Kamilah Kashanie (KK): Names have a kind of weight. They can connect us to family– or sometimes… They make us stick out.
Atiba Mbiwan (AM): What was it like growing up with the last name Mbiwan?
Keisha Bradley (KB): Growing up, I felt like I had a name that I couldn’t quite… explain. Like people would say, ‘ where’s your name from? I was just like, ‘you know, you’re asking too many questions…’
…but really, I didn’t know the answers.
KK: This week…how one name…brought two families together.
It’s the StoryCorps Podcast from NPR. I’m Kamilah Kashanie.
Keisha Bradley was raised with the last name Mbiwan – a Cameroonian name, and not a common one.
As a kid, she knew it stuck out… not just from other kids who didn’t have African-sounding last names… but also her own family.
KB: There were only three of us with the last name. Me, my brother, and my dad. No other family member had the last name.
KK: When she was in middle school in Atlanta, Keisha was teased about her name so much that she wanted to change it… And her dad, Atiba… told her she could, eventually…
But he also wanted her to understand why they had it….
AM: I was hoping that over time you would recognize the significance and the symbolism and begin to embrace it.
KB: That happened. But it wasn’t until I understood all the things that took place.
KK: Atiba didn’t inherit the name… he chose it… before she was born…
But explaining why he did that means going to another continent… decades ago… to meet a different family of Mbiwans.
Because this story isn’t just about Atiba… so hold on… ‘cause we’re going on a wild ride…
KK: Didi Ndando and Egbe Monjimbo are sisters. And they were raised with the last name Mbiwan. Just to be clear, they’re not related to Atiba.
They grew up in the 70s in Cameroon, in a family of six.
They spent most of their childhood in Yaoundé, the capital… in a house that was surrounded by plants and filled with books…
Both of their parents had high expectations, and no one thrived in this environment more than their older brother, Acha…
Egbe Monjimbo (EM): He loved to read. And it would be thick, voluminous books.
And when he was reading a book, it would come to life, because he was talking about things happening in it.
Didi Ndando (DN): Very mature for his age.
EM: You couldn’t talk to him for any amount of time and not realize that this is somebody with a brain. Well spoken, well mannered as well.
KK: But he could also be playful…
EM: When our parents would go out, he would maybe try to get us dressed up in mommy’s clothing, and spray us with her perfume. Now that was the giveaway. Even if you’d had the chance to take the clothes off, she’d still know something is wrong because she can smell the perfume on you. And then he’d act like he didn’t have anything to do with it and we’d be the ones in trouble.
DN: In trouble. [laughs]
EM: Yep. And then we cannot talk about him and not mention how stylish the fellow was.
DN: He was. Oh yeah.
EM: Oooo-hoo! Good looking fellow. He liked to go out to concerts when there was a concert, oh my goodness…
DN: He’d dress up and go.
EM: He dressed up in the latest thing.
DN: [Laughing] back in the day.
EM: He’s the kind of person who wasn’t an extrovert at all. But once you were in his presence, he would be kind and nice to you, and chatty. He did not ever have a mean bone in his body.
DN: M-mm. He was the kind of person that somehow had an impact on you. When you got to meet him, you came away feeling like you were in the presence of somebody who had substance, you know?
EM: And somebody who thought you mattered.
KK: After finishing high school in just a year, Acha studied at the University of Lagos in Nigeria…
And he’d always come home for the holidays…
But winter break 1980 was different…
On New Year’s Day, Didi was at her aunt’s house, and some neighbors stopped by to say hi…
And something seemed… off.
DN: They were very somber-looking… then my dad asked ‘Is everything ok?’ and they said, oh, they were just coming by because they had heard over the radio that Acha had an accident. Back in the day, very few people had phones. And so people sent announcements by radio.
My dad called the radio station. He says ‘I’m Mr. Mbiwan. I’m hearing that an announcement was made concerning my son. Would you please let me know what the announcement was?’
