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.