What Exactly Is An African Baby Name?

By: Michael Barrows

OK, so you are looking for an African name for your newborn, or your soon-to-be newborn. But what exactly is an African baby name? The reality is that there is really no such thing as a typical African baby name, because that would be like saying that there is a typical European baby name.

The African continent is massive and is home to 54 different countries. The European colonial influence means that English, French, Dutch and Portugese are widely spoken. Add to this the Arabic based languages, the many, many African native languages such as Hausa, Zulu, Yoruba, Swahili, Shona, etc., the hundreds of regional dialects, over 1000 different ethnic groups and the range of different beliefs from Christianity to Islam, to the many tribal religions. Its difficult to see how you can pull out a typical African baby name from such diversity.

Northern Africa (Egypt, Morocco, etc) is largely Muslim, so the names tend to be Arabic. Central and Southern African countries tend to feature not only names that are derived from traditional African culture and native languages, but also many names that are influenced by more recent European colonial history. Some countries, such as Nigeria, have significant populations of Muslims, Christians and followers of traditional religions, so the cultural melting pot is even more complex.

Despite the extreme diversity of the African continent, it is a universal truth that Africans regard the naming of a baby as very, very important and there are many different types of naming rituals. In Muslim Africa, baby names are generally decided according to a complex set of guidelines set out by Islamic scholars. In other parts of Africa traditional naming ceremonies mix with more standard Christian-based ceremonies.

However, whatever ceremonies or rituals are used, it is a true to say that in Africa, possibly more than anywhere else in the world, the choosing of the correct baby name is highly important. People believe that the choice of name can have a major influence on the life of both the child and the family. An over-ambitious name could have significant repercussions whereas a simple name will not carry such high expectations.

But how are the names decided? Well here are a few ways:

1. Names derived from traditional African languages. These names carry deeply-held traditions and beliefs; African linguistic families are believed to have a history of more than 5000 years.

2. Names reflecting the day of birth, e.g. names such as Afua –“Born on Friday” (Akan), Esi - "Born on Sunday" and Khamisi – “Born on Thursday” (Swahili).

3. Names reflecting the time of year of the birth, e.g. Wekesa -"harvest time."

4. Names reflecting the birth order of the new baby or its place in the family, e.g. Mosi - "First born,” Dubaku - "Eleventh born" (Akan), Nsonowa -"Seventh born", and Zesiro- "first of twins".

5. Names taken from vocabulary words are also often used, e.g Sefu - "sword," Tau - "Lion" (masculine), Marjani - "Coral" and Ife -"Love" (feminine).

6. Names describing the parents' reaction to the birth, e.g. Kayode – “He brought joy” (Yoruba), Gwandoya – “Met with misery” (Luganda) and Abeni – “We asked for her, and behold, we got her” (Yoruba).

7. Names that are descriptive of the newborn or of desired characteristics, e.g. Dada – “Curly hair” (Yoruba) and Chiumbo - “Small” (Mwera).

As you can see, there is really no such thing as a typical African baby name. But traditional African names show wonderful variety, reflect deeply-held traditions and – more than most other types of names – often add a very significant meaning to the lives of their owners and their families.

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Michael Barrows' website has great info on baby names, baby name lists and lots of baby resources. Get your free ebook packed with baby tips for new parents, visit the baby name meanings website.

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