And they said, ‘Hang up and stay tuned, that announcement is going to be repeated in a few minutes.’
DN: I cannot forget the song that was playing on the radio at the time. You know, one of those Tim and Foty songs that had come out at the time.
And all of a sudden, in the middle of the song, they turned the volume down–
<MUSIC VOLUME LOWERS>
– and said, ‘We are interrupting the music to make a very important announcement.’ And they said, ‘We regret to announce the death…
We didn’t hear anything else.
KK: Acha had been driving a friend home late at night. While going down a hill, he swerved off the road and hit a tree.
They both died… Acha was 21 years old.
EM: We all were changed, transformed forever after that. How did it not impact the family? You know, somebody who, when he was there, was the center of everything. So like the house went quiet, the house went dead.
DN: Because he was the life of the house.
DN: He was the noisemaker. He was the one who made the place come alive whenever he was there.
KK: After that, it was hard for the family to talk about Acha… They stopped listening to the sports commentaries he’d loved… and the records he’d collected… Their mom stopped making Eru, one of his favorite foods.
They buried Acha in the family’s ancestral village… but it was so hard for them to talk about him… they didn’t hold any kind of memorial for 30 years…
KK: Egbe and Didi missed their brother, missed not having an uncle for their children. And what made it even harder was that this branch of the Mbiwans would lose their family name.
See, in Cameroon, last names are important– they give a sense of identity and reputation that’s hard to explain…
And as the only son, Acha was supposed to carry it on.
Over time, the sisters would marry and the name would be lost…
KK: or so they thought…
After the break… how Acha’s legacy lived on.
Stay with us.
KK: Michael John Ward – who would later become Atiba – grew up in Jamaica, Queens. He knew he wanted to live a life of service… but he wasn’t sure how.
In 1980… he was a junior at Brown University. He decided to spend a semester abroad… and was accepted to the University of Lagos, in Nigeria…
But when he got there, there was a problem… the university’s staff went on strike… for weeks.
So Michael decided that instead of staying in his dorm doing nothing… he’d go out and explore Lagos…
AM: One day I was just getting in a taxi, and, you know, they don’t have that many taxis. So when they come, it’s kind of a rush. So there were probably six or seven of us guys squeezing in.
The guy sitting next to me just looks at me and says ‘You from the states, huh?’
And I go ‘Yeah.’
He said, ‘Where you from?’ I said, I’m from New York.’
And he said ‘Oh, New York? I have a friend in New York.’
He said his name was Claude Howard.
I said, ‘I do know a Claude Howard from the Bronx!’ When I talked about Claude, I did know him– it wasn’t like I was just making it up.
KK: It was Acha in that cab…And he decided that anyone who was friends with Claude… was his friend too.
AM: He was so happy. And so he basically sorta said, ‘Ima take care of you.’
Acha was just a few months away from graduating himself… and he helped Michael with little things, like teaching him how to manage his tiny student budget… but also with big things.
He showed Michael how to maneuver through the city and stay safe – but also, get the most out of Lagos.
Acha and some other students brought him to visit the house of Fela Kuti, a famous Nigerian musician and activist.
AM: there was a lot of, uh… smoking ganja [laughs]. Fela actually walked around with nothing on but like Speedo underwear. And he would have his trumpet over his neck, you know. And he had lots of female background singers who all were living there. I’m 20 years old. So I’m like, wow, this is amazing. We don’t party like this back at home [laughs].
KK: But it wasn’t only about the parties… In Lagos, he heard the Muslim call to prayer for the first time. He bartered for goods in street markets.
And Michael’s lens for all of it was Acha…
It was Acha who explained Islamic traditions to him… who taught him to be patient during their long trips through the city…
AM: You know, he was kind of like a big brother for me. And since I was the oldest in my family, I didn’t have a big brother.
They would have long, deep conversations about what was wrong with the world… and how they could make it better.
