Names of a changing Africa: Why Essien might disappear, while Olamide and Naledi are here to stay

Culture is dynamic, and naming conventions are subject to change too. In fact, they could be a fairly reliable barometer of a changing continent.

A newborn baby: Some names are more abstract and aspirational, thus more resilient to changes in a community’s external circumstances. (Photo/Niko Knigge/Flickr).

A newborn baby: Some names are more abstract and aspirational, thus more resilient to changes in a community’s external circumstances. (Photo/Niko Knigge/Flickr).

NAMES are a distinguishing mark of any culture, a snapshot of a person’s nationality, origin and heritage – the name Emeka is immediately recognisable as Nigerian (Igbo), the same goes for Kofi (Akan/Ghana), or Andile (Xhosa/ South Africa).

Some names in Africa are more difficult to pin down, partly because they share a similar heritage, or because African colonial borders split many ethnic groups into two or more different countries.

You may come across a Bongani anywhere from Malawi down to South Africa; an Anyango might be from Kenya or Uganda; and an Abdi could be a citizen of Somalia, Kenya, Ethiopia, Djibouti or Sudan.

But culture is dynamic, and naming conventions are subject to change too. In fact, they could be a fairly reliable barometer of a changing Africa.

Take the names Mwanzia (male) and the female version, Nzilani, from the Akamba of Kenya.

The names mean “born by the roadside,” but Kenya’s latest Demographic and Housing Survey (DHS) found that with the expansion of health services, more babies are being born in health facilities.

In 2003, 40% of births in Kenya occurred in a health facility, in 2008 it was up slightly to 43%. By 2014, the figure shot up nearly 20 percentage points to 61%, mostly as a result of an expanded maternal health care services, and abolition of delivery fees in government hospitals.

It suggests fewer children will be born by the roadside, and names like Mwanzia and Nzilani might become less common or even become extinct.

Ghana’s latest population data showed that women were giving birth to fewer children. In 1975, Ghanaian women had an average of 6.82 children; in 2012 this had fallen to less than 3.92.

Football rescues a name

So in the next few decades, the name Essien (“sixth born”), might disappear, only being kept alive by those who name their children after the famous Ghanaian footballer.

The same goes for Ansong (“seventh born”), Awotwie (‘eighth born’) and Akun/ Nkrumah (“ninth born”) – but at least Nkrumah is salvaged by its association with Ghana’s founding president.

But some names are more abstract and aspirational, thus more resilient to changes in a community’s external circumstances.

Names such as Naledi (“star”), Itumeleng (“joy”) and Katlego (“success”) common among the Tswana of Botswana and South Africa will remain, because they express a desire for prosperity that endures.

The same goes for the many names among the Yoruba that express prosperity, such as Olamide (“my wealth has arrived”), Olamilekan (“my wealth is increased”) and Abimbola (‘born into wealth’).

Still, there are some names that might become more common in the future. Africa is poised to experience extreme weather conditions as a result of climate change, including longer and hotter droughts, and more severe floods.

That could see an upsurge in the number of children called Ochieng/Achieng (“born during the sunshine”), or Okoth/Akoth (“born during the rain”) in Kenya and Uganda.


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