In Defence of ‘Ms’ Chimamanda ‘Adichie’: A Look at Our Obsession with Titles in Nigeria

Someone I consider a literary mentor and friend who knows how much I love Chimamanda Adichie asked me sometime ago why Adichie doesn’t have a child yet. I should know because I google her every two or three days to see what article she has written for a newspaper, what talk she is giving next or what book she is working on. I should know why she hasn’t had a child as is expected of every married Nigerian woman. I told my mentor friend (I will call her Ada) that Adichie probably doesn’t want to have one yet, that she knows how much dedication is required to raise children, that perhaps the internationally acclaimed author wasn’t ready to make her schedule any busier than it was – shuttling between two continents, sometimes more, giving lectures, organizing workshops, lecturing University students and promoting books and film adaptations were demanding enough . Ada reminded me that Adichie’s biological clock was ticking. I countered that her career was at its peak and needed little distraction at this time. At the end of our conversation, one of us mentioned and the other agreed that she was probably trying without any success. We concluded that may be that would be the subject of her next book. I know, that’s us, Nigerians, carrying other people’s perceived problems like they are ours (in Nigeria-speak, drinking panadol for other people’s headache) and suggesting what they should write next. In retrospect, it was preposterous that I inferred that she didn’t have a child merely because I hadn’t seen it in the news. I know someone of whom similar assumption was erroneously made because she didn’t announce the birth of her child on Facebook – Facebook which has become the unofficial and universal record keeper of births, deaths and marriages.

About a month ago, Adichie came up again in my conversation with Ada. This time, she sounded more concerned: ‘Are you aware she doesn’t want to be addressed as a Mrs?’ I wasn’t aware and as someone who follows her on Facebook and elsewhere, I was surprised I missed it. After my phone conversation with Ada, I went on the internet to read the details of my favorite author’s latest ‘crime’ – her other ‘crime’: suggesting that given all our problems, criminalizing gay and gay-related activities shouldn’t be a priority for Nigeria.

Miss, Ms or Mrs

A reporter had started an interview by addressing Adichie as ‘Mrs Chimamanda Adichie’. Since she isn’t married to an Adichie, my view is that she should be addressed either as Ms Chimamanda Adichie or Mrs Chimamanda Esege ( She is married to Ivara Esege pictured above with her). Although the rules are recently being relaxed, traditionally, Mrs goes with a woman’s married name, Miss with her maiden name and Ms being a generic title for a woman, married or unmarried, can precede a maiden name or married name. Maybe if the interviewer had used the title appropriately, Adichie would have protested less. Although some sources reported that she said to be addressed as ‘Miss’, I doubt that is true. The reports must have stemmed from the similarity in the pronunciation of ‘Ms’/ˈmɪz/ and ‘Miss’\ˈmis\. Given how knowledgeable Adichie is in the use of English language, I doubt she could have mixed up the two.

Adichie’s insistence on not being addressed as a ‘Mrs’ may also have been motivated by her desire to downplay the importance we attach to it in Nigeria. She once told of how a successful but single woman would put on wedding bands to business conferences; her reason: to earn the respect of her fellow attendees. There was also the woman who sold her house to attract suitors who would otherwise see her as out of reach and too much headache. It is unfortunate that in Nigeria, we still see marriage as something that accords higher status to a woman. However accomplished a woman is, there is this pressure to be under a man’s roof even if it means giving up an aluminum roof for a leaking thatched roof. By not making her marriage a public affair, Adichie reinforces the need for women to be judged by their own accomplishments and nothing else.

Maiden Name: To Change or Not to Change

Adichie’s revelation in the interview that she hadn’t changed her name to her husband’s last name also drew criticism from people who thought it inappropriate – people who have never met her or know what loving relationship founded on mutual respect she enjoys with her spouse.

When I was in the university, one of my classmates who got married while in school was advised by one of my professors to put off changing her name till her graduation so that her maiden name will be on her Law degree certificate. My professor thought it was an honor (and I agree with him)to her birth family? Isn’t Chimamanda’s decision to keep her maiden name an honor to her aged father, James Adichie, who each time he mentions his name would naturally be asked if he is related to the author? Would he enjoy this honor if chimamanda had a different surname? Should the pride he takes in answering ‘Yes, I am her father’ be taken away because this particular child that has brought him honor is a woman? Should a choice that honors one of two equally deserving families be condemned? Perhaps the fact that a woman is made to throw away her maiden name upon marriage is the reason female children are less desirable in Nigeria than male children. Women cannot perpetuate the family name.

