Traditional African names often have unique stories behind them. From the day or time a baby is born to the circumstances surrounding the birth, several factors influence the names parents choose for their children.
Whichever ethnic group you look at, these local names reveal a wealth of information about the bearer.
Here are nine different ways African parents name their children:
Events surrounding birth
Among several ethnic groups, picking out names can be influenced by positive or negative circumstances the family finds themselves in around the time a child is born.
Often, such names are complete sentences.
- Ayodele (joy has come home) is a unisex name for a baby whose birth brought happiness to their Yoruba parents in Nigeria.
- Yetunde or Yewande (mother has come back) is a Yoruba name given to a girl whose grandmother or other female relative died before she was born.
- Adetokunbo (crown/wealth has come back home) is a unisex Yoruba name often given to a child born abroad.
- Ajuji (born on a rubbish heap) is a Hausa name given to a baby after those born before it failed to survive. It is believed that giving the child a “terrible” name will deceive evil spirits into thinking the child is not loved and as a result, allow it to live.
- Kgomotso and Pumza (comfort) are given to babies born shortly after a death or tragedy in Sesotho and Xhosa families in South Africa.
- Kiptanui and Cheptanui are often given to babies whose mothers may have suffered extreme difficulties during childbirth among the Kalenjin ethnic group in Kenya.
- Kimaiyo and Jemaiyo are names sometimes given to baby boys and girls whose births coincide with men drinking locally brewed beer (Maiywek) among the Kalenjins.
- Misrak (east) was given to an Ethiopian baby girl whose father was in Japan at the time she was born.
- Lindiwe (we have waited) is an isiZulu name often given to a baby girl after a long line of boys.
Some names, especially in Zimbabwe, reflect the mood or circumstance of the family at the time of birth. Some of them serve as warnings or rebukes.
- Nhamo means misfortune
- Maidei asks the question “What did you want?”
- Manyara tells someone “You have been humbled”
- Yananiso means bringing the family together
Sometimes these names are translated into English, where they can sound quite surprising, for example: Airforce; Kissmore; Brilliant; Psychology; Hatred; Nomatter; Jealous; Furious or Hardlife.
But this is not unique to Zimbabwe.
Gospel Mavutula from neighbouring Malawi was originally named Misery but decided it was too negative and changed it.
“I was born at a period when my parents were miserable,” he told the BBC.
He said his parents, both teachers, had been experiencing pressure at work and problems with their neighbours and this influenced his birth name.
“I have avoided that scenario by giving nice names to my children,” he added.
And across the continent in Ghana’s Volta region, a couple belonging to the Ewe ethnic group had decided to stop having children but their last daughter unexpectedly came along.
To show that the child was somehow a mistake, they decided to name her Melevevio, which translates as “not necessary”.
The Luos in Kenya are known for adopting famous names for their children. Quite a number of mothers named their baby boys Obama in 2008 after Barack Obama, the son of a Luo man, was elected US president. And when he visited the country in 2015, one mother reportedly named her child Airforceone.
Churchill and Clinton are also quite popular in Luo-speaking areas of western Kenya.
One couple have already had to defend their decision to name their son Donald Trump Otieno. The parents told the Nairobi News they chose to name their child after the US president-elect because they liked the billionaire’s principles.
But naming children after people in the news is certainly not unique to the Luos, or Kenya.
Order of birth
In many African cultures, there is no need for someone to explain whether they are the eldest or youngest of their siblings. This is because their names can reveal that much. This is especially true of twins.
If you meet a Ugandan boy or man called Kakuru or Wasswa, he is likely to be an elder twin. The younger male twin is usually called Kato. These are names specially reserved for twins.
Similarly, the Kalenjins in Kenya refer to the first born as Yator (first to open the way) and the last born Towett meaning last.
The Yorubas call the first twin Taiwo (taste the world) and the second Kehinde (came after).
In Ghana, the unisex names Panyin and Kakra, which basically mean older and younger, are used for twins.
Even before parents select a western or religious name for their child, the baby already has a name.
Among some Ghanaian ethnic groups like the Akan, Ga, Ewe and Nzema, a name is automatically assigned based on the day the child is born. These day names correspond to the day of the week someone is born and so by default, everybody has one – though the name may not necessarily appear on official documents.
- Monday – Kojo (male), Adwoa (female)
- Tuesday – Kwabena (male), Abena (female)
- Wednesday – Kwaku (male), Ekua (female)
- Thursday – Yaw (male), Yaa (female)
- Friday – Kofi (male), Efua (female)
- Saturday – Kwame (male), Ama (female)
- Sunday – Akwesi (male), Akosua, (female)
These day names can vary slightly depending on the ethnic group.
Many parents express their religious beliefs through names but some this further than others.
Edem Adjordor, from Ghana, believes there is a higher power than black magic and so through his three-year-old son, he sends a strong message to those he considers spiritual enemies.
Xolawubo, which means the creator (God) is greater than voodoo, is the middle name of his three-year-old son. Though his Dutch wife and in-laws find it difficult to pronounce the name, its meaning is all that matters to them.
Across the continent, several local names have religious links. Among the Igbo and Yoruba ethnic groups in Nigeria, a name that starts or ends with Chi, Chukwu or Oluwa has some kind of reference to God.
- Olusegun means God conquers (Yoruba, Nigeria)
- Hailemariam means the power of Mary (Ethiopia)
- Mawufemor means God’s way (Ewe ethnic group in Togo, Ghana, Benin)
- Makafui means I will praise God (Ewe ethnic group in Togo, Ghana, Benin)
Day and night
Among some groups in eastern and southern Africa, certain names are selected depending on the time of the day or season a child is born.
- Kibet means day and Kiplagat means night (Kalenjin in Kenya)
- Mumbua and Wambua means rainy season for boys and girls (Kamba in Kenya)
- Olweny means time of war (Luo)
- Yunwa means hunger or time of famine (Hausa)
While the Luos are very specific:
- Omondi (dawn)
- Okinyi (morning)
- Onyango (mid-morning)
- Ochieng’ (sunny midday)
- Otieno (night)
- Oduor (midnight)
Girls are given the same names but starting with an A instead of an O.
Meet the ancestors
Respected elders of the family may be dead but they continue to live on through their grandchildren.
Parents often name babies after senior members of the clan whether dead or alive.
But it is considered disrespectful to casually shout or call out the name of a senior family member that has been given to a child, so instead it is common to hear a child affectionately called Ouma (grandma) or Oupa (grandpa) in southern Africa.
Similarly in Senegal, a child who is named after a grandfather tends to bear the grandfather’s nickname as well. So a baby boy often ends up being called Vieux (old man).
Somalia has a unique system.
Most people have three names – the ones they were given, as well as that of their father and grandfather. But many also have nicknames, which are so common that they can find their way onto official ID cards.
These nicknames often pick on the negative physical traits of the bearer, if he is male. Some common nicknames for men include Langare (limpy), Coryaan (handicapped), Lugay (one leg) or Genay (missing tooth).
Women, however, mostly get flattering nicknames like Lul (diamond), Macanay (sweet), Cod Weyne (rich voiced), Dahable (golden) and Indho Daraleey (gazelle eyes).
Many people in Africa have several names – for example a name from their ethnic group, a Christian or Muslim name, as well as a name depending on the day, or time of day they were born.
In the Yoruba tradition, it is not uncommon for each parent and grandparent to contribute at least one name. The child ends up with several names – each telling its own special story.