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Tuesday, June 30, 2009

The malediction of a name

Remi Sonaiya

June 30, 2009 03:08PMT

Nigeria, country in West Central Africa, on the Atlantic; a member of the Commonwealth...

Nigeria. A composed word, made up of Niger and -ia.
Niger: 1. river in West Africa, flowing from Guinea through Mali, Niger, and Nigeria into the Atlantic 2. country in West Central Africa, north of Nigeria (not of relevance to this article).
-ia: a suffix used in: 1. names of certain diseases (pneumonia) 2. names of some plants and animals (zinnia)

Lord, have mercy! I must confess that it never occurred to me, before settling down to write this piece, that the primary function of the suffix on the name of my beloved country is for designating diseases: amnesia, anemia, aphasia, bulimia, diphtheria, dyslexia, malaria...! Who on earth did this to us?

Nigeria, a land through which flows the great river Niger - a fact which alone should have ensured for all time the prosperity of its inhabitants, for who does not know that big rivers are sources of great wealth? Then, as if to signal the determination of Nature to so bless this land, a second river flows from the other direction (the Benue), joins forces with the Niger in Lokoja, and the duo continue their southward journey majestically, pouring out their waters into the Atlantic Ocean atop a riverbed concealing some of the richest marine resources the world knows.

Nigeria, a diseased country living up to the primary functional meaning of its suffix? That seems to be the reality being witnessed, most dishearteningly, for ours is a nation languishing in the throes of the most incomprehensible degree of want and deprivation, whereas we have all that is required to make us a haven to be sought after by all, from far and near. Is there truly malediction in that suffix? What about other nations whose names follow the same pattern, ending in -ia?

Liberia: case confirmed (although the nation is trying to rise up now after those horrors of war); Tunisia, Algeria: well, neither here nor there (one doesn't hear so much about them, anyway); Bulgaria, Latvia, Romania, Lithuania, Russia, and some other eastern European nations: mostly crisis-ridden, struggling to re-brand, with communism so discredited; Italia (!): quite different from most other western European countries, you'd agree, where the rule of the mafia seems to hold sway. There does seem to be something to this suffix...

But then, Malaysia. This is a country with a history very much like ours, united only as a nation in 1963 from the various British colonies which had existed since the late 18th century. It has experienced political upheavals and other troubles too, just like we have. But then, something happened, and Malaysia is known today as a country with enviable GDP and per capita figures, rigorously pursuing its vision for industrialisation. So, what happened?

I am convinced that there was a special session of the Parliament of Malaysia during which the head of state challenged the members directly concerning the sorry state of the nation.

The man had been so perplexed, wondering what was keeping the country down, making it impossible for it to fully realise its potential. He invited members to have a brain-storming session seeking to identify the source of their problems and identify solutions.

All kinds of ideas started coming up: some members claimed that their former colonial masters were the source of their troubles and were still hiding in the shadows, pulling strings and knocking people's heads together; others felt that they were doomed because they were a concocted nation, made up of various ethic groups.

Finally, an old member got up and cleared his throat: "Fellow citizens of our country, he began, I have thought long and hard about this issue, and have come to the conclusion that the problem has to do with our name." Silence. Looks of bewilderment. "Yes, do you not see that Malaysia rhymes with malaria, aphasia, anemia - all of them diseases! That is the source of the trouble." A young, hot-blooded Malay member jumps up: "Are we going to have to change our name then? Do you want us to be called by the name of some minority group?"

"Ah, patience, my young man, patience! I have also checked the facts and found that not all words which end in -ia relate to diseases. In fact, some of the most beautiful flowers in the world end in that suffix: begonia, zinnia, bouvardia, heliconia, gardenia, watsonia, freesia, and many others.

I therefore solemnly move that a bill be passed this day, stating that the nation of Malaysia chooses to be associated not with the first meaning of its suffix, but with the second; we refuse the negative association with diseases but rather with flowers and all that their beauty represents." Thunderous applause.

(For those of you sceptics who doubt the veracity of this account, just open your eyes wide next time the advertisement for Malaysia comes up on CNN and see the incredible flora and fauna displayed.)

Now, as for you, Nigeria, my beloved country, here is my prayer for you:

May your bodies of water swarm with tilapia,
May your desert lands be covered with acacia*,
And may you know boundless alaafia!
Peace to you, Nigeria.

I suggest you check out acacia on Wikipedia and be totally bowled over by the plant's incredible variety of uses. Northern Nigeria has at least the acacia senegal, one of the 1,300 species found around the world, which produces true gum Arabic.

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