The Power of a Name

Black and white lithograph of a family sitting, backs turned, on a bench. There are three small children, and four adults. They are facing a woman who is embracing them all. The image is reminiscent of an African naming ceremony, where a child is given a name or several names.
Center panel of the lithographic triptych “Family Arc” by John Biggers

To the Shakespearean question “What’s in a name?”, West Africa’s answer is “Everything”. In a world where even the act of speaking is infused with power, birth names ― whether protective or emboldening, proverbial or predictive, exalted or even seemingly indelicate ― are of the highest traditional significance. So, too, the ceremonies that surround them.

Baby naming ceremonies are typically held seven to ten days after birth, not only to allow the mother time to recuperate, but also, and more importantly, to make sure the baby intends to stay in the world of the living. Until an identifying word is attached to an infant’s body and soul, it doesn’t truly exist, doesn’t truly have a place in the world.

Nowadays, it is far from unusual for West Africans to name their children according to their religion. Muslims will often give their children names of Arabic origin such as Mamadu (derivative of Muhammad), Fatima, Ali, or Mariam. Christians often adopt names from the bible such as Joseph, Mary, or Adam. Despite this trend of using foreign names for religious purposes, many people still embrace native, traditional naming methods for their children, regardless of religious affiliation.

The Importance of a Good Name

Oruko rere san ju Wura ati Fadaka”

A good name is more precious than gold and silver

Yoruba proverb.

In the Western world, very few socio-cultural factors influence the dynamics of name-giving, hence the shrugged-off, almost rhetorical question, “What’s in a name?”. They are entirely interchangeable and unrevealing. But in West African culture, many factors are at work in the naming process and a seemingly simple name can hold someone’s entire biography. A West African name is much more than a simple, functional tag to identify someone, it is a symbol, an emblem.

A name can shape a person’s character, mold their social identity, and even influence their destiny. The meaning attached to a name will determine much about the present and the future of a child.

One can often infer someone’s socio-cultural aspects from their name: their ethnicity, their gender, but also their day or date of birth, their family’s occupation, their social and political class, the religion and deities they follow, the hopes and dreams of their parents, etc. It can also express the values, ethics, and beliefs of the culture they are born into.

A name creates an expectation and an attitude in those that hear it, even before they meet the name-bearer. This is partly why, when introduced to people of different ethnic groups, many West Africans will not only say their name, but explain its meaning, so that it is clearly understood regardless of language barriers.

Natural Names

Black and white portrait painting of a mother breastfeeding her baby. A baby is not given a name or several names until seven to ten days after its birth.
“Mother and Child” by Gerard Sekoto

Each child is born under unique circumstances: the day they were born, the important natural, social, or historical events that were happening at the time of their birth, how many siblings were born before them, the primary occupation or social class of the family they were born to, etc. These factors all naturally give rise to descriptive names.

Of course, gender plays a role in the choice of name. Some names are strictly masculine, others strictly feminine, although there are a great number of unisex names. Depending on the name, though, there can be very complex rules regarding its gender.

For example, among the Yoruba, Ikumolu (death has taken the successor) is a name exclusive for males but a female can occasionally bear it if all the males of a family are deceased at the time of her birth.

Day of Birth Names

Among the Akan, children are systematically named after the day they were born. This day name is called kradin, or “soul name”, because it is the soul of the unborn child who decides when to enter the world. The day of birth is thought to affect a child’s behavior, fate, and future. For example, a Monday-born is supposed to be calm and peaceful, a Friday child is expected to be a wanderer and an adventurer, a Saturday-born will no doubt be creative, etc.

Weekday Akan Weekday Male Name Female Name
Monday Edwoada Kwadwo Adwoa
Tuesday Ebenada Kwabena Abenaa
Wednesday Wukuada Kwaku Akua
Thursday Yawoada Yao Yaa
Friday Efiada Kofi Afua
Saturday Memeneda Kwame Ama
Sunday Kwasiada Kwasi Akosua

The Igbo have a similar naming system involving the four days of the traditional Igbo week, although it is nowadays falling into disuse with the advent of Christianity and the increasing use of the seven-day calendar. The four days are, in order, Eke, Orie, Afor, and Nkwo, after the major divinities of the traditional religion. Girl’s names often start with “Mgbe”, meaning “when” to form the names : Mgbeke, Mgboli, Mgbafo, Mgbonkwo. Boy names are often prefixed with “Nwa”, meaning “child” (Nweke, Nwoye, Nwafo, Nwankwo), or Oke, meaning “male” (Okeke, Okorie, Okafo, Okonkwo).

