Rivers dry up, but not their names. -Benin, Nigeria, Togo (Yoruba)
Igbo. In Igbo society, naming ceremonies may take place four days after a child’s birth, but more often, the naming ceremonies take place on the eighth day, depending on the health of the mother and child.
Paternal grandparents officiate Igbo ceremonies. The ceremony begins with ancestor recognition and divination, followed by the name giving and planting of a live plant to represent life and survival. Next, a participant pours a wine libation to share the child’s name with the ancestors. After the usual breaking of kola nuts and prayers, the ceremony, which traditionally lasts an entire day, ends with a family procession.
The Igbo tend to name based on observation, birthmarks, or some other remarkable characteristic—for example, Ogbonna (“image of his father”). Igbo also commonly name children for the market day on which they were born—Nweke, Adafo, or Okorie. Of the names the Igbo give to a child, the father or a family elder gives the child the name the community will use most often.
Edo. The Edo people usually name on the seventh day following the child’s birth. The community gathers as early as ten AM and begins to pray for (among other things) the child’s health, prosperity, and long life. The main portion of the naming ceremony, which is female-centered, tends to take place around 7 PM the same day. The ceremony generally involves the following elements:
- Kola nuts (welcoming prayers).
- Gin or other strong, hot drink (protecting the child from becoming an alcoholic).
- Palm wine (libation).
- Native chalk mixed with salt (symbolizing happiness).
- Honey, sugar, and bitter kola nuts (symbolizing duality of life’s bitter and sweet qualities).
- Alligator pepper (invoking energy in the child’s speech).
- Coconuts (representing mystery, secrets, and the unknown).
- Yams (a staple food of the Edo people).
- Palm oil (symbolizing emollient for life’s problems).
- Water (representing fluidity and having no enemies).
The senior male breaks the kola nut and passes pieces around for all to share. The senior female then asks the mother what she would like to call the child seven times. In the first six instances, the mother says something the other women reject. For example, the female elder: “What will we call this child?” Mother: “We will call this child ‘worm.’” Women: “We will not call this child a worm.” Music and song follow the first six instances. However, on the seventh instance, the father whispers the actual name into his wife’s ear.
The mother publicly announces the child’s name. Then, the women affirm the name and pray for the child to have a long life. They invite the rest of the participants to offer prayers as well. In the spirit of collectivity, the community gives guests an opportunity to name the child. Traditionally, guests put a gift or a monetary donation (of any amount) in a bowl before stating the name they want to give to the child. After each person states her/his name, the other participants respond with, “Ogha gue dia ise” (May s/he live long). A feast filled with food and drink follows.
Ishan. With the Ishan people of Nigeria, the family’s paternal elder throws the infant into the air and calls out a name. If they accept the name, the attendees call out approval, “He will live long with this name.” Otherwise, the elder tries again. The elder passes the child around to allow the community to confer community pet names on the child.
Igarra. In Igarra society, a new baby does not leave the house until after a naming ceremony. The eldest man in the community traditionally performs naming ceremonies in early morning, or at sunset. The baby’s mother hands the baby to an elderly woman, who passes the child to the eldest man, who begins the ceremony by dipping his finger in the water and putting a bit of water in the mouth of the baby. This symbolizes the “first food of life.” The other elements the elder puts in the baby’s mouth are as follows:
- Honey (sweetness of life).
- Palm oil (neutralizes poison).
- Kola nut (success following trials).
- Salt (“No one eats salt and speaks bad of it.”).
- Dry fish (fish don’t drown in water; the child will not drown in life).
- Alligator pepper (so the child will multiply).
- Wine (to invoke the spirits that might disturb the child during the course of her/his life);
- Bitter kola (the child will grow like the kola plant, bitter at first, then sweet).
After the tasting of elements, the elder whispers the name of the child in the baby’s ears and then says it publically. The elder man then passes the child to the elder woman, who, in turn gives the child back to the mother. The Igarra perform naming ceremonies at various stages of life, not just for newborns.
