast families with education and non-literate persons who received their baptism in churches were fortunate enough to record or have their birthdates recorded, as was the case in Nkrumah. Not every family was so lucky.

Having said this, let us look at two of these seeming demographic discrepancies, Nkrumah’s birthdate and name change:

Kofi Ngolomah, Nkrumah’s father, named his son Francis Kofi Nwia Ngolomah. According to one of Bankole Timothy’s biographical statements on Nkrumah, a view Dr. Kwame Botwe-Asamoah seconds, Kofi Ngolomah named his son after a prominent relative, Kofi Nwia, hence Kofi, meaning “a Friday-born male” (see Bankole’s “Kwame Nkrumah: His Rise to Power” and Dr. Botwe-Asamoah’s “Kwame Nkrumah’s Politico-Cultural Thought and Politics”). This does not necessarily mean Nkrumah was born on Friday (This is a non-issue anyway). Nor does the name Nkrumah (Nkróma/Ákron), which otherwise means “ninth-born” or enkron/nkron (9) in Twi, necessarily connote he was his Father’s ninth-born.

On the other hand, he could have equally been named Baako since he was the first-born or only child of his mother. In principle, the names Manu (mmienu, 2), Mansah/Mensah (mmeensa, 3), Anum (num/anum, 5), Nsiah (nsia/ensia, 6), Awotie/Awotwe (nwotwe, 8), Badu/Baidoo (edu/du, 10), etc., generally follow the same naming logic, in that they can appear as surnames or otherwise (those interested in a detailed scholarly discussion on the typology and sociocultural aspects of Akan names should see Kofi Agyekum’s paper “The Sociolinguistic of Akan Personal Names,” Nordic Journal of African Studies 15 (2): 206-235 (2006)).

Of course, the Ghanaian cultural environment provides several examples of this nominal phenomenon, after all not every ninth-born is called or named Nkrumah in Ghana. One example that easily comes to mind is the name Kofi Annan. The name “Annan” (or Anané) in Kofi Annan’s name means “four”—and by extension—“fourth-born.” Yet Annan is also his father’s surname (Henry Reginald Annan). Are Kofi Annan and his father both the “fourth-borns” of their respective parents? Or that Kofi Annan assumed his father’s surname as a customary meme? A Time Magazine profile of Kofi Annan that this author read some years back made “Annan” a word of Scottish origination or derivation, Celtic for short (see Joshua Cooper Ramo’s “The Five Virtues of Kofi Annan,” Time Magazine, Vol. 156, No. 10, September 4, 2000). As a matter of fact the word “Annan,” or something sounding like it, say the Annag or Anang People of Southeast Nigeria, appears in various orthographic forms around the world.

But isn’t it a fact that Nkrumah had every right to change his name as and when he had wished, as Molefi Kete Asante (Arthur Lee Smith, Jr.), Kwame Toure (Stokely Carmichael), Bill Clinton (William Jefferson Blythe 111. Clinton was names after his stepfather Roger Clinton, Sr.), Ama Mazama (Marie-Josée Cérol)…have all done? Of course he did, and exercised that right accordingly. The fact is that he did not change his name apart from dropping his first name, Francis—with Nkrumah being an orthographic Akan version of Ngolomah—Lee Kuan Yew later dropped his first name Harry for political reasons (readers may want to read more about Hanyu Pinyin and what it means in terms of Lee Kuan Yew’s surname “Lee” and “Li.”). That is, other than these basic facts, we should point out that the orthography of language can and do change from one language to another through such mechanisms as anglicization (anglification), indoctrination (via foreign religions as happened in Africa) and colonialism. Akwasi Ofori notes in his book “Recovering Storytelling for Ghahaian Preaching”:

“The early European missionaries associated African names with paganism. Therefore new converts were given anglicized names to depict their new identity as Christians. This area has been a source of great contention since. In 1888 the Wesleyan missionaries offered to train some native Ghanaian coverts in English colleges. These included John Mensah Sarbah, George Ferguson, Thomas Hutton Mills, and S.R.B. Solomon. The last dropped his anglicized name S.R.B. Solomon for the indigenous name Attoh Ahuma upon his return to Ghana.”

This was what happened to Nkrumah when he was given the name Francis at baptism. But, if we may add, the sort of anglicization we are talking about does not pertain to the nominal foreignzation of natives per se. Rather we are talking about morphology and spelling, where the Latin (Roman or English) alphabet is employed to transcribe, transliterate and translate native tongues. Few good examples are Ngolomah versus Nkrumah, Mao Zedong versus Mao Tse-tung, Khadaffi versus Qaddafi, Peking versus Beijing. Do “Ze” and “Tse” sound the same in English as they appear in Mandarin? Aside that, it may not be obvious to the layperson what impact or role, if any, guttural constants such as “k” and “g” in the English language may have had on the orthographic overlap between Ngolomah to Nkrumah as we move from one Akan tongue to the other—that is, if we can safely assume the latter’s presumed coinage did not directly come from the number 9, nkron or enkron.