Some people argue (and reasonably so) that if a man is not required to change his name upon marriage, there should be no pressure on a woman to change hers especially when she has worked so hard to build her name as a brand that sells. Should those of us who changed our maiden names before establishing our careers judge women whose careers took off before their marriage because of their reluctance to change to their married name? Is it possible that not everyone can easily deal with the inconvenience that comes with a name change including making newspaper publication (in Nigeria); changing passports, drivers license and social security cards; notifying financial institutions and employers; making modifications to social media accounts and explaining the discrepancy in the names on credentials every time? But for her unique first name, will Chimamanda Esege be as recognizable as Chimamanda Adichie? I know a very popular female author who has been divorced four times ( I wish it weren’t that common). Could she have retained her brand name and fan base if she had changed her name each time (nine times) to reflect every change in her marital status? If Adichie’s husband is okay, and obviously he is, with her wife retaining her maiden name, should it be anybody else’s business? I am just saying: different strokes for different folks. I changed my name when I got married and I am very happy with my decision because I know the inherent benefits. Adichie has made hers and we ought to respect that.

And There are all Those Titles…

Since reading a novel by either Chukwuemeka Ike or Ifeoma Okoye (it has been a long time, both authors are amazing in their ability to subtly pass on moral lessons without coming off as preachy.) that caricatured our abuse of titles in Nigeria, I have developed a preference to be called simply by my name. In the novel there was even an ‘Accountant’ Chigo as you would have in Dr Chigo. In Nigeria, addressing a physician, an attorney, a Catholic knight or a local Chief without the appropriate title is deemed disrespectful. An introduction of a Chief Dr Sir Okeke Okafor in a fundraising event is an indication that a generous donation is expected. An omission of any of the titles will most likely result in a reduction of the intended sum given on ‘behalf of me, myself and my wife’.

While I understand that some titles are given as a reverence to people who hold certain positions in established institutions, many of them are superfluous. While I cannot imagine addressing a catholic priest by his first name without preceding it with a ‘Father’, and I cannot imagine calling a High Court judge anything but ‘My Lord’ ( I used to have reservations about that too. Isn’t God the only Lord), I don’t feel obliged to address as a ‘Dr’ a rich man who literally acquired a ‘Doctor’ title with his wealth.

That said, I admire the Ibo culture that teaches children to call their elders De, Ndaa, Sister, Aunty, etc. Calling someone that seem to automatically instill in the child the idea that this Aunty, De etc deserves his respect.

After all is said and done, the question from Shakespeare remains: ‘What is in a name?’ We should, like a rose which would smell sweet irrespective of what it is called, do all the good we can to as many people as we can; that trumps any name and sound more highly than any title we are called, earned or unearned.

PS: Regarding the title of this blog, Adichie doesn’t need any defending. With her eloquence, I doubt she would ever have need of an attorney to explain the motivations for her actions.
I couldn’t verify the title of the book with an ‘Accountant chigo’. Google didn’t help me this time. I guess we need to do more to archive at least the description of some of the wonderful books written by Nigerian authors before the internet age. I think it is Men Without Ears by Ifeoma Okoye, am not sure.

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14 thoughts on “In Defence of ‘Ms’ Chimamanda ‘Adichie’: A Look at Our Obsession with Titles in Nigeria

  1. much as i respect ur view on title\name for married women, it is unAfrican for a married woman not to answer her husband’s name! it does not portray wisdom to keep one’s marital status ambiguous by adopting Ms instead of Miss\Mrs sends wrong signal

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    • @ Nnamdi, the idea is to get different viewpoints and it is good you have one different from mine and I respect your perspective too. Like I said in my blog, I go by husband’s surname and I love it. However, it will be nice we give a pass to women whose maiden names literally sell their brand. Thanks for stopping by and I hope to see more of you.

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  2. Wonderful piece Anne.
    As Nnamdi said, it is un african for a woman to still bear her maiden name after marriage. In our days,things have so much changed and people are gradually relaxing their attachment of importance to some culture and tradition .I personally do not have any issue with anyone who wishes to keep her maiden name especially if it has become a brand name. If a woman ‘s spouse obliges to her keeping her name,i don’t see whose problem it is . I remember that the American super star; Kim Kardasian never changed her maiden name in her previous marriages,after getting married to Kanye West she decided to this time attach West to her name (Kim Kardasian West). Maybe her spouse wanted her to. It all depends on you and your spouse and no one else.#My thought#

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    • Thank you, Amara. I definitely agree that a couple should be left to make the decision, the Kim example is quite illustrative of the point. And like you said, it is a more difficult decision when the woman has established a brand name.