NIGERIA, BENIN, TOGO
Yoruba. The Yoruba typically name babies from the seventh to ninth day. Some in the Yoruba culture believe they must name babies in the first seven to nine days after birth, or the baby will not outlive the parent of the same sex. So that, historically, Yoruba name males on the ninth day, and name females on the seventh day. They name sets of twins on the eighth day.
Yoruba naming ceremonies begin in early morning or afternoon. The entire family is present and dressed in white. The day of the ceremony is usually the first day the mother and child are away from the home since the birth of the child. To begin, the mother hands the baby to an elderly person, usually a woman who washes the baby in herbs. A community member sprinkles water toward the ceiling and applies some to the baby. The community hopes the child cries when the water touches it, as only living things can produce noise on their own. The ceremony participants pray and make offerings. Then they call the names of the ancestors. Next, community members pour water or rum and light candles for the ancestral spirits. In small amounts, the ritual leader puts the following elements in the child’s mouth:
- Water (purity)
- Red pepper (forces of nature)
- Salt (wisdom and intelligence)
- Oil (power and health)
- Honey (happiness)
- Liquor (wealth and prosperity)
- Kola nuts (good fortune)
Participants suggest praise names until the parents select one. Someone whispers the selected name into the child’s ear and then dips the child’s finger into water and touches the child’s finger to his/her forehead. Often, a community members takes a reading to reveal the child’s character and destiny.
The community members (separately) put a touch of salt, honey, palm oil, and water in the child’s mouth. Then all of the people present hold the baby and promise to protect her/him. Dancing and singing begin and end this ceremony.
Yoruba frequently work on a three-name system. 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).
Akan. The Akan typically keep an infant indoors for seven days and name a child on the eighth day. The father of the child names the baby after an individual he admires and wishes to honor. An Akan naming ceremony begins and ends before sunrise. The Akan ceremony uses two cups. One cup contains water; and the other cup contains a “strong drink”/nsa. An elder places a finger in the water and then into the infant’s mouth, saying “If you have come to stay, then this is your name. May you live long among us.” Next, the elder dips a finger in the strong drink and then into the infant’s mouth. This ritual leaves both a pleasant and difficult taste in the infant’s mouth. Often, the two cups are mixed together and the ritual leader gives the remaining liquid to the parents so they may experience what their child is experiencing. The rest of the liquid is shared with the entire community The first name the Akan give to a child is the kra den, or soul name. The day of the week on which a child was born determines the kra den. In Akan culture, the day of the week on which a child was born ultimately reveals which spiritual force guides and governs the child. The second name the Akan given to a child is a formal name known as the den pa, which ties children to their ancestral clan(s). The Akan also give children a third name identifying birth order.
Krobo. The Krobo of Ghana tend to name children according to their birth order , and the day of the week on which they were born. The Krobo name, Afe Dede means Friday Firstborn Girl; Dede Gaga means Firstborn girl Tall.
Ghanaian names frequently have two parts. The father gives the child the soul name (Akeradini), associated with a deity related to the day the child was born and considered the name the child was “born” with. The father offers the child an Akeradini at the hour of the child’s birth—there is no ceremony for this. The father selects the second name (Agyadini) from among his family’s relatives, and gives the child the Agyadini during the naming ceremony.
GHANA, BENIN, TOGO
Ewe. The Ewe have naming patterns similar to the Akan. Each Ewe child has a birthday name given for the weekday on which the child was born—for example, Efia (“born on Friday”), Ama (“born on Saturday”), and Kwakou (“born on Wednesday”).
Goun. The Goun name female children seven days after birth, and their male children nine days after birth. Like the Akan and Ewe, the Goun children are born with birthday names—for example, Sede (“born on Sunday”). Goun give children other names referring to circumstances surrounding the birth, and names expressing emotions such as joy or sorrow—Affoyon (”welcome, born at the right time”) and Bidoun (“joy of birth”) are examples. Goun aunts give several names to Goun children, but each name giver has to purchase the name given with a gift of money. If the grandfather is alive, he selects the name the child will be called. If not, then the mother chooses the name.