Bambara parents may name their child Nténèdjo (Monday child), Waraba (Wednesday child), or Djouma (Friday child).

Ordinal Names

A couple can also choose to give their children predetermined names according to the order of the births. Although perfectly respectable names, these ordinal names are, for certain parents, a way to avoid taking on the immense responsibility of imposing a very meaningful name that the child might dislike or fail to live up to as it grows. These names based on birth order also carry with them associations as to the child’s personality: a second-born son is often expected to be more thoughtful and clever than the turbulent first-born, for example.

The Soninke may name their daughters in the following order: Sira (1st), Coumba (2nd), Fenda (3rd), Taco (4th), Dado (5th), Niatou (6th). The seventh daughter starts back at the top of the list, being named Sira like the first. Soninke sons are named: Soma (1st), Samba (2nd), Demba (3rd), Daby (4th), Paté (5th) and Yoxo (6th). Again, the seventh son is named Soma, like the first, the eigth is Samba, like the second, and so on.

In order, Senufo sons can be named: Zié (1st), Zana (2nd), N’golo (3rd), Bêh (4th), Dôh (5th), Mbaha (6th), Niagnanman (7th), Sela (8th). The equivalent girl names are: Gnele (1st), Gnôh (2nd), Gnire (3rd), Bara (4th), Zele (5th), Gnaman (6th), Gnaman (7th), Sela (8th).

Twins are so important in West African societies — for good or ill — that they interrupt this ordinal naming scheme when they come into a family. Most ethnic groups have special predefined names for each twin, as well as special names for the children born after the twins.

The Yoruba name the first born twin Taiwo, the second being Kehinde. The child born after the twins is named Idowu, and the one after that is Alaba.

Akan parents call their female twins Ataa and their male twins Ata. The children after the twins are called, in order, Nyankomago, Atuakɔsεn, Abobakorowa and Damusaa.

Black and white lithograph of a family with a man and a woman sitting, backs turned, on a swing. Between them are two twin children. African twins often have predetermined names and affect the naming pattern of their younger siblings.
“Twins of Spring” by John Biggers

Birth Circumstance Names

The Yoruba have pointed names that describe the circumstances of a child’s birth: a baby whose umbilical cord was tied around its neck at birth might be named Ojo (male) or Aina (female), one with the umbilical cord around its wrist might be named Erinle. A girl whose incessant cry at birth suggested she was in distress is called Oni, a baby born feet first will be named Ige. Dada is a child born with knotted hair, while someone named Ilori was conceived immediately after a previous birth before the mother had a chance to menstruate.

A Soninke girl born after her father’s death is named Sonkhané, a boy in the same situation is named Wagui.

If the pregnancy was unusually long, Igbo parents may name the infant Ndidiamaka (patience is good). An equivalent Soninke name is Dalla (waited for the child too long). Among the Ewe, babies born of exceptionally long pregnancies lasting a year or more are called Feyi (a year has passed), Fenu (year thing), or Fenuku (year seed).

An Igbo child born to older parents might be named Mgbenka (female name meaning “in old age”) or Nwanka (male name meaning “child of old age”).

If an Akan couple has had difficulties conceiving, they could opt for the name Nyamekyε (God’s gift), Nyameama (God has given) or Nso Nyame yε (it is not impossible for God to act).

Big Event Names

An Akan child born during a period of prosperity and general well being may be given the name Afriyie (has come at the right time), Abayie (has come well), Antobrε (did not come to experience hardships), or Sika (wealth). In contrast, babies born in miserable periods of poverty, violence, sickness and death, are called Abεbrεsε (hardships), Adiyia (has encountered sorrow), Antobam (did not come to meet good days), or, if the father died before the birth, Anto (did not come to meet).

