I have always thought that knowing how old you are is an important part of who you are. Your age lets you know what kinds of things you should be doing, and what is expected of you by wider society. My birthday has always been an unshakeable fact, as it is for most people I know. I have, however, met people who do not know when they were born. I have always found this odd because in Ghana, names are sometimes tied to birthdays. Among the Akan in Ghana, names tend to be very functional. Your day-name marks out the day of the week you were born on, the abbreviation attached indicates which number child you are, and your middle name usually points to who you were named after. The standard numerical date doesn’t factor into it at all. And why would it? Your name is like a dog tag: If lost please return here. You would think that this system would lose its potency in modern Ghana, but this is untrue.
At some point during my summer, when I was home and sitting in a cab en-route to the city, the taxi driver started to poke at my dog tag. It was at this moment that it became clear to me that my ethnic ambiguity makes my “dog tag” pretty useless. I like to think that a discerning eye can take one look at me and tell that I am from Ghana. This is not always true. The first question he asked me was whether I was a returnee or a visitor. I replied, in my mother tongue for added defiance, that I was neither. Of course the answer is ambiguous: I am a quasi-returnee, quasi because I return often and don’t think I ever really left. The second question was where I was from, which relates to ethnic identity rather than the American conception of a “hometown.” Inheritance laws determine your hometown. Some ethnic groups are patrilineal, and others are matrilineal. So depending on the ethnic group, you are one of your mother’s people or one of your father’s people. My mother’s people are patrilineal, my father’s people are matrilineal, and therefore, technically I am from nowhere. The long and short of this whole cultural explanation is that this taxi driver asked a bad question. So I did what anyone in my situation would do: I lied. That too, was a bad move. I got called out faster than you drop a hot potato: my dialect didn’t fit with where I said I was from.
The point here is how strong traditional modes of identification and association are in modern Ghana. It’s a little odd that all this specificity has not come to include dates of birth. Your birth-day (the day of the week) is the important thing. Still, educated people can tell you their birthdates in a heartbeat. Or so I thought, until I met the owner of the largest bookstore in the country. My father poked fun at him for looking like an old man, at which point the man said that he could be forty-six or forty-nine, and had chosen to be the former. This was a bizarre statement. Who gets to pick their age? Had birthdates become a thing of choice and if so could I be born in the ides of April instead?
This man’s mother died before his third birthday and left him a baby picture with two dates at the back, which were three years apart. When he went to school and needed to fill in such details, he simply chose the date that sounded better to him. As he got older and started to approach a mid-life crisis, he chose to delay it by switching to the date that made him younger. To make matters even more confusing, the days of the week of these two dates differ, so his name isn’t clear either. He will never know when his birthday really is, and I have to wonder whether or not that matters at all. My identity is tied to my day name—I go by Akua, which means that I was born on Wednesday, and my middle name is a bad alias because most people, Ghanaians especially, cannot spell or pronounce it right—whereas the man without a birth date has a name that doesn’t rely on it. In that way I suppose not knowing doesn’t change much about him.
An old nursery rhyme whose origins are unclear states, “Wednesday-borns are full of woe.” But having my name mean that I was born on a Wednesday does not translate to “Akua” being interchangeable with “Wednesday.” That’s not how things work exactly. I grew up singing this nursery rhyme, and its categorizations of people born on the days of the week functioned like star signs do in the West. Being a Wednesday-born equates to being a Scorpio perhaps, and so it is assumed that we all share similar personality traits. I was an especially naughty kid, and it was often blamed on the day of the week I chose to arrive in this world. Akuas are supposed to be loud, and mischievous, and ballsy, and that’s what I’m usually like. It is a little scary because many other Akuas are the same way. I am yet to meet a quiet, docile Akua. Not everyone goes by their day names, and people use variations of it, but every one in seven girls in Ghana could be an Akua. A surprising number have it wedged somewhere in their names. Point being, I have met thousands of my namesakes and no, it is not confusing; yes, we all seem to be outgoing people.
Being away from home has changed my relationship to my name. Instead of being one of lord-knows-how-many Akuas, I am often the only one for miles. I have begun to feel as though my name is unique, but it really is not. I have also come to the realization that Americans generally cannot pronounce my name, and I have learnt to give up that ghost. Initially, I thought it was just a matter of going over it multiple times, or spelling my name the way it is pronounced. By the end of my freshman year, I realized that the particular pronunciation of my “A” did not exist in the American way of pronouncing things. Often, people only learn how to pronounce my name properly after they have made a trip to Ghana. Generally, I don’t push anymore, but it maybe is a little sad that I am never really called by my name while I am here. Because I have a day name, people often ask, “Is every Wednesday your birthday?” I also have a special attachment to my birthdays that fall on Wednesdays, and these things make me wonder when my birthday really is too.