Dagara. According to Some (1999), the Dagara not only decide on names as a community, but also work to make a name match the child’s purpose. If the Dagara pick a name potentially construed as negative, the true purpose and intention are stated.
The first time the people offer a name to the community, they present the name in some sacred way. Friends and family stand in a circle, and one individual is selected to hold the elements representing each direction. Someone pours libations and then calls on the ancestors. The parents usually walk into the center of the circle holding the infant. If the infant is a girl, the mother hands the baby to her motherin-law; if a boy, the father hands him to his father. The grandparents then present the baby to the four directions while asking for blessings. Then the grandparents whisper the baby’s new name into her/his ear three or four times (three for males; four for females). Next, the name is said aloud the same number of times. As with most rituals, this one ends with a feast of food(each participant has prepared and brought food to share).
Koranko. The Koranko tend to name infants after dawn on the child’s eighth day of life. To start, the child’s paternal and maternal relatives present a bowl of rice flour and water, topped with white and red kola. The relatives’ presentation symbolizes their willingness to “carry the child” or train her/him for life. Then, the most senior paternal relative acknowledges the ancestors and prays in Koranko or Arabic.
Usually, an elder female relative brings the child outdoors. While she carries the child, the senior paternal relative recites the names of ancestors while pouring a libation of cold, clean water, moving counterclockwise. Following prayer, the attendees recite ancestral names. A paternal female relative sweeps the place on the ground where the baby will be laid, symbolically sweeping away death. Next, the male elder lays the baby on the ground and sprinkles cold water on the baby to symbolize the child being between the divine and human worlds. After pouring more libations, the attendees share the rice flour, beginning with the senior paternal relative. Getting permission from the attendees, the senior paternal member names the child with a name determined by gender.
The child is traditionally named for a member of the family, either living or dead. So that children don’t have the same names, the Koranko add the mother’s first name to the child’s name. After the naming, family and community members give gifts. The ceremony concludes with a procession introducing the child to the community.
Wolof. The Wolof ceremony tends to take place a week after birth and begins just before noon in the home/place where the child was born. The mother sweeps the house and then washes the infant in water while the midwife or grandmother holds the infant. Then the child’s head is shaved, starting on the right and working to the left, which the Wolof believe bestows blessings. The Wolof gather kola nuts, cotton, and millet in a clay bowl. For the Wolof, the kola nuts represent long life and good luck. An elder rubs hands all over the infant’s hands. The attendees offer prayers and the elder spits in the child’s ear to make sure the name is implanted in the baby’s head. Finally, the elder announces the name loudly and then the attendees spend the rest of the day singing, dancing, and feasting.
Wolof names are meaningful in denoting the genealogical tree. The Wolof generally give children the family name of their fathers, So every Wolof child has a name referring to their past or to their ancestors.
Bassa. East Cameroon’s Bassa people name male children on the ninth day and female children on the seventh day. Among the Bassa, the father usually names the child. The Bassa naming system revolves around names referring to the psychological state of the parents before or during childbirth, and names speaking to the relationship between the family and the community: Pegwo (disappointment); Jurodoe, (faithful); Sohna (anxiety).
Fulani. Fulani fathers select and give names to their first two children, while Fulani mothers select and give the name to the third born. For the Fulani, first names are usually Muslim, and other names refer to birth circumstances: Falala (born into abundance); Moro (shameless); Diengoudo (the late comer); Guedado (wanted by no one).
Diawara. A totem is an object serving as a revered symbol or inspiration for a family, or group. The Diawara give their children names from the Koran (Idrissa, Moussa, Issa, Binta), or name their children after plants or animals that are totemic symbols.