A Bambara girl born on the day of the N’Domo celebration is called Diango, but if she is born on the day of the Komo celebration, she will be Konégué.

Among the Akan, babies born on festival or celebration days take the name of that celebration: Odwira (Cleansing festival), Buronya (Christmas), Yesu (Easter), for example.

Place of Birth Names

The location of a baby’s delivery is also cause for a descriptive name, such as the Igbo names Uzoahia ([born on] the road to the market), and Enugu (on the hill).

Among the Akan, it is possible to use the names of cities and towns (Kumase, Bekwae, Kokofu, and Mampɔn for example), if the baby is born there. The child can also be named after natural features such as lakes and rivers they were born near (Bosumtwe, Densu, Afram, Pra, Tano, etc.)

Names for Occupations or Economic Situations

Some names have to do with a child’s family’s economic situation or the occupation the family is primarily concerned with.

Black and white sketch of a family of five, backs turned, sitting on a bench. The grandparents are on the right, and the parents on the left. Between the parents, a small child. At their feet are a group of chickens. African parents may give their children names that reflect the family's socio-economic status.
“The Family” by John Biggers

The Edo people have such names as Idemudia (I am financially stabilized); Abieyuwa (born into wealth); Adesuwa (born in the midst of wealth).

Among the Igbo are names like Akubueze (wealth is the king); Udeafo (noise of the market); Nwaobuako (child who carries wealth).

The Akan might name children Afriyie (has appeared well); Abayie (has come well); Sika (wealth).

In the Yoruba tradition are names such as Owodunni (it is good to have wealth), Owoyemi (wealth befits me), Owolabi (wealth is born), Olowolagba (the wealthy people are the eldest), Olowokere (the wealthy people are not small), Olowoniyi (the wealthy is honourable), Olowoleni (wealth is admirable), Ajewole (wealth has entered our house), Ajenipa (wealth has positive effects), Ajeigbe (wealth will never go unrecognized), Ajegunle (wealth has come or landed).

The Yoruba sometimes prefix names with the family’s main occupation. The offspring of hunters often bear the prefix Ode; drumming families might affix the name Ayan; Ade indicates a member of the royal family; Ola is a mark of a wealthy family; and children whose names start with Ifa are undoubtedly from a family of diviners. With this system, the social status of the people wearing the following names is immediately clear to anyone: Ayanwale, Ifawole, Adewale, Olatunji, Adeyanju, to list only a few.

Religious or Spiritual Names

Children can also be given sacred names reflecting the divinities in charge of their destinies, especially those of traditional religions.

The many deities of the Yoruba religion, for instance, are incorporated into the names : Sangoyemi (I’m delivered by Sango, the god of thunder), Fabiyi (delivered by Ifa), Ifagbamila (the Oracle saves and blesses me), Ifawole (the Oracle has come home again), Oyalana (Oya, the goddess of the Niger river, has opened the way), Osundina (Osun, the goddess of water, has blocked the way), Osunbunmi (free gift from Osun), Osabunmi (a gift from the Orisha, the divinities), Abegunde (born during Egungun festival).

The Edo also have names related to traditional spirituality and religion such as Erinmwingbovo (the spirit beings are not envious of humans), Osarodin (god is the eldest), Osaro (god exists), Okungbowa (water god ensures wealth), Ogunbo (Ogun, the god of Iron, is favorable), Igbinosun (I seek the protection of Osun, the god of healing).

The Igbo infuse traditional spirituality into their names, for example : Aniwela (Spirit of the land brought it), Odeakosa (he is in the hands of Olisa, the spirit of plenty), Anizoba (Let the spirit continues to defend).

The belief in destiny can also guide Edo parents to seek names such as Ehiosu (the guardian spirit that guides), Aizehinomo (A child’s destiny is not chosen by the parents), Ehinnwenma (My guardian spirit is good), and Aisagbonbuomwem (one’s destiny is not determined in the world).

