Farooq Kperogi: ‘I Used to Think “Bianca” and “Biafra” Were Igbo Words!’

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Don’t laugh too hard at my ignorance, but until fairly recently, I used to think Bianca was an Igbo name and thought any non-Igbo person who bore the name did so out of (benign) appellative appropriation—such as many Black Americans who bear African names.

Don’t blame me: the first person I ever knew to bear the name was Bianca Onoh Ojukwu, the former beauty queen who became former Biafra warlord Emeka Ojukwu’s wife. Through the logic of false attraction, I thought the “bia” in Bianca was derived from the Igbo “bia” that means “come.”

This notion was congealed in my mind because “bia” is probably Igbo language’s single most recognized word to other non-Igbo Nigerians. “Bia” is lexically frozen in my imagination in the trinitarian alternative indigenous name for Nigeria called WAZOBIA, which is formed from the Yoruba “wa,” the Hausa “zo” and the Igbo “bia,” which all mean “come” in English.

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In addition, Biafra, the name Igbo people chose for their homeland when they seceded from Nigeria and which new secessionists still cherish and embrace, begins with “bia.” In fact, an Igbo friend and classmate of mine in high school by the name of John Chukwu convinced me that “Biafra” was short for “bia fara,” which he said literally meant “come take” in Igbo.

You can imagine my shock when I discovered that even Biafra that I’d invoked as the lexical evidence for associating “Igboness” to the name Bianca and which my friend told me meant “come take,” isn’t even an Igbo word! It’s a Portuguese word—like Lagos is, by the way.

Well, maybe it’s incorrect to say Biafra is a Portuguese word since it really doesn’t mean anything in Portuguese—like Lagos does in the language. (Lagos is the Portuguese word for lagoon.) We do know, however, that Biafra was singlehandedly invented by Portuguese explorers and cartographers to refer to “the Gulf of Guinea stretching from the Niger River delta to northern Gabon.”

But why would people want to escape an odious colonial name like “Nigeria” for another colonial exonym like “Biafra”? If Biafra would be an ethno-state, what’s hard about coming up with an Igbo name for it? Are we that mentally damaged by colonial subjugation that we can’t even name ourselves by our names in our dream ethno-states?

Back to Bianca. I learned that Bianca is actually an Italian name that means “white.” How interesting! If I had taken literature in high school, I probably would have encountered the name in Shakespeare’s “Othello” and “The Taming of the Shrew.”

*Kperogi is a US-based Nigerian academic

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