What’s in a name?
It was getting dark. Though he never liked driving during the night, he stepped on the gas pedal and speeded heading in the direction of Addis Ababa. It looks like he needs to get to Addis as fast as possible. He is driving back to Addis from an Easter weekend at his parents’ who live in the countryside. During the drive back, his six-month-pregnant wife was on the passenger seat next to him while their three kids were well-strapped on at the back of the car. The girls were talking about the exam that awaits them back at school. The boy was fast asleep.
All of a sudden, the car lost its way, went pass a bridge and down into a small river. He doesn’t remember the moment clearly. However, he faintly recalls crying for help and people rushing towards them. When he finally regained consciousness after hours, he was in a hospital bed and the doctors told him that he had been in a car accident and that his wife and kids are being treated in the same hospital. Once the events started to pour in, he started screaming and sobbing. He thought he lost his family. Indeed, everyone thought his wife had lost the baby. Luckily, the resilient fetus pulled through and mom’s medicals started to show positive results. It was a big relief.
Nonetheless, his oldest daughter couldn’t easily recover from the traumatic experience. She went to different hospitals, but couldn’t be stable. She talks to herself; she cries; she doesn’t sleep and had to quit school. It was a nightmare. The thought of her never recuperating was devastating. Neither he/nor his wife could work. Therefore, supporting the family was tough. This horrifying ordeal did manage to tear the family apart; as a result he couldn’t help but blame himself.
When everything seemed at its worst, his wife’s due date arrived. Then, he says, things started to get better. A month after his wife gave birth, his daughter started to slowly recover and be herself once again. The family started to get back on their feet. “Everything started to get better, once the baby came. Somehow, it (the baby) eased the unimaginable pain in the family,” says Workneh Degu.
Ethiopians put a lot of thought into naming a child. Most families have the culture of naming their children after a major event that has happened in the life or generally reflecting their condition at the time a child is born. Workneh and his family also knew that the name of their fourth child had to be a lot more meaningful. Every family member and close relatives showered the miraculous little boy with all sorts of names. But, nothing seems to stick for months. Well until one day where Workneh’s niece dropped what instantly became the chosen name for the little boy: Noah. She said; “The accident could have been worse, but the spirit of this kid protected you, the car was like Noah’s ark, so you should name him Noah,” everyone agreed instantly. Now Noah is five years old.
Noah’s story is one among countless similar narratives behind names in Ethiopia. Naming has its techniques and reasons, depending on the country and culture. Ethiopian names usually have a back story. Be it a change of socio-economic status of parents, the political situation in the country or other reason, major events project strong influence on a child’s name. A traumatic experience that the family goes through, religious beliefs or even the parents’ perspective of the world have an influence on the naming of children.
This fact seems to hold true for most African countries as well. A name does not only represent a person´s identity but also the hopes, dreams and aspirations of the parents. For some, names signify one’s calling or they are given as a reminder of a particular geographical location, belief, or philosophy. In countries like Nigeria, child naming is not taken lightly; it is commemorated with a big ceremony. Family elders and friends gather to pray for long life, health and prosperity of the child to be named and then submit their name proposal to the baby.
For Firemariam Tadesse, a name is part of one’s identity. In her family, her father is the one who gives names for the new-born and it is usually in line with the Orthodox Christian tradition. “He chooses names that make sense to him. There is no random naming with him.” she explains.
According to her, the name symbolizes the recognition of one’s existence; and she argues that it says a lot about that person. It all starts with the introduction of the person, then goes all the way up the community, country and the world. Though there are names which are given arbitrarily, most of the time a name is deep-rooted. Names of deities, saints, or religious figures such as Gabriel, Mohammed, Mariam, Hanna and Mosses are usually most preferred as they show the belief system of the family that person has come from.
Some even go to the extent of believing in a name as a determinant of one’s personality. Misrak Yemane, a mother of two, says; “I named my children Makida and Ezana after a wise Ethiopian queen and the first Ethiopian king to accept Christianity”. “All I want is for my kids to know their history and ask about their origin,” she says, arguing that a child’s name has a big psychological impact on their upbringing.
In some families, parents draw up a list of possible names for a new-born. Relatives, friends and colleagues get involved too. There are also some strange circumstances where the midwife who helps deliver the baby or simply a passer-by gives name to children. Or some parents happened to pick up on a name from a radio, neighbours, singers, writers, leaders or activists. Che Guevara, Kennedy, Bob, Obama and Bush are few names one could come across in Ethiopia today.