Black and white lithograph of a family sitting, back turned, on a bench. On the left sit the grandparents, on the right the parents and two children between them, playing with string. At their feet are a plant and some chickens. African parents may name their children after deities that watch over the family.
“Family of Six” by John Biggers

Other names praise the Supreme Being, the god of gods. Names like these are also acceptable to Christians and Muslims, since the word “god” can apply not only to the Supreme Being of the traditional religion, but to the Christian or Islamic god.

In Igbo, there are two words meaning “God”: Chukwu, and Chi. Both words are incorporated into names such as: Chukwuemeka (God has done well), Nwachukwu (son of God), Chika (God is great), Chibuike (God is power), Chukwudi (God is alive), Chinonso (God is close).

In the Yoruba tongue, names beginning with Olu- refer to the Almighty: Oluwamuiyiwa (God brought this), Oluwaseyi (God does this), for example.

Reincarnation Names

The traditional belief system in most West African societies includes the belief in reincarnation. These names have a prophetic quality. They tie the spirit and the life of a child to those of their ancestor, laying a path for their lives.

Igbo reincarnation names include Nnenna (mother of the father), Nnenne (mother of the mother), and Nnanna (father of the father).

Among the Edo, some names suggest a reincarnated ancestral spirit, like Iye (mother) and Iyorre (I have gone and come).

When a child is thought to resemble their grandparent, the Yoruba may name them Babatunde (Father has come back), Iyabode (Mother has come back), or Iyewande (My mother comes back for me).

Death-defying Names

When a woman looses many of her infants through stillbirths, miscarriages, and infant deaths, it is often thought that it is the same child who is repeatedly conceived by the couple, to be born and die soon afterwards. A good name can act as an anchor that will tempt or force the child to stay alive once and for all.

In cases like these, the Edo people may name a baby Gumwendia (remain with me), Onaiwu (this one will not die), or Sonarae (leave this one behind).

Igbo names of this sort are Onwubiko (Death, I implore you), Nonyem (stay with me), Ndukwe (if Life agrees).

Among the Yoruba, such babies are called Ikunmafayi (Death do not take this), Kokumo (he will not die again), Biobaku (it is right not to die again), Arikuyeri (a person who escaped death), Jenriogbe (stay so that I can carry you), Durojaiye (do not die so that you can enjoy life), Malomo (do not go again), and Durosimi (wait so that you can bury me when I die).

Black and white sketch of a family of four, backs turned, sitting on a bench and hugging. A good name can act as deterrent to death, so that a child might live.
“The Family” by John Biggers

The Akan believe that if they give a cyclical baby a funny or offensive name, the child will be too ashamed to return to the underworld and will be forced to remain in the world of the living. If the child is not shamed into staying alive, there is still a good chance that the spirits of the underworld might be so offended by such a strange name that they will refuse to call it back to the spirit world. This is why some Akan children are named Sumina (garbage), Dɔnkɔ (slave), Kaya (carrier of loads), and Adwengo (palm kernel oil). There is also Agyegyesεm (harassment/trouble making), Saarabi (just like that), Abirekyie (goat), and Asaaseasa (‘the land is finished’, implying that there will be no burial ground should the child die, and therefore it will be left for prey to the cannibals).

For similar reasons, Bwa parents who have lost previous children may give their newborn boy a repellent name like Dòfìó (pile of manure), ‘Ànsin‑‘ó (damaged basket) or simply Yènú‑mana (no name).

Likewise, Bambara children born after several miscarriages get names like Niaman (useless trash), Sagara (rag), Mokho N’tafè (no one loves it), or Togotan (no name).

Ethical and Social Values Names

A name can also reflect an entire society’s ethical framework, reinforcing the values that it holds, by placing on its members the responsibility to live up to their names.

Among the Edo, one can find such names as Ekpen (bravery), Egbenayalobele (hard work: “the path to success is rough”), Aghaleladia (good behavior: “one’s behavior is conditioned by his or her peers”), and Akugberetin (community: “unity is strength”).

Likwise, the Igbo have names like: Ikemefona (let my strength not be lost), Ikeebunam (let strength not kill me), Edekobi (do not hang your heart), Emenike (do not with force), Ejike (we do not use power in doing things of the world).