Further, it is not as if Nkrumah’s father was the only one in history to bear that name, Ngolomah, now at the center of ideological controversy. Not too long ago in 1997, for instance, NPP’s Freddie Blay, himself an Nzema and ex-MP for Ellembele, joined the Chief of Esiama with the stool name, Nana Kaku Ngolomah, and the people of Esiama to celebrate the Kundum Festival (“Esiama Celebrates Kundum Festival,” Ghanaweb, Oct., 31, 1997). And then, of course, there is also the name Nana Kaku Ngroroma from the Nzema area, more specifically Ellembelle District of the Western Region, which had been mentioned in connection with a land dispute (“Esiama Royal Chase Ellembelle DCE,” Daily Guide, May 13, 2013; see Modernghana too. For readers’ information, Ghanaweb mistakenly carried the same story under the title “Sex Scandal Pops Up At DCE Vetting”).

Nana Kaku Ngolomah and Nana Kaku Ngroroma 111? At this point we can only infer that “Ngolomah” and “Ngroroma” may be the same. Could “Nkrumah” have been an anglicized version of “Ngolomah” given the shifting orthographic character of the various Akan tongues? This is not a farfetched possibility! What about Anton Wilhelm Amo versus Anthony William Amo, a name given to one of Africa’s greatest thinkers, another Nzema? We are referring to Anton versus Anthony (Emphsis: t-glottalization versus digraph/th-fronting “th”) and Wilhelm versus William? Botwe versus Botchwey? Boakye versus Boachie? Koranteng versus Kwarteng? Okuampa versus Okoampa? Badu versus Baidoo? Bonsu versus Bonsoe? The point is that even within European languages a similar phenomenon takes place. Examples: Germanic languages (English “William” versus German “Wilhelm”); Romance languages (the same William becomes “Guilherme” in Portuguese, Guillaume in French, Guglielmo in Italian, Guillermo in Spanish…)

Therefore a methodology of comparative assessment enriches the discussion in that Ngolomah and Nkrumah can be usefully discussed outside the larger context of Akan orthography and of the borrowed instrument of anglicized orthography. Neither can concepts such as etymological fallacy and semantic bleaching, possibly, provide useful insights into the dilemmatic origination of Nkrumah from Ngolomah. As a result, those who do not see Ngolomah and Nkrumah as orthographic cognates from the viewpoint of Akan orthography, given that they do not have all the available facts from history, sociolinguistics, and anthropology to underwrite an extrapolative nominal juxtaposition with our theories, besides what Nkrumah himself told us in his autobiography, are engaged in a self-serving deception and methodological dislocation. What we do know is that historical consciousness, cultural awareness (location), racism, colonialism, and extensive reading may have all contributed to Nkrumah’s positive transformation. This is not to say he did not seek his mother’s opinions on those seeming discrepancies about his personal demographics. It is rather to say Nkrumah too very close to his mother as to defer seeming problematic questions about his personal and family demographics to uninformed conjectures and groundless guestimates.

The man Nkrumah was smarter than that. Certainly parents are the best historians when it is a question of the personal details of their children. And there is no indication in any of his writings, as far as our reading of his corpus of works is concerned, of his mother ever raising objections to his re-interpretation of his personal and family demographics. Still it is extremely important if we had known, or been privy, to all the facts in respect of Nkrumah’s choice of Kwame over Kofi as his first name, because September 21, 1909 did not fall on Friday. Only September 18, 1909, his other birthdate, did fall on Saturday. In his autobiography he recalled his mother telling him of being born on a “mid-day on a Saturday in mid-September.” Now, given that the month September has a total of 30 days and that in 1909 four days—4, 11, 18 and 25—fell on Saturday, what sense can we make out of Nkrumah’s choice of September 18, 1909 as his birthdate?