Bete. The Bete people name children when the child first utters a sound. A council of elders, including the child’s father, chooses a name and names the child. The mother influences the choice of name, but does not participate in the group decision. Paternal and maternal parents give names to the child, but the Bete use the paternal name. Bete names generally come from animal or abstract sources; then there are names directly related to experiences or events: Lago (God); Ble (buffalo); Bleza (wild bear); Zogbo (scandal, shameful event); Drepenba (I shall not forget).
CHAD (ALSO THE CENTRAL AFRICAN REPUBLIC)
Sara. The Sara name male children on the third day after birth and female children on the fourth day after birth. Sara names commonly reveal family members’ special talents or occupations: N’guississandje (founder of a family of lions); Tomalbaye (strong courageous man).
Several cultures in Zambia name the child the day its navel cord finally falls off. Commonly, the maternal grandmother conducts the naming ceremony and the maternal side of the family takes responsibility for asking the mother whom she dreamt of during her pregnancy. Elders also ask the baby (directly) if s/he has come back as one of its ancestors. If the baby smiles, the elder believes s/he has found the appropriate name. If the baby cries through the night, then the elders select another name, and another, until the child sleeps peacefully through the night.
Ndebele, Zezuru. These Zimbabwean groups, like many other groups, name children one week after birth with names relating to meaningful circumstances or events: Tapera (the enemy has all but wiped us out); Libbila (setting sun); Bulawayo (place of the massacre); Makata (liberty is to be found at the top of a steep mountain). The southern Ndebele recognize five phases of name giving for males (Skhosana 2002):
- A birth name/first name (ibizo lokubelethwa). The community chooses this name within seven days.
- Abaptismal or Christian name (ibizo lokubusiswa). The parents or church often choose this name, which will be used by the “outside world.”
- A “hardworking” name (ibizo lokugwaba). A peer group chooses the “hardworking” name before initiation.
- A “manhood” name (ibizo lokuwela). Grandfathers and fathers select and bestow the “manhood” name after initiation.
- A “fatherhood” name (ibizo lobubaba). This is more of a title and is derived from the firstborn child’s first name. This name is used for the remainder of the male’s life cycle, unless the child after whom the father is named dies, at which time the name is no longer used.
Watutsi. Watutsi also name children a week after birth. Unlike many other cultures, though, the naming feast is for the children, several of whom are allowed to suggest names for the newborn. The Watutsi place emphasis on meaning: Bizimana (only God knows); Nkudinshuti (I like friends); Bamgababo (there is a dispute in the family).
Abaluhya. Kenya’s Abaluhya name a child for each of the clans (families) linked to the child. Thus, a child cannot have fewer than four names—two from the father’s clan and two from the mother’s clan. Typically, Abaluhya also give infants names identifying the season s/he was born, and another name identifying the day s/he was born: Nafula (born during rainy season); Jimiyu (born in dry season).
Akamba. On the third day after birth, the Akamba give names to their children, after which they then regard the child as a full human being. Once the name has been bestowed upon a child, the parents participate in ritual lovemaking to secure the infant’s separation from the spirit world and welcome the child into the human world.
Chagga. When the first tooth appears, the Chagga give infants a personal name. The community prays to the ancestor for whom the child will be named. After the father affirms the name, the women in attendance sing. For example, “Ancestor, may you be mentioned in this house at all times. Protect this child, lest your name cease to be remembered by us.”
Agikuyu. The Agikuyu’s naming system is rigid, allowing the Agikuyu to preserve their history for generations. At birth, the Agikuyu name babies after a paternal family member and a maternal family member.
Luo. Similar to groups in Zambia, the Luo call out different names while an infant is crying. If the child stops crying when a particular name is called, then the Luo give the child that name.
Maasai. Maasai often give names when children are a year old. After elders slaughter a sacrificial goat, they shave the heads of both mother and child to represent the new phase of life.
Rural Masai have an atypical naming ritual. On the evening of the ritual, the Masai mother carries her baby to the cattle kraal and milks cows with the child on her back to introduce her child to nature. When done, three male elders and the child’s father join the mother and name the child. Elders announce the new name saying, “May this name dwell in you.”