AM: He was trying to make the case that I needed to vote that was important. And I was the cynical young cocky American who didn’t think it mattered. He reminded me of some of my best friends, who were very principled people, who felt like they were on earth for a purpose, to help make the world a better place.
KK: In December of 1980, after the semester was over, Michael and Acha made plans to meet up in Paris…
But Acha never showed…
Michael returned to the states… and went back to school…
He hadn’t heard from Acha for a while…and then he ran into a student he knew from Lagos who’d just come back…
AM: Atiba Mbiwan: He said, I got bad news. And I said, What bad news? He said, ‘Yeah, Acha died in a car accident over the break.’
And I said, ‘What?
I was just crushed. Because I was a young person who didn’t think young people would die. Especially not my friends. And that’s when I said I’ve gotta do something monumental to honor him.
KK: One of Michael’s professors heard his story… and was so taken with the journey he had been on, that he gave him the name Atiba, which is from the Yoruba language of Western Africa. It means “One who is understanding.”
It felt right to Michael… And he realized that if he took on Acha’s last name, he would have something permanent to remind him of his friend…
And so Michael Ward… became Atiba Mbiwan.
AM: The most important thing we have to do every day, whether we pray or not, is to give gratitude for what we have… And not focus on what we don’t have. By changing my name, I’m able to pay tribute to my relationship with Acha, everyday.
KK: Atiba realized that if he wanted to make the world a better place, he’d have to reach out to others… the same way Acha made his life better by reaching out to him in a cab that day.
Ever since then he’s been following Acha’s example…
And he passed those lessons onto his children, too…
KB: You helped shape who I am, who I’ve become. And I think that, you know, you in particular have done a good job of teaching me by showing me.
AM: I’m just so grateful to have you as my daughter.
KB: Thank you.
AM: So do you think the name Keisha Mbiwan has shaped who you’ve become?
KB: I think the biggest challenge for me was not having the understanding of why I had the name. Now that I do know… and if people ask and I tell them, I always get this positive reaction, like, ‘oh, my gosh, I can’t believe this story is true.’ So I’ve grew to appreciate having my name. I mean, I know a lot of people have my first name, but who else might have my last name?
KK: That same question had been on Atiba’s mind for decades…
But he was never able to find Acha’s family…
When he took on the name in the 80s, there was no directory he could search, no social media he could skim. A house fire in the late 90’s destroyed a lot of the records he had from back then. And searching the early internet wasn’t successful.
But then one day, in 2012, he got a voicemail…
EM: [voicemail message] Hello, Mr. Atiba Mbiwan. This is Mrs. Egbe Monjimbo.
The reason I was calling is because my sisters and I actually read about you. And we have a strong feeling you may have known our brother who passed away… Who went to school with you, apparently, at the University of Lagos. We thought it was kind of special and uncanny that we should come across someone who actually changed his name in memory of our late brother. If you can, please give me a call back. Thank you, Bye bye.
KK: By 2012, Didi and Egbe were living in the United States, married with children. They were thinking a lot about their family… and Didi decided to Google their maiden name…Mbiwan…
That’s when she stumbled across a web page about Atiba.
And right there in his bio, it said that he had changed his name in the 80’s to honor the passing of a friend he had met at the University of Lagos.
She knew that friend had to be Acha… She called Egbe.
DN: I said, ‘Are you sitting down? Because this is gonna floor you.’
We just kind of all went into shock.
KK: They’d had no idea that Atiba even existed.
And figuring out what to say to him seemed impossible.
DN: The whole thing was just not knowing what to expect.
EM: You know, you go and look into this thing, and who knows what you’re going to bring in, you know? Fear of the unknown, if I can put it that way.
DN: We knew we were going to do this thing sooner or later. And boy, we are glad we did it.
KK: They found a number for Atiba. And one day, Egbe called him on a whim.
She left him that message we heard earlier.
AM: When I heard this message. I just could not believe it. And I screamed.
KK: So they started talking on the phone… learning each other’s stories and filling in the gaps.