It turns out that 6 other dates—13, 14, 15, 16, 17, and 18—divide the September 1909 calendar into two equal halves, 12 dates on each side). Once again, given that his mother said he was born in “mid-September” and further, given that the 4th, 11th and 25th of September, three of the four dates that fell on Saturday, the obvious choice becomes September 18. We are, on the other hand, also given to understand that Nkrumah undertook his chronological extrapolation from the standpoint of a Roman Catholic Priest, who had baptized him and consequently recorded his official birthdate as September 21, 1909, a Tuesday. But the latter date, apart from not coinciding with Saturday, also fell outside the immediate range of Nkrumah’s mother’s “mid-September,” which we assume to be the 13th, 14th, 15th, 16th, 17th, and 18th. This could be why Nkrumah may have suggested in his autobiography that the Priest’s ballpark figure in respect of his birthdate, September 21, 1909, was closer to his “actual date of my birth.”

Also, we take the compound word “mid-September” to be a loose timeframe somewhat open to a framework of “rigid” interpretation, hence our titular allusion to Moses’ tablets of stone. This reference frame is both literal and figurative, and our choice of the word “rigid” derives from a mode of interpretation based on a perceived degree or sense of statistical certainty, the latter itself permissible within a critical suite of working assumptions some of which we have identified in this essay. Yet a number of other fascinating theories exist as to why Nkrumah may have chosen Kwame over Kofi. One writer notes: “His [Nkrumah’s] reason for changing from Kofi to Kwame is difficult to explain, but I can speculate. Friday is a holy among most Akan groups, and one would assume that its sacredness would be attractive to Nkrumah. Is it because God is addressed as Kwame in Akan traditional religions?” (see Ebenezer O. Addo’s book “Kwame Nkrumah: A Case Study of Religion and Politics in Ghana”).

Then, of course, application or adoption of theophoric names is common among certain ethnic groups in Africa including Akans, as Molefi Kete Asante, Ama Mazama et al. show in their edited volume, “Encyclopedia of African Religion.” They write: “Most important, it is held that children share some of the qualities of the specific deity that presides over the universe on that particular day of their birth…In Ghana, another type of theophoric name is known as ‘cosmological names.’ Among the Asante and Fante, children receive their names according to the day of their birth and, this, carry on the character of the spirit that presides over the cosmos on that particular day. Africa has a longstanding tradition of theophoric names, by which parents give to their children that express their relationship with God and their desire to see children grow in virtues…”

They add: “Thus, children born on Friday, like UN Secretary General Annan, are called Kofi (with Efua as the female version) and those born on Saturday like the legendary president Kwame Nkrumah are called Kwame or Kwamena (with Ama as the female version)…” Agyekum calls these theophoric names “kradin” or “souls name” (see “The Sociolinguistic of Akan Personal Names”). Yet, while we agree with these views in principle on the one hand, we are not aware on the other hand where Nkrumah specifically invoked any of these views as justification for choosing Kwame over Kofi. Neither are we implying Asante and his colleagues are making this claim—far from it. Nonetheless, we want readers to consider these facts when assessing the personal and family demographics of Nkrumah, in addition to such concepts as anglicization, Akan orthography and culture and customs and traditions, time and place, and what have you.

Anglicization, a very important concept, continues into the 21st century. For instance, Asians and Europeans took advantage of anglicization to underwrite their assimilation, avoid discrimination, resist the plague of otherism, etc., in colonial and postcolonial America. European names such as Schmitz or Schmidt became anglicized to Smith in America! The following represent a few examples of the anglicization mechanism as it relates to Akan names and orthography in the Americas during the era of slavery and colonialism (see “Slave Names and Naming in Barbados, 1650-1830,” The William and Mary Quarterly, Third Series, Vol. 53, No. 4, (Oct., 1996), p. 685-728). In Barbados and some parts of the Americas during the era of slavery, for instance:

Kobina became Quobina/Cubenah/Cubbenah/Cubbenah/Cobbennah/Cobenah/Cobbino.

Kofi became Caffi/Cuffey/Quoffey.

Kwamina became Quamin/Quamina/Quamingo/Quaminah/Quamino.

In conclusion, the orthographic similarity between Ngolomah and Nkrumah is not that much different from Cudjoe (Kudjoe) and Kojo, “a Monday-born male.” But what can we say about Cudjoe (Kudjoe), Kojo, and Joojo (Jojo)? More specifically, what can exactly be said about the orthographic makeups of Cudjoe and Jojo compare (“Cu” and “Jo,” the first two letters of each name)? Finally, how do Ato and Kwame, both meaning “a Saturday-born male,” and Yaw and Ekow (Kwaw, Quaw, Yao, Kow), both meaning “a Thursday-born male,” compare orthographically and phonetically? Evidently, Ngolomah and Nkrumah rather share a stronger orthographical likeness between them than between Cudjoe and Jojo, between Yaw and Ekow, etc., with particular emphasis on the two words’ [Ngolomah and Nkrumah] similar phonetic spelling.

Look forward to Part 2.