In traditional Somalia society, newborns’ mothers stay indoors with their babies for forty days (afatanbah). During the afatanbah, relative and friends care for the family. Traditionally, the mother wears earrings of string and garlic. Also, the family gives the baby a bracelet of string and agris gris (charm/talisman). Somalians believe the garlic and agris gris repel those who wish the child harm.
When the afantanbah is complete, mother and child leave the home for the naming ceremony, which occurs with much dancing, singing, music, and food. Ritual goat killing is still a regular part of these naming ceremonies. In modern Somalia, naming rituals take place a week after birth. Both the father and mother select names, but the name the father selects for the child becomes the most popular. Somali names relate to circumstances or events, such as the season during which a child is born: Roblai (the one who brings rain); Nadifa (born between two seasons); Jama (one who brings people together); and Diah (born during full moon).
Sudananese naming rituals occur seven days after birth (Simayah). The child’s father prepares a lamb for slaughter, saying something like “By the name of God I am going to call my boy or girl so and so” (Madubuike 1976).
Sudanese children keep their names for life. Females do not change their names after marriage. Sudanese choose the names of famous people; the days of the week; and names based on the birth circumstances: Konyi (firstborn son); Masala (the great mother); Nyawela (on a journey).
The tortoise said if the old things happen, do not call her; but if a new thing happens, call her. -Nigeria (Igbo)
- Prepare for the ceremony by having some of the following items available: Water (vitality and change); plant (life); soil/earth (child’s origin, humanity’s origin); oil (calm); sugar (sweetness); kola nut (longevity); wine (happiness of community); candle (guiding light); cowry shells (wealth).
- Drape a small table in African fabric and decorate it with some of the following: African fabric, plants, and African artifacts.
- Open the ceremony with remarks by oldest relative present; or oldest person present.
- Bring the child outside or out into the open, and “outdoor” the child. Then have the father lift the baby to the sky, and touch the baby to the ground. Repeat this action up three times for males; and four times for females.
- Pour a libation of Coca Cola as it contains Kola Nut which is not generally available outside of Africa. Pass the Coca Cola to all attendees who should drink either from the container or motion as if they are doing so.
- Ask an elder to pass around the elements and make appropriate statements such as, “we give you honey so you may experience the sweetness of life.”
- Announce the name(s); and the meanings of the name(s).
- Provide advice to the newly named person, the family; and present gifts. Include presentations of poems, proverbs, speeches, and more. Silver bangles are common gifts, as they are thought to have healing properties and protect children from illness.
- Feast. Food is one of the most essential elements of the feast, but the feast can also include music, drumming, singing, and so on.
Eight Bowls Full of Life
by Makungu M. Akinyela, Ph.D.
(printed with permission)
The House of Umoja, a Black Nationalist political and cultural organization, introduced an eight bowl life cycle ceremony to Black communities in the U.S. Thus, for the past thirty-five years, Blacks in the U.S have highlighted thousands of significant life passages- naming ceremonies, weddings, graduations, funerals – by observing this eight bowl ritual, summarized here:
- In preparation for the ritual, a low lying table is decorated with traditional African centered cultural symbols and then used as a ceremonial altar.
- An elder, either female or male, usually leads the ceremony. The person or persons leading the ceremony are encouraged to dress in traditional African attire.
- This ceremony requires eight bowls, made of wood, ceramic ware, glass, clay or other aesthetically pleasing material.
- The following eight elements are also needed: wine, honey, lime, salt, cayenne pepper, water, African palm oil, and fresh coconut. One of the eight elements is placed in each of the bowls. .
- The bowls are placed in a circle around the table symbolizing the path of the sun around the earth. If the circle were a clock face, the elements would be placed around the circle counterclockwise in the following manner:
- Salt at twelve o’clock;
- Cayenne Pepper at eleven o’clock,
- Water at nine o’clock,
- Palm Oil at eight o’clock;
- Coconut at six o’clock;
- Wine at four o’clock;
- Honey at three o’clock; and finally
- Lime at the two o’clock position.
