the hardening of ethnic boundaries in modern Nigeria, there is a
growing questioning of the uses of names and their origins in our
times. Little thought has been given to the idea that before colonial times,
person-names and place-names as well as object-names were
ethnic lines. Take the word ekpeti. It appears in various forms and
pronunciations in the following languages: Isoko-Urhobo, Benin, Itsekiri,
Yoruba, Igbo, Ukwuani (different from Igbo in naming patterns) and in
several other languages in southern and northern Nigeria. In all of these
languages, it means “box.” What is its origin? We may never know. It is
probably unwise for any group to rush to lay claim to its origin –
unless it proffers a good amount of reasoning, not mere assertions. To take
another example: consider the Benin and Urhobo word for
market, eki. See how close
it is to the Igbo word for market-day, eke. Was one borrowed from the other?
It is naive for anyone to rush to easy assertions in such
Linguists were astounded in the early decades of the last century when they
discovered vast similarities in the languages of southern Africa
and those in the Benue-Cameroon area, thousands of miles away, spreading
indeed to central and eastern Africa. That led them to the
famous Bantu migration hypothesis which postulates that series of migrations
that began in the Chad-Benue region, and that covered many
centuries, had imposed a common Bantu culture, including a linguistic
pattern, on much of sub-Saharan Africa. In matters like this, it is best
to assert hypotheses rather than doctrines. This is because we can only
guess at the truth.
In the realm of widespread uses of person-names, none appears to be more
frequent in various southern Nigerian ethnic groups than
Okoro. It is a traditional Isoko-Urhobo name which was quite common in
precolonial times. It was also common in Igbo culture. Because of
the habit of nicknaming ethnic groups during colonial times, Okoro has
become closely associated with the Igbos. It is nowadays some
times unfairly and incorrectly treated as an exclusive Igbo name. Beyond the
Isoko-Urhobo and Igbo ethnic complexes, the name Okoro
exists in Ijaw and Itsekiri languages. What is intriguing in all these uses
of the term Okoro is that it is consistently a male name.
Remarkably, the presence of this name is thin in Benin and other Edoid
cultures, besides the most ancient Edoid fragments of Isoko and
Urhobo. The recent claim by Oghogho Agidigbi, and its ready acceptance by
Dr. Ademola Iyi-Eweka, that Okoro is a term of reference and
deference to royal princes in Benin culture, should be balanced by the view
held by Hilary Evbayiro that the Benin term is “Okorho,” not
“Okoro.” But even that suggests a linguistic kinship between this rare Benin
usage and its more ample uses in other ethnic groups of
southern Nigeria. The abundance of Okoro in Urhobo-Isoko culture and its
thinness in Benin culture and the Edoid cultures of northern Edo
(Ishan, Owan, Etsako) will allow me to offer one explanatory hypothesis for
the uses of Okoro in Urhobo-Isoko culture. It is also striking that
the Yoruba, with whose culture Benin has shared many common themes,
including the designation of the King as Oba, have no record of
Okoro in their vast array of names.
The Uses of Ókoro in Urhobo-Isoko Culture
It is important that we offer a description of the depth and range of uses
of Okoro in Urhobo culture. Nigerian languages are largely tonal,
with inflections designating meanings in several instances. Urhobos and
Isokos pronounce the common term Okoro remarkably differently
from the manner by which Igbos pronounce it. In common, the last "o" is
muted in the way both groups pronounce the name. But whereas
Isoko-Urhobos accent the first "O", thus Ó-koro, rendering the second "o"
mute, the Igbo accent the second "o", thus Okóro. (Actually, in
Urhobo-Isoko, there is a pause between the first "O" and the "k" in Okoro,
thus prolonging the "O", whereas in the Igbo pronunciation there
is a rush.) However, the similarities in these groups' uses of Okoro far
outweigh these tonal differences.
First, in both ethnic groups the term is used for males only. In fact, in
Urhobo it is a generic term that has the equivalent meaning of
"gentleman" -- a male who appears respectable but whose acquaintance is a
little distant. An Urhobo elder would respectfully relate to
another man who
appears responsible by addressing him as "Ókoro." Although it is becoming
less common, Ókoro was a very common name in the
generations of Urhobo males before colonial rule took hold in Urhoboland
from the mid 1890s.
There is a second similarity in the uses of this common name in
Urhobo-Isoko and Igbo cultures. In both of them, the term Okoro serves as
a foundation for compound names -- as "John" does in the English language:
thus, "Johnson" and "Littlejohn". It is a prefix for many Igbo
names: "Okorafor," "Okoronkwo," etc. In Isoko-Urhobo, Ókoro serves as the
suffix for the most generic name in these cultures: "Umukoro."
