There is an African saying that, “What you don’t know is older than you”. This is exactly the case between Africans, their culture, and the Western world. Since they had no clear understanding of African traditions, they deemed it barbaric and uncivilized. But, if civilization is a way of life, it is safe to say Africans were civilized long before the arrival of the colonial masters. One of the African traditions that endured the test of time is the baby naming tradition.
The influence of Western culture in African society is the reason why many have veered off the traditional way of life. For example, the baby naming tradition is not as it used to be. For example, religious followers often name their children depending on their faith. In the past, circumstances surrounding the birth of the child were the determining factor on what to call the child. Let’s look at some of the circumstances that can play a role in the ancient African baby naming tradition.
Africans place a lot of emphasis on children, and in most places, male children. This is because they are the ones that will carry the family name onward. Hence, when married couples are unable to bear children, they feel ostracized, especially the women. Some mothers-in-law go as far as getting other wives for their sons. Therefore, after waiting for a child for a long time, it is typical to see parents give names that reflect their long wait. Some examples are “Soromtochukwu” an Igbo name meaning join me to praise God, “Ekenedirichukwunaamutaranyinwanwoke” another funny but real name meaning thanks be to God that we have been delivered of a son, and also “Lindiwe” a Zulu name meaning waited for.
Africans believe that children are blessings from God and are capable of attracting or bringing them more blessings. Thus, childlessness is believed to be a curse, regardless of how successful the couple may be. Also, it is a common belief that names affect what a child becomes and how they behave. Therefore, parents sometimes name their children based on what they wish them to become. Another common belief is that children are a continuation of the parent or a reincarnation of an ancestor. These beliefs are the reasons for names likes “Oluwadamilola” a Yoruba name meaning, God has blessed me, and “Etete” an Efik name meaning Grandfather.
#3. Place/Time Of Birth
In some parts of Africa, women prefer to give birth outside the hospital. Therefore, local midwives help women deliver in their homes or anywhere. Also, the season during which a child is born is equally important in the African baby naming tradition. The reason is that it is believed the place and time of a child’s birth determine his or her horoscope. Consequently, a child can be named based on the place or when he is born. For instance, in Igbo land, a child can be named “Nwammiri” (child of the waters), if he is born during the rainy season or in a coastal city. This is close to the Afrikaans name “Imka” meaning water. The name “Kwame” of Akan origin meaning a boy born on Monday, is also another example.
Often when a significant breakthrough happens while pregnant or after giving birth, parents can decide to name their child accordingly. it can also be seen in relation to the fact that Africans see children as blessings. Whatever good that happens between the conception to birth of the child is important. The favor and the joy the child brings the parents is the reason for names like “Amarachukwu” meaning God’s favor in Igbo and Thabisa a Zulu name meaning Joy. This is one of the baby naming traditions still in practice today.
When a woman survives a serious illness during conception, they could give the child names that show gratitude to God. This is also the case if the child becomes seriously sick after birth and survives. An example is “Ekenedirichukwu” in Igbo meaning, thank God. Also, the child could be given a name that says how strong or brave they are. An example is Idir, a Berber name meaning. survivor.
#6. Surviving A Dangerous Situation/Accident
Like illnesses, surviving a dangerous situation such as an accident could be the basis for a child’s name. It is such situations that give rise to names like “Chiazoka” an Igbo meaning, “God has saved greatly”. Another is “Hakizimana” a name believed to be of Egyptian origin and meaning “God saves everything”.
Dreams have a powerful influence on African traditions. Many cultures believe that dreams are the means by which we commune with the spirit world. Thus, great importance is attached to dreams and many people often search out the meaning of dreams they had. So it is not surprising that dreams could also be a contributing factor to the name a child is given at birth.
#8. Traditional Events
There are a lot of traditional festivals in Africa and the people hold it dear when children are born on these special days. The child is often given names that reflect such a day or event. Some of these events are the new yam festivals, the feast of masquerades, the Coronation of a new King, and a specific market day, etc. In Igbo land, there are four major market days; Eke, Nkwo, Afor, and Orie. An example of such a name is “Mgbeke” an Igbo name meaning a girl born on eke day. Also, the Efik name “Edet” is given to a child born on a market day.
#9. Situation Surrounding Childbirth
How easy or difficult the birth of a child is can be a precursor to the name he or she is given. For instance, some women may have to undergo an operation for the safety of both the mother and child. Also, there are children that are born breeched and such children are given names like Ige in the Yoruba language. Other similar situations are when a child is born with the head turned downwards or when the child is born in a sack (En Caul birth). Such children are usually given names that reflect the situation surrounding their birth.
Africans attach a lot of importance to tribal names, and many fear that this tradition is slowly being washed away by religion. They believe that the introduction of Christianity and Islam to Africa is slowly eroding the African traditional beliefs and culture. This fear is further heightened by the fact that many churches encourage the use of biblical names while associating traditional baby names with paganism. This creates the notion that Western names are superior to African traditional names.
On the other hand, some have totally exonerated the church arguing that the church is not responsible for the decline in African traditional baby names. Those that share this school of thought argue that churches will never tell anyone not to give their children traditional names. Do you think the church has a role to play in saving traditional names or is it the fault of the parents who feel that traditional names are inferior to Western names? Let us know your opinion.