- When naming a child, typically, the parents sit together in front of the ceremonial leader who gives instruction to the community and reminds the community to be responsible for helping the child learn the lessons of life. The child to be named should be held by the eldest family member in attendance who sits up front alongside the child’s parents.
- The Eight Bowl Naming Ceremony begins with an offering of libation, to remember and honor the community’s ancestors. Water is poured onto the ground, or into a potted plant. The text of a libation usually involves invoking the names of personal and community ancestors; the purpose of the occasion, and requests for prosperity and blessing. The libation is not intended to be a solo performance. Rather, often, there is call and response, or attendees verbally compliment the libation. Libation text written by members of the House of Umoja is included here as an example:
Blacker than the skies at midnight
Great ancient priests, warriors and mystic scientists
Give us the inspiration to fight a thousand lions
Give us the enlightenment to unravel the mysteries of the universe
Give us the sustenance to travel through the trackless swamps of disharmony
Praised be your Black African names
Help us in our time of need
- House of Umoja
- After the libation, the main part of the ceremony includes the tasting of the eight elements and brief presentations of the life lesson related to each element. The elements are tasted first by the baby (the leader puts the element into her/his mouth) and parents (or adult to be named), and then by the participants as all present listen to the lesson from the ceremonial leader.
- Wine. The Wine represents appreciation for tradition and family. As well, wine symbolizes strength in racial/ethnic pride, commitment to household and extended family, reverence and appreciation for the foundation those who came before have laid.
- Honey. Honey represents an ability to appreciate and remember the sweetness and goodness of life events experienced through positive interpersonal relationships.
- Lime. Hurt and betrayal are unavoidable during the life cycle. In this ritual, lime represents an ability to overcome bitterness. The collective hope is that individuals being named learn to retain dignity, composure and self worth even when feeling hurt by words, actions or inaction of others.
- Salt. As a spice, salt represents variety. In the ceremony Salt symbolizes wisdom and balance in making life choices as well as flexibility, creativity and moral balance in making choices and decisions.
- Cayenne Pepper. Crisis and tragedy are also unavoidable during the life cycle. In this ritual, cayenne pepper represents resilience in response to critical situations. Cayenne reminds ritual participants to expect unpredictable circumstances in the form of crisis or tragedy and to develop the ability to rebound in the face of crisis.
- Water. The fluid of life, water represents a willingness to be renewed and changed. Additionally, water represents spiritual depth and renewal; and coolness in the midst of crises.
- Palm Oil. For this ceremony, palm oil represents reliance on community power. More essentially, the palm oil represents an ability to move towards inevitable death with confidence and grace. This confidence can be born of a cohesive family and community where each person is valued for their contribution.
- Coconut. Fresh, broken coconut symbolizes assurance of inevitable blessings and unexpected luck. This coconut also represents reliance on that which is greater than oneself and life benefits which have nothing to do with an individual’s own intelligence, skill, or power, but are due solely to the unpredictable goodness of the divine.
The elements’ life lessons are inter-related. While it is important for an individual to be steeped in heritage and tradition (wine), it is equally important for a person to be willing to change (water). Children should be surrounded by all the sweetness and joy a family can provide (honey), yet they will not be strangers to bitterness (lime). Power is longed for in life (African Palm Oil), but must be moderated by wisdom when making decisions (salt). And, while African descended people are used to experiencing “hot and critical times,” (cayenne pepper), an uneasy expectation can be complimented by the assurance that blessings/good luck will someday surely follow (coconut).
The tasting of elements is often followed by songs, dance, drumming, and of course, feasting (food).
This article is printed with permission from the author, Dr. Makungu Akinyela. Please direct reprint requests to: firstname.lastname@example.org. Additional information about the the House of Umoja’s Eight Bowl Ceremony and other naming rituals can be found in The African Book of Names (Health Communications Inc, 2009).