There was a post I read online sometime ago about African naming systems, with the focal point being on the Ewe people of West Africa. The traditional practice of this cultural group is to keep newborn babies indoors for 7 whole days after they are born, due to this period being said to be a vulnerable time for them as it pertains to physical and spiritual harm. The belief is that the newborn is a wanderer from the spirit world and they may decide to go back to the spirit world at any time during that first week.
On the 8th day, the newborn is presented to the community and they are officially acknowledged as a child, and no longer a spirit.
This simple post struck me in a way like no other, for it outlined the importance of names especially in African societies. Traditionally, the name of a child was not taken lightly because it is seen as an essential component of the spiritual anatomy of the African person, as it confirms their identity. The part that resonated with my spirit the most was the following quote:
“…it has been said that power from the sounds and vibrations of a properly given name moves throughout the spirit of the African person when heard or spoken. The spirit responds to this power, stirring within the person an awareness of their unique purpose in life and of the potential they possess to carry out that purpose.”
- A father introducing his child in public during an Ewe naming ceremony.
So, What’s In A Name???
“The [naming ceremony] is done to fulfill the social-religious obligations that are believed to become activated when a child is born, as well as to thank God for the safe delivery of the child and to ask him to guide the child as he embarks on a journey through the earth…”
In African societies, a name confers status in the community. Naming ceremonies mark the formal presentation of the child to his kinsmen, family, friends, well-wishers, and the entire community at large. The ceremonies serve to strengthen the community by transmitting communal values and showing the interconnectedness of all members of the community.
The importance of communal ties and the extended family in African societies cannot be overemphasized. By naming and presenting the child to the public, it signifies that the child does not belong to the parents alone, or even the immediate family, but to the extended family and community as well.
Factors Considered When Naming A Child
-location of a person’s birth
-order of birth
-circumstances surrounding the birth
-gender of the child
-hopes the parents have for the future of the child
-observations, birthmarks, or other notable characteristics about the child.
Igbo Name Giving Traditions
In the Igbo tradition as it pertains to the name of the child:
- Igbo names always bear a message, a meaning, a record of history, a prayer or well-wishes that the parents or grandparents have for the child;
- The name is often used to express heartfelt wishes or future hopes and expectations for the child;
- The father typically names the child;
- Traditionally, in the olden days of Igbo society, people were named based on the market day (eke, orie, afor, nkwo) of the week that they were born on.
Igbo Names – Forms & Foundations
1. Afa omumu (birth name)
2. Afa nna (surname)
3. Afa ogugu (given name)
4. Afa ulo/uno (pet/family name)
5. Afa njo (reincarnation name)
6. Afa otutu/otu (nickname/ society name)
7. Afa echichi (title name)
There are many different categories of Igbo names as outlined in this follow up post.
Igbo name giving ceremonies, (known in Igbo as “ikuputanwa” or “igu nwa afa”) are usually officiated by the paternal grandparents. The ceremony traditionally begins with ancestral recognition & divination, followed by the name giving & planting of a live plant to represent life & survival. Afterwards, is the pouring of libation to share the child’s name with the ancestors. Following the usual breaking of kola nuts and the offering of prayers, the ceremony traditionally lasts the whole day, ending with a family procession.
**Due to religion and modernity, naming ceremonies and many other traditional practices are fading out. Although naming ceremonies are still present and culturally significant, they are becoming less elaborate and commonplace.**
Be sure to check out Part II of “What’s In A Name?” here.
-NKIRUKA OBI | FOLLOW ME ON INSTAGRAM AND TWITTER @AFRICANMINDED
To find out more about different naming systems across Africa and the Diaspora and their significance, visit the following links:
Importance of the Naming Ceremony in Africa
Igbo Name Giving Ceremonies
The Naming Ceremony Process in Igbo Land
Ethnographic Study of Igbo Naming Ceremony
Naming Ceremony in Igbo Land
African Baby Naming Ceremonies
African Traditional Baby Naming Ceremonies
7 Traditional African Naming Ceremonies
The Yoruba Naming Ceremony
African Naming Practices
Naming in Africa
African Names and Naming Practices Thesis
Africanisms in African American Names in the United States
Ewe Naming Ceremony Post on Facebook