Names and the value of a human person

Western nations may have much to learn from naming traditions in Africa
Uchenna Uzo | Jan 25 2011 | comment  



How many people actually know what their first names mean? In the four years that I have spent outside of my home country in Nigeria, I have frequently asked the people I meet in Europe and the United States what their names actually mean.  I have always found it amazing to get replies such as:  I do not know? Who cares? Why is that important? Such responses are very different from the typical response of an African.

Take Nigeria, where I grew up. Nigerians actually introduce themselves by not only telling their names but also explaining their meanings to people who belong to other linguistic groups. Why is the meaning of names accorded so much value in Africa?  It is because for an African, a name does not only represent a person´s identity but a name is also regarded as a promise, a vocation and a list of expectations.

For a similar reason, when Pope Benedict baptized 21 babies belonging to Vatican staff recently he took the opportunity to remind Catholics that a Christian name should be just that, Christian, since every new member of the faith acquires the character of a son or daughter of the Church.

In Africa it all starts a few months before a child is born. Parents draw up a list of possible names for the newborn and they share the list with grandparents, extended family members and family friends.  The appropriate names from the list are selected depending on important family events surrounding the conception of the child and also the expectations of the parents from the child.  When the child finally arrives a naming ceremony is organized to formally give the selected names. Each child is given at least three names: one from the parents and two from the maternal and paternal grandparents.

This is a common practice in several African countries such as Kenya, Togo, Sudan, Ghana, Cote’Ivoire and Nigeria. Among the Yoruba of South Western Nigeria, The first name is the personal name (oruko). The second name is the praise name (oriki), which reflects the hopes for the child. The third name connects the child to its family or community (orile).

Parents who have been childless for years and finally give birth to children give names such as "Ndidi" which means patience. Such names affirm that patience is usually rewarded. This name also represents a call to the child to remain patient in time of adversity. 

Another example is the name "Nonye" which means "stay with us". This is the typical name that parents who have lost a child give to the new borne baby.  In Cameroon, parents give names such as Pegwo (disappointment); Jurodoe, (faithful); Sohna (anxiety) to represent the circumstances around the child´s birth. Large families also have special names for their youngest children.

One might ask why all the fuss about giving names to children? At the heart of this practice among Africans is a profound appreciation of the value of the human person.  By giving the child a name, parents and their family members go beyond seeing a child as a composition of cells to seeing the child as a person in search of an identity and a vocation. How does this compare with events in Europe and the United states?

In these countries where there are increasing rates of divorce, abortion, child-sex selection, and so on, it is not surprising that children’s names often reflect popular culture, with a host of little Ollies and Bellas named after film and television celebrities. Too bad that, by the time they are 15 or 20, the significance of their names will have been forgotten, along with other trends of the era.

The West does have a few rules about names. A couple in Sweden spent the 1990s protesting that country’s naming laws by giving their son the name “Brfxxccxxmnpcccclllmmnprxvclmnckssqlbb11116”, pronounced “albin”, and then simply “A”, which is pronounced the same way. It is hard to see where respect for the child and its future comes into this.

The Chinese, by contrast, put a lot more thought into naming their children, striving for something individual as well as meaningful since there are only about one hundred official surnames (family names) shared by most of China’s population. But, even there, historical events and patriotism can create the equivalent of pop culture trends -- “Space Travel” and “Olympic Games” were popular names a couple of years ago when the games were staged in Beijing.

Giving a child a meaningful name in Africa requires accepting that the child has a personal dignity right from the moment of conception that needs to be respected and protected. This respect for the dignity of the newly born is symbolized through practices associated with the naming ceremony. Among the Yorubas of Western Nigeria, water is dabbed on the child´s face during the ceremony to symbolize the child´s purity and the importance of having no enemies. In some other African countries, honey and bitter kolanuts represent the sweet and bitter dimensions of the life that the child is about to begin.

All these details reflect that naming is not a trivial exercise in Africa. In fact, naming is accorded almost the same significance as marriage. After the naming ceremony, parents take every available opportunity to reinforce the messages behind the names that are given to their children.  Parents use popular African proverbs to drive home their messages. When children do not act according to expectations, they are told proverbs such as: "If you do not stand for something, you will fall for something"; "It is a bad child that does not take advice"; "For tomorrow belongs to the people who prepare for it today."

Africa has distinctive cultural qualities that the rest of the world can learn from. One of those who have emphasized this fact is Pope John Paul II who said in 1980 during his visit to Ghana: "The essential aspects of African culture are a vision of the world where the sacred is central, a deep awareness of the link between Creator and nature, a great respect for all life, a sense of family and of community that blossoms into an open and joyful hospitality, reverence for dialogue as a means of settling differences and sharing insights, spontaneity and the joy of living expressed in poetic language, song and dance".

The practices associated with naming in Africa show that naming represents an opportunity for parents to positively influence the life of their children and in the process influence their own lives.

Uchenna Uzo is a student at IESE Business School in Barcelona Spain.



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