The three of them came to StoryCorps to talk about what happened next.
AM: How did you feel about me taking on your family’s name, Mbiwan?
DN: Oh, everybody was elated.
EM: Not just our family. Our friends.
DN: Everybody. Because people remember where they were and what they were doing when they heard about Acha’s Mbiwan’s passing.
To know that he had someone out there, that we had someone taking on the family name – it feels like a gift.
KK: Eventually, Egbe decided to meet Atiba in person…
She drove from North Carolina with her kids to Atlanta, where Atiba lives…
EM: We drove on down there, got there, and that is the most amazing feeling. Because you go to somebody’s house, get to meet them, and it feels like you have known them from day one. It just clicked. Instant click.
AM: I have to say that in my wildest dreams, I never, ever thought I would ever meet Acha’s family in the United States. When I thought about this dream-like scenario, it was always happening somewhere in West Africa. Never did I think it’d happen here. So when I got to meet both your families, I was like, wow… Acha must be smiling down from heaven at us.
KK: For Atiba, meeting Didi and Egbe solved a 30-year mystery…
And for the sisters, meeting him gave them a closure they never thought they’d get.
DN: He was such a bright young man, and him passing away so early…that was part of the tragedy is the regret, and the feeling that he could have contributed so much to this life, to this world. And then to learn that in the short time that he lived, that there was someone like you… that made us feel like, okay, his impact lives on.
KK: They started spending more and more time together, and they would show up for each other’s major family moments…
And in 2015, Atiba went with the sisters and their kids to Cameroon for Christmas…
DN: You know, all of our kids were off to the side doing something, but Atiba would be sitting with them, in earnest conversation about all kinds of things. Getting to know them, and, uh…
EM: Giving them advice about dating.
DN: I mean, they got an uncle.
KK: While they were there, they crammed into a car and set off on a long drive to the family’s ancestral village, where Acha’s buried.
DN: This was a whole overnight trip.
EM: Talk about bonding in a little tiny space there with all that dust.
DN: In that van.
AM: Bumpity bumpity bumpity.
DN: Kind of a fun ride, really. You fell asleep on somebody, they fell asleep on you…
EM: That’s one of my happiest experiences of my entire life.
AM: That was my best Christmas, yeah.
DN: What was it like for you Atiba, getting to visit Acha’s grave?
AM: That was just, like, surreal for me, you know, to be there.
Um, and he added such a different flavor of life for me… at a time when I was really, you know, growing by leaps and bounds. And so I was just taking it all in. And our conversations were just… Rich, deep, loving exchanges. And, you know, I miss that.
And I was just wondering, what do y’all think about when you think about Acha’s legacy?
DN: You! [chuckles] You’re very much a part of that. Even in the short time that he had here, he had an impact. Here is someone who has been a part of his life, who has taken on the name, and who’s done so much since then. Now, really, you’re a huge, huge, part of that legacy.
And in a way, we feel like he came back through you… because now we have a brother again.
KK: That was …. Didi Mbiwan Ndando, Egbe Mbiwan Monjimbo, and Atiba Mbiwan.
Atiba has spent a lot of his career working in youth development at non-profits… because he wants to impact young people, like Acha impacted him.
And the name carries on… In 2022, Atiba’s son had a daughter… Harper Mbiwan.
KK: That’s all for this episode of the StoryCorps podcast.
It was produced by Max Jungreis, who is our Associate Producer. It was edited by Jarrod Sport, who is our Senior Producer. Eleanor Vassili is our Lead Producer. Our technical director is Jarrett Floyd, who also composed our theme song. Our fact-checker is Erica Anderson. And Jasmyn Morris is our Story Consultant. Special thanks to Anthony Knight.
To see what music we used in the episode… go to StoryCorps – dot – org… where you can also check out original artwork created for this season Lyne Lucien.
For the StoryCorps podcast, I’m Kamilah Kashanie. Catch you next week.