Garmondyu Whorway is a master’s student studying Instructional design, development and evaluation (IDD&E) at the School of Education. He started the 18-month program in January and will graduate this spring.
If Garmondyu had been born in Liberia before 1980, he wouldn’t have been able to go to school with that name. “They’re going to tell me, ‘go home and get an English name before you come to school,’” he said.
A West African country by the coast, Liberia borders Sierra Leone and Guinea to the north and the Ivory Coast to the east. When Garmondyu traveled through Kingston, New York, he said he saw the same style of houses, shops and buildings that reminded him of parts of Liberia where the African Americans settled.
In 1819 when Congress approved return of free black slaves, thousands of American slaves resettled in what is Liberia today. Many refer to that period as the “Back-To-Africa movement.”
However, the freed slaves became settlers in their new land. Known as “Americo-Liberians,” they forced the native people of Liberia into labor and denied them rights, much like the slave masters did them.
“You couldn’t work until you had an English name. You couldn’t go to school until you had an English name. Even if you went to a church, because Christianity is the biggest religion back home, the name changed,” said Garmondyu, recounting what his father and grandfather had experienced and why they had changed their last names from “Whorway” to “Willy.”
The Americo-Liberian elites also tried to recreate the landscapes of America by building Masonic lodges and Methodist churches, making parts of Liberia look like New Orleans and the antebellum South. Garmondyu said that he saw in America where some of the architectures in Liberia originated, connecting that familiarity of the new Liberian culture to its American roots.
When a military coup d’etat led by Master Sergeant Samuel K. Doe overturned the government of President William R. Tolbert in 1980, there was a massive change in names, said Garmondyu. “Everyone needed to go back to their traditional, dialect name.”
Andrew was the English name Garmondyu’s father gave him that was closest to in pronunciation to his own, and one that he wouldn’t be bullied in school for. He went by Andrew until one day in sixth grade, he asked, why the different names. What had happened?
“Garmondyu” is a name in Bassa, a dialect spoken by one of the many tribes belonging to the ethnic group of Kwa. He said that the meaning translates as, “a boy child is a child; if you are a boy as a child, you have the best, most precious child.”
“It’s very gender-discriminatory but that’s the name,” Garmondyu said. “Most people understand because it’s a very common name in our tribe.”
When his family explained to him the meanings and history behind his names, he decided to use “Garmondyu.” His friends would laugh and say, “That’s so hard to pronounce, you sound like someone from the farm.” One man at a Syracuse church once asked if he could call him “Gary.”
He said that even now, most Liberians prefer using their English names, but he’s not going to change his.
“For our tribe, name means a lot. The name you give your kids is the character, it’s who they are, it defines them,” Garmondyu said, “And I take my name so seriously because I always tell people, every time I hear someone calling my name, or I write my name or I spell my name, it reminds me more about myself. It reminds me that I have to do better.”
The name Garmondyu reminds him of who he is and what his family has gone through. “It means a whole lot and I don’t want to easily forget by giving myself an English name.”
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