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Akata: What does it mean?

Updated: Jul 23, 2021

At a recent Umu Igbo Unite (U.I.U) Atlanta cooking event. An unfamiliar face was walking around with a power camera snapping away at everyone. I vaguely remembered she got my shot somewhere during the 'meet-and-greet' phase of the gathering. But a little afterward, as I sat and chatted with friends, this sister came around, again, snapping and flaunting her flashy camera. Not quite sure who she was, I inquired of the guy next to me; "biko onye bkwa asa a?'' I did lower my voice, and asked in Igbo, for a reason. But to my surprise, not only did the girl with the camera hear me but she also understood Igbo and knew I was talking about her. As I took my first dip of jollof rice, she came charging toward me; ''did you just call me 'Akata?'"

"No, no, no, no, no," I said apologetically, "I said 'Asa,' not 'Akata!'" I had to clarify, and reassured her that I said, 'Asa,' (chic) not 'Akata.' She had 'misheard' me (if that's a word). I did all I could to defuse the tension and as she mentioned her name we found out we were friends! She's my Friend, Ugo. (Yes, we had been friends on this website that has redefined friendship). "Hello Ugo, I'm Obie." "We're friends on Facebook." "Oh yes, that's you...!" Trouble averted, hugs and more smiles :)

So, what does 'Akata' really mean and why it such an offensive word? The first time I heard the word here in the U.S. was in 2006, from a Gambian. I was confused because I wasn't expecting an Igbo word from him. I couldn't make any connection whatsoever. With the passage of time, I realized that this Igbo word had other connotations. Yes, Akata is an Igbo word but it has a different meaning here in America because Akata, as used here, was introduced from another language –and the meanings are not even close.

I cannot speak to the etymology of the word, any shades of meanings it might have, or what part of the Igbo dialect it came from. But growing up in Enugwu, this was a word I remember me and my teenage friends using. In general, it's not a bad word. It denotes something/someone tough. For all I know, it's an abbreviation of the word, “Atakata,” which derives from the phrase, “a takata a gboo” (you keep chewing until you have to spit it - because it's too tough to grind). To call someone Akata in Igbo was to suggest that he/she is someone you don't want to mess with –a tough guy! Its pidgin equivalent was “tear head.” Akata was not a derogatory word. If anything, it was a compliment. I can guarantee that the Igbo meaning has nothing to do with “craziness” and other American interpretations. In Igbo, Akata doesn’t mean crazy!

I have since come to understand that Akata, as used in America, comes from the Yoruba language and refers to a “fox,” “wild dog,” " I stand to be corrected. As for that derogatory term, I am vehemently opposed to the use, and to the underlying idea of that terminology on anyone!

In Igbo, however, “Akata,” “Atakata,” and “a takata a gboo” are compliments. As I remember it, the last person I called Akata was Vincent Enyama. In his prime as the goalkeeper of Nigeria's national football team, no one could get a ball past him! Not even Messi. Enyama was impervious. He's my type of Akata!

But here in the United States, there's another use of the word that is not of Igbo origin. In America, "Akata" is a disparaging term, generally used by African immigrants to deride Foundational Black Americans. I find it counterintuitive that some of us who migrated from Africa find it quite convenient to apply such a negative term to our people that were here before us; that built up this country under the most inhumane treatments; and who through the Civil Rights Movement earned the rights and privileges that we have come here to benefit from. I'm not sure if the late Civil Rights icon, John Lewis is also "Akata" in the books of those who use that label. But remember that in the 1960s and 70s, it was not our parents, uncles, and aunties marching and risking their lives to bring about the changes in American society that make our presence possible. Without the likes of John Lewis shedding his blood for us, without the likes of the four little black girls being bombed to death while in a Sunday School bible study, without many "Akata" boys and girls letting themselves be beaten by the police, bitten by police dogs, water-hosed; without the John Lewises of this world getting in good trouble, you and I might never dream of the few concessions granted to Blacks.

It does not look like Blacks are having a rosy life in America. But it used to be a whole lot worse before some "Akatas" decided to challenge the status quo. As the great John Lewis put it, "When people tell me nothing has changed, I say come walk in my shoes and I will show you change." It is fair to imagine that some of us who call our brothers and sisters "Akata" cannot muster the courage to fight half the fights that "Akatas" have fought and won for humanity's sake. Granted, there are cultural differences between peoples based on socialization and enculturation. Regardless of how deep those differences might be, we must never forget that we who migrate from Africa are not all saints and that every society has its share of good and not-so-good people. Rather than label our brothers and sisters as "Akata," we should appreciate the road they have passed through to get us all to where we are in today's America. We owe them a debt of gratitude! Even if you choose to disagree with me, just sit back and imagine walking in their shoes.


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