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  3. In as much I recognise and admire Chiamanda Adichie’s works, I can’t say am her fan. However the few articles you have blogged on her has sparked my interest greatly . So far I tend to share her views. You may have made a fan out of me .

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    • Thanks, Chika. I hope you do become a fan like I am. From your comments on my blog, I see you have great ideas and care about the problems in our country. I know we will get where other developed countries are. Let’s keep making our voices heard. Things can get better.

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  4. Africans have cultures that clearly marks them out from the rest of the world. We can not run away from these values and orientation. Over the years the Man has been seen as the head of the family and the woman his companion and home keeper. The Man represents his family, He decides what happens in his home, His family bears his name. But recently, things are changing. Women are beginning to be heard more in the society, women are taking up greater responsibilities and building careers that are affecting the human race positively. Women are becoming ‘brands’. With this development the issue of changing names when a single woman moves takes on the cloak of matrimony and moves in with her husband becomes a very debatable issue, one which i would rather sit on the fence! Nigeria being a country where religion is held and practiced fanatically, some would argue that once a woman gets married, she leaves every identity of her biological family and takes on the fresh identity of new family(Her husbands). Its even worse amongst the local women themselves, as they do all they can to add the ‘Mrs’ tag to their names as they see it as the crowning glory of every woman when she gets married. Respect comes fully both within the society and even in the church. For Catholics, the joy that a married woman derives being a member and wearing the CWO blue wrapper can be equated to the joy of actually going to heaven(dont mind me, just being sarcastic). I believe this issue of whether the woman should change her maiden name or not only arises when the woman is very successful and famous. Its even worse when the Husband she is marrying is not so popular or not so successful. Most couples simply agree to keep both surnames names if the wife feels so attached to her maiden name. Here everyone is happy.
    PS: ‘The reports must have stemmed from the similarity in the pronunciation of ‘Ms’/ˈmɪz/ and ‘Miss’\ˈmis\. Given how knowledgeable Adichie is in the use of English language, I doubt she could have mixed up the two.’ Anne, quoting you above, i dont think Chimamanda needs an attorney to defend her. I know you love her so much, but i think she clearly didnt want to be called a ‘Mrs’. I dont think it was an use of English issue. I agree the reporter erred by calling her Mrs Chimamanda Adichie rather than Mrs Chimamanda Esege. A simple correction to change the Adichie to Esege would have sufficed. I believe she just wants to keep here maiden name and am sure her husband respects that.

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    • @ Kingsley, You are right that women sometimes are the problem. Actually the backlash on Adichie came mostly from women. The CWO wrapper analogy is quite funny and it says a lot about our (women) tendency to ‘over-do’. Thank you again for your contributions. Great and fun to read.

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  5. Much of what commentators here have posited as “African culture” is actually British (colonial) culture. We lose so much by not knowing our own history.

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  6. Chimamanda should like Okojo-Iweala try Mrs Chimamanda Adichie-Esege. With dat her brand will still be there instead of d marital ambiguity of Ms. Another of our sisters has dat ambiguity-Ms Aruma Oteh…

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  7. Wow! A nice piece you have here Anne. It got me going through so many thoughts. Well, from my own perspective and putting myself into consideration, just like you, I so much love myself much more each time I’m addressed as “Mrs. Umeh”. Perhaps, because I am now married and happy to be identified by the surname of that man who means so much to me and who would go to any genuine length to make me happy.
    However, I cannot easily forget the fact that my biological Dad and Mum (with GOD’s grace on their side) actually went through a lot to ensure that I became a Legal Practitioner before I got married to my “Mr Right”; who now means so much to me.
    Moreover, irrespective of my new status, I still get it ringing in my head at every sunrise, that I owe that Dad and Mum something, which is to make them proud with my moral, educational status and career and failing to do so, will be the greatest error in my life. Yes, they sure deserve it.
    Succinctly, the second arm of my comment on this blog may be her reason for cherishing her maiden name that much just to bring glory to her father who may have gone through tough times just make sure she is being celebrated today.

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    • Nice to see you here, Roseline. You are right that parents do so much for their kids, in this case, female children that it will be wrong to ignore or downplay the role they played in their success. Good of you to take it upon yourself to do your parents proud by being the decent person you are. It will be nice if women who want to, are given the option of retaining their maiden name after marriage. That way, their birth families can take pride in their success.

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