In Ewe society are such names as: Agbenyega (Life is great), Gameli (There is time for everything).

Among the Yoruba, one might call their child Akinwunmi (I love bravery), Akinlolu (bravery is great), Akinyemi (bravery befits me), Akintola (bravery is worth rejoicing over), Omoluwabi (the virtuous one), etc.

In certain societies, names can even reflect political aspects of the culture, particularly the supremacy of leaders and the right to governance. The Edo, for example, have names like: Osagiobarre (the king is ordained by god), Obasogie (the king is greater), Aiguobasimwinoto (one does not dispute the ownership of land with the king), and Obayanto (the king is the owner of all land).

Proverbial Names

Some names are more cryptic than the above, created from proverbs, sayings, and prayers, the end of which can only be guessed at.

For example, the Igbo have names whose full meaning is implied such as:

  • Chiegeonu: “God doesn’t listen” [to the words of ill-intentioned people]
  • Nkemjika: “the one I have is better” [than the one I wish for but don’t have]
  • Udechukwu: “God’s reputation” [was threatened but He has defended it]
  • Uzuakpunwa: “the blacksmith does not make children” [God does]
  • Bosa: “if God” [was not there, things wouldn’t have gone so well]

Name-giving

The art of name-giving is elevated by the proverbs that West African cultures have created. Several Akan sayings like ‘akoa yi de ne din nam’ (this man walks with his name) or ‘wo din ben wo’ (your name is closer to you) illustrate, beyond question, just what’s in a name.

But a name is not isolated, and West African children are given several, at least three. The parents usually chose one, letting the grandparents, friends, diviners, and the community as a whole pick the others.

Dr. Kofi Agyekum shared the words of the Akan elder who performed the naming ceremony for his daughter, Afua Ataa Boakyewaa Agyekum, in Kumasi in 1985:

"Baby, you are welcome to this world. Have a longer stay, just do not come and exhibit yourself and return. Your mothers and fathers have assembled here today to give you a name. The name we are giving to you is Afua Ataa Boakyewaa Agyekum. You are named Afua because that is the day your soul decided to enter into this world. We are naming you after your grandmother Afua Ataa. Your grandparent is Ataa because she was born a twin. Her real name is Boakyewaa the feminine form of Boakye. Remember that your grandmother is a twin and therefore a deity and sacred figure that must be kept hallowed. In view of this, come and put up a good moral behaviour. Again we are attaching your father’s name Agyekum to your name. Follow the footsteps of your father and come and study hard. When we say water, let it be water, when we say drink let it be drink."

Sources and Further Reading

Journal articles:

  • Olatunji, A., Issah, M., Noah, Y., Muhammed, A. Y., & Sulaiman, A. R. (August 2015). Personal Name as a Reality of Everyday Life: Naming Dynamics in Select African Societies. Journal of Pan African Studies, 8(3), 72-90. Retrieved February 11, 2019, from JPAS.
  • Agyekum, K. (2006). The Sociolinguistic of Akan Personal Names. Nordic Journal of African Studies 15(2), 206–235. Retrieved February 11, 2019, from NJAS.
  • [French] Ugochukwu, F. (2011). La nomination en igbo : consécration et protection. Journal des Africanistes 81(2), 245-263. Retrieved February 11, 2019, from OpenEdition.
  • [French] Leguy, C. (2005). Noms de personne et expression des ambitions matrimoniales chez les Bwa du Mali. Journal des Africanistes 75(2), 107-128. Retrieved February 11, 2019, from OpenEdition.

Web:

  • [French] Traoré, A. (6 November 2009). Baptême : Ces prénoms tirés des croyances ancestrales. Retrieved February 11, 2019, from Maliweb.
  • [French] Mian, S.A. (31 August 2013). Yeo & Kignaman-soro: les Noms et leurs significations chez les Sénoufos. Retrieved February 11, 2019, from TiceduForum.
  • [French] (2007). Signification des prénoms Soninké. Retrieved February 11, 2019, from Soninkara.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *