On Names


I’ve never had the privilege of giving a child their first name. I have heard that it can be a grueling experience, fraught with anxiety >> particularly from American friends giving their children English names, some of which unfortunately lend themselves to unflattering playground nicknames. I have always had a fascination with names. Often times when I meet someone, I will marvel at their name and ask what it means >> this is how I randomly came to know that Adiya means Queen of Women. By now, I am very familiar with the meanings of many common Yoruba names, notwithstanding the fact that my Yoruba is only at an elementary level. When I meet an Ola, I know their parents were thinking about wealth when they were named; Ade means someone comes from royalty; Akin means someone comes from a long line of warriors; Oyin means honey. I will ask an Abiodun, “when is your birthday?” (It’s usually around Christmas) I ask the question because I know that the name speaks to being born around “odun” a celebratory time.

I can’t lie, I’ve been in love with Yoruba names since I was a teenager. The product of going to a majorly Yoruba school in Offa, Kwara State. Where I had to take Yoruba for 6 years and we learned all the different naming conventions, for example – the well-known Taiye and Kehinde for twins, ripe with the folklore of Kehinde (the second of the twins to arrive) sending Taiye to first check out the world, making Kehinde the egbon (the older twin). I really like Idowu, because my aunt (who is Igbo) was infrequently referred to as Idowu in my childhood, because she came after twins. I also liked and remember Dada (for children born with dreadlocks) from my sojourns to Tejuosho market with my mom. For the longest time my son was going to be called Oluwatosin (then) Oluwatomisin (God is worthy for me to worship), but now I’ve changed it to ImoleOluwaTomiFarati (The light of God is enough for me to depend on) >> I mean how much more powerful can a name get?

The world over, parents give their children names that reflect their hopes, prayers and heart for the child, their affection or admiration for someone (a mother, father or someone you hope the child becomes like), as well as, in recognition of present circumstances/current events. Our names are powerful. And not just in an African sense of ascribing otherworldly meaning and power to things. Dale Carnegie has taught us that “a person’s name is the sweetest sound” – and he is right, we know the social capital that comes with the talent of remembering and using people’s names. One estimate (on Reddit! Hides face in shame) concludes that we write our names 500,000 times within our lifetime, this is a conservative estimate and does not include Nigerian capital market operators (we can sign over 100+ transaction document per transaction) or people running businesses in Nigeria. Who I’d say sign their names just that many times in a year (all those memos!). But with this as a reference, imagine how many times we see, hear or write our names – a lot, a lot, right? Furthermore, there is evidence of brain activation on hearing our names. All of which lead me to believe, without a shadow of doubt, that our names have an impact on our being.

Subconsciously, my name has assumed great significance in my life >> almost like a compass guiding me to the knowledge of who I am, my place in the world and what I am worth as a living breathing thing >> that my value comes from being and not from anything external to me (including my accomplishments or the things that I have). The literal meaning of my given name is: the egg of the eagle; the real meaning is precious, rare, to be cherished, beautiful >> eagles are known to be vicious animals, and they are very protective of their young, I am told that the eagle referred to in my name lays its eggs really high in the mountains, hence the real meaning. My father named me; it took a little while (in Nigerian terms) for my parents to have children (only 3 years in real terms). My mom says that my dad never hesitated, he knew what I would be called when I came.

Once your friends start getting married and having children, you learn so much about the dynamics of married life. And from 8 years of this experience, I know that naming children can be a highly political and tension-filled endeavor requiring extreme emotional intelligence and diplomacy. Some of my female friends wanted influence in what their children are called, and in one case, sole discretion. This is in direct conflict with Yoruba tradition, where the paternal grandfather names the child. LOL. I have a friend who looked at the traditional Bukola that her child was named, and controlled herself, on the basis of the knowledge that despite what the birth certificate said, given that she was the one who had custody over the child, her child would go by the more modern and/or revived Faramade or Kinfeosioluwa (names that can be shortened to the cute and/or unique Fara or Kinfeosi or even Kinfe).

I asked non-Nigerian African friends about naming conventions in their cultures >> and learned:

  • From my South-African friend that like Yorubas, in her culture, grandparents name children, she also mentioned that it is popular to name children according to their clan names.
  • In Kikuyu (Kenya) culture, children are named after their grandparents, so the first born son is named after his paternal grandfather, the first born daughter after her paternal grandmother, if you have more children, then you proceed to the maternal grandparents.
  • My friend from Aneho, in Togo, said that in her family, there is a specific name given to children depending on the order of their birth, such that 2nd daughters are called: Koko; 3rd daughters: Kayi.
  • My Shona (Zimbabwe) friend said that they are more lax in the ways in which they name their children; she also highlighted generational differences, with children of our generation bearing more English names (due probably to extended colonization), but this trend seems to be reversing with the next generation, where children are given traditional names, and the way she summed that up was, “…and it is a beautiful thing.” Another interesting piece of information, in Zim, people name their children based on what they are going through, so a lot of children are (were?) called Namo, which means “suffering”. O my word, this reminds me of the Igbo name Osondu (which means run for life, I think it was a bi-product of the civil war).

Some Nigerian traditions that you may not know:

  • In Yoruba tradition, if you want to name a child, you give the parents a monetary token (you know how Nigerians, at least Igbo’s and Yoruba’s have so many names – I have 20 names, according to my mother - this might be a factor {hehe}).
  • In Igbo culture, if a child is named after you, you are expected to provide the essential things that are necessary to look after the baby.
  • Yoruba’s do not tell people their children’s names before they are named in a naming ceremony on the 7th day after their birth.
  • Igbo’s, traditionally, name their children (at a naming ceremony) on the 8th day after birth, which is 2 market weeks (Igbo market weeks are 4 days long).
  • Like Ghanaians, Igbo’s historically, named children after the day in which they are born, but corresponding to Igbo market days and not the English weekday; so that we have Okafor (born on Afor); Okeke (born on Eke); Okonkwo (born on Nkwo). I wish I knew this, and what my name was when I met the Ghanaian taxi driver that insisted on baptizing me with "my correct Ghanaian name".
  • I didn’t know until today, but Igbo’s also name their children for festivals (see Abiodun above) >> and my dad was named for one, Obiora; Olisa is also a festival baby.
  • Cute anecdote about naming: my dad and his best friend, each named one of their sons after the other #sosotender

I know this is a bit skewed towards Yoruba and Igbo cultures (in the Nigerian context, despite the fact that we have 250+ tribes). Do you know any interesting tidbits about your culture’s naming convention or customs? Is your name of monumental significance to you? Do you love your name? Is there a story around how your name came to be? Have you/did you pick(ed) out names for your unborn children (way before you were even pregnant or *sigh* married {ok, so I am the only one})? Do you see your name as a foretelling of your destiny? This is all so fascinating to me, I would love to yap about it.