Different political circumstances are also behind certain kinds of names. During the times when revolutionary tides swept across Ethiopia, names like Abiyot, Serawit and Shambel were common. Historians say in the aftermath of the Ethio-Somalia war, the name Militia was quite popular. The history of veterans of Adwa and soldiers who went to Korea, is depicted in the name of their children.
Reently, in tune with the new political order, names like Hidase (renascence) and Yigedeb Abay (let us dam the Nile) are coming forward. Naming their kids after certain political situations in the continent they live in or even the world are some parent’s preferences. Better yet, these name go further to express certain beliefs or positions that the parents hold on these matters. Of course, some people see this as a form of inculcating ideas into a child, while others see it as passing on a heritage to next generation.
These days, the most popular trend seems to be the blending of words in different languages and make up a name such as Kabenat, (she is my hill), Nuiskane (Oromiffa for we are rising as well), and Honaliyat (may I see her succeed).
Solomon Gidey says naming should be situational, whether a family’s personal status or social condition should be the basis for naming a child. He named his first-born Salsawit (third one). According to him, his very first foundation of his life is his mother, secondly his wife and to be followed by his daughter; hence Salsawit.
At times, the time of birth such as the day, the month or the season are taken into consideration. Names like Meskerm and Tsedey, meaning September and spring in Amharic, are a case in point. In some areas names are a result of family’s living condition. Parents depict despair in losing a loved one or loss of a family member by naming children after the deceased. A father naming his child Godahegn (you hurt me), in event of losing his wife during the birth of the child might have gone too far with expressing his sorrow. Some couples choose the name of their child before birth, some during pregnancy and some others even before meeting their prospective life partner.
Ande (one), Hulet (Two), Sost (Three), Arat (Four) are just numbers for many. But, in Belay’s family, the words are more than just numbers – they are the name of his children. He says “I gave them this name because I find it unique, it shows their sequence and somewhat interrelates them.” His friends and relatives couldn’t take the names seriously at first, he remembers. His wife, on the other hand, was happy hoping the name would mean a lot to their children.
For Sifen Taye, naming is all about expressing one’s roots. Her name, which means for you in Oromiffa, was given to her by her father. Her mother’s pregnancy was unplanned. Her parents were in an economic crisis during the time, which forced them to experience a lot of ups and downs. “Raising me consumed my parents’ energy; they have sacrificed a lot. I am a reminder of their struggle. Besides that, my names reflected my Oromo upbringing,’’ she explains. Her sister was brought up in a better and apparently easier situation and got the name Lelise which means fertile.
Sifen, who is an anthropologist by profession, says naming is an issue that attracts many social researchers and linguists. She states, a name should be viewed far beyond its simple use of identifying someone. “Naming is a mirror of social status; the name of people living in one place collectively reflects upon the social order,’’ she argues.
These days, some people change their names for different reasons. One reason is not being ‘modern’ enough or being a reminder of some terrible memory. She says it is up to the parents to give a name that transcends time and space. Although it’s up to a person to accept and live with it or change his or her name, she says stressing that parent-given name should be valued.
Seyoum Bekele and his wife are in mutual agreement when it comes to naming their children. “Starting from the day we got married she always says we are going to have four babies and since I carry them and give birth to them it’s only fair for me to give them the names; and I agree with her,” Seyoum says. His wife picked a name she liked for their first-born, but the name she gave to their second baby was a reflection of the heath complication that she encountered.
He says that for some people meaning doesn’t seem to matter and naming is all about the beauty of the name. Some don’t seem to put any attachment to names. But Seyoum prefers easy and catchy names for his children, which he says his wife had done.
There is a women who named her child Hermen (Gift) because the baby was conceived on her birthday and she considers it as the greatest gift from her husband. A couple got married against all the odds. He was from a poor family and her parents were wealthy. Her parents and relatives disapproved of the marriage saying that they are from different classes. They got married anyway. He named his first-born Natay (come let them see you) as a reminder for those who were against the marriage. Rhythm is also important in some Ethiopian names. Choosing names that rhyme and resonates with the father or grandfather’s name is common in certain localities.
These days there are websites and books from which parents can get name options. Better still, now there is a hotline to get naming consultation in Ethiopia; one can dial 8142 to find a baby name. In some countries, naming law restricts the names that parents can legally give to their children. This is done usually to protect the child from being given an offensive or embarrassing name. For example, Denmark, Germany and Hungary have a list of preapproved names.