I've been entering my students' grades into my laptop, and thus have spent a great deal of time lately looking at long lists of student names. So I'm finally inspired to write about something I've been meaning to address for awhile: Names and naming.
Traditional African names (to make a vast over-generalization) generally have a specific meaning. Sometimes the meaning is relatively trivial. At my site in Kenya, with the Kalenjin tribe, children were usually named after the time of day during which they were born. This, in my humble opinion, is not a great way of doing things. In a class of 40, I generally had 10 “born-in-the-mornings,” 10 “born-in-the-afternoons,” and 10 “born-in-the-evenings, with a few strange ones thrown in (my favorite being Chepchirchir – born-when-there-was-a-lot-of-activity-and-everybody-was-running- around-like-crazy). Most people had a “Western” name as well – Judith and Daisy were popular girls' names – and then a family name.
Here, it seems as though a lot of people also have an African name, a family name, and a Western name, but most people go by their Western names. The funny thing is, although these names are certainly recognizable to Americans, they are unusual and sometimes unintentionally hilarious. Names with meaning are popular: “Princess” and “Prince” are by far the most common, while “Promise,” “Patience,” “Precious,” “Love,” and “Secret” are also frequently encountered. There are a few names that seem outrageously pretentious by American standards; for example “Glorious,” “Wise,” and “Holy” are three of my students. Archaic and Biblical names are also very popular (names that I personally had previously associated more with cranky elderly white folk than strapping young West Africans). I have an “Ebenezer,” an “Ezekiel,” and several “Emmanuels,” “Ophelias,” “Reginalds,” “Alvins,” “Melvins,” and “Sylvesters.”
The traditional African names in this region, from what I've been told, seem to have relatively complex meanings. The principal gave me the Krahn name “Zarkpa,” which he tells me roughly means “someone who is making up for the shortcomings of his predecessors.” Apparently, this name is frequently given to children who have had older siblings that died. (The reason the principal gave that name to me is somewhat less morbid: In the past two years, the school has had two Peace Corps volunteers who each stayed for only six weeks before going home; hence, I am making up for their departures. No pressure or anything).
And then there are a few names that, as a white American, make me somewhat uncomfortable. There are several “Browns” in my classes (I always think “thank God my parents didn't name me 'Pink'”). And one kid in my neighborhood simply goes by “Black Boy.”