By their nature, common names lose their verbal meanings. "Umukoro" is so
Urhobo and Isoko, the bearers of these cultures rarely inquire
about its meaning. In origin, it appears to connote the English counterpart
of "Johnny," indicating young Ókoro.
There are two aspects of the uses of Ókoro and "Umukoro" in Isoko and Urhobo
cultures that deserve to be emphasized. First, these
names are ancient in these cultures. In modern times, Isoko and Urhobo names
have grown apart. But there are important commonalties,
most prominently represented by "Umukoro." The basis for claiming that Ókoro
and "Umukoro" have ancient
vintage flows from the fact that many Urhobo sub-groups have traditions of
migration from Isoko. These shared names date from those
distant centuries of long ago.
There is a second aspect of the Ókoro complex of names that distinguishes
its uses in Isoko-Urhobo cultures. This is that it has a female
counterpart: "Ôkôkô." Just as Ókoro serves as a foundation for the compound
name of "Umukoro," so "Ôkôkô" serves as the foundation of
the compound name "Umukôkô," which is the female equivalent of "Umukoro."
Again, "Umukôkô" is an ancient name in Isoko-Urhobo
culture. A responsible woman is addressed as "Ôkôkô" in the same way as a
responsible man is addressed as Ókoro.
It is striking that these two classical Isoko-Urhobo names are not popular
ones among those given to Urhobo and Isoko young ones in
modern times, particularly among the influential class of Western-educated
Urhobos and Isokos. However, they continue to count among
the less Western-educated Urhobos and Isokos as first names. But they are
clearly not as widespread as their age would suggest.
Where Do These Names Come From --
Ókoro, Umukoro, Ôkôkô, and Umukôkô?
In a real sense, these four terms form a complex of names that are as old as
Urhobo and Isoko cultures. It is therefore rather daring to ask
the following question. From where do these names originate? If they are
such olden names, then we should expect that they relate to the
times when Isoko-Urhobos migrated from the lands of the Ogisos. That was
over seven centuries ago. Urhobos and Isokos left the lands
that are now called Benin when they were quite elementary in their social
organizations. These lands acquired their new appellations of
"Benin" and "Edo" after the demise of the Ogiso dynasty. That is why "Benin"
and "Edo" do not exist in Urhobo language which continues to
refer to modern Benins with the term they took away from the days of the
Ogisos, namely Aka. (Remarkably, Udo is the term that Urhobos
are used to in their folktales, obviously suggesting its existence and
importance in the era of the Ogisos.) Indeed, these names of Benin and
Edo were given by the Kings of the dynasty of the Obas that replaced the
Ogisos. In Urhobo folk imagination, Ogiso counted for much, while
the newer dynasty of the Obas was a lot more alien. On the other hand,
Ishans, Owans, and Etsakos migrated from the lands of the Obas,
when the terms Benin and Edo were already in use. For them, modern Kings of
the Oba dynasty are supreme.
A dynastic change is traumatic for any culture, and is usually marked by
considerable hostility from the newer ascendant dynasty towards
the failed and defunct dynasty. That is what happened in Great Britain with
the transition from the Stuarts to the Tudors. In Benin, the change
appears to be a lot more dramatic. Much was done to erase the legacy of the
Ogisos from Benin culture over which the triumphant Obas
presided. Indeed, but for the Urhobos and Isokos, the legacy of the Ogisos
would largely be unrecognizable in modern times.
One should assume, legitimately, that the new Oba dynasty sought to enhance
its hold on Benin culture by controlling its political institutions.
If, indeed, "Okoro" (or "Okorho") was a term of importance and endearment in
the general public that reminded Benins of the Ogisos, it could
be endangered. I offer the view that the name "Okoro" decayed from usage in
Benin lands as a result of the dynastic change from the
Ogisos to the Obas. In other words, Ókoro has survived among the Urhobos and
Isokos from ancient times, dating back to the Ogisos,
while it is now a piece of cultural atavism in Benin culture. How else does
one account for the fact that Ókoro, with its
derivative Umukoro, remained dominant in ancient Urhobo and Isoko while
disappearing from Benin and the newer Edoid fragments of Ishan,
Owan, and Etsako? It should be noted that Urhobos and Isokos continue to
hold many names in common with the Benins, obviously names
that survived from the days of the Ogisos. Consider such names as Idiemudia,
Agbogidi, or Awhinawhi, which apparently survived from the
pre-Benin era of the Ogisos. Their common
uses in Benin and Urhobo contrasts sharply with the apparent disappearance
of Ókoro from Benin culture and its continuing importance in
Isoko and Urhobo cultures.
I should hasten to add that this is only an hypothesis, offering a plausible
explanation for a cultural puzzle in Edoid cultural studies.
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