What's in a name?"

16 January 2015

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet,” William Shakespeare stated in Romeo and Juliet.

His intention was to illustrate how meaningless a name is. The statement implies that a name is a noun that carries no weight, and that one can change on a whim.

However, in the African culture it is not that simple. The naming process varies between different ethnic groups, but the common denominator is that careful consideration goes into naming a child.

Parents may name a child after someone in remembrance of them, or after an event that took place during their birth or events surrounding the child’s conception.

Many years ago, there was a woman who named her child “Lengweni” which means “be ashamed”.

However, this was not to shame the child, but rather her in-laws who claimed that the child was not her husband’s. When the mother gave birth to the girl, she was a carbon copy of her father, hence the name.

While she took it to the extremes, other people opt for more simple names like Nuusiku (born at night), Namvhura (born while it rained) or Dantago (I have won).

In some African cultures, people also believe that a child would have traits related to their name or their namesake.

They expect a child named Mildreth to become a good advisor and most likely be a good psychologist.

They expect a child named Faith, which is my name, to have unwavering faith and be a troublesome loudmouth with an addiction to chilli con carne.

However, all that is not as worrisome as the responsibility that comes with being someone’s namesake, as I recently found out.

One would think that the role of having to assume responsibility for a child that is not yours ends with being a godparent.

I went to a couple of Owambo weddings were the couple’s namesakes had to give some sort of livestock for slaughter at the feast, merely because they were namesakes. Fortunately, they received half of the carcass to take home.

Traditionally, the naming process is not just left up to the parents. The child’s parents are expected to consult the elders about names they are considering, after which the intended namesake will be consulted.

If all parties agree, they then name the child, but that is only the beginning. For the rest of that child’s life, they can call on their namesake for anything they want/need.

It is the namesake’s duty to give money, gifts or whatever they can afford for the child’s birthday; support them financially during their school going and varsity years and run around like a headless chicken when the child becomes an adult and decides to marry.

However, being a namesake does not only affect the person you are named after, but also those around them.

The children of the person named after someone have to respect their parent’s namesake and treat them like their parent, whether they are younger or older than they are.

This child can do as they please and no-one can do anything about it.

If a child is named after someone who has died, the deceased’s children and siblings are obliged to take care of their parent/sibling’s namesake. Surely, Shakespeare would not have asked what is in a name if he knew all this.

The next time you jump at the opportunity of having a child named after you, think of the implications it might have on your pocket.

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The Windhoek Observer is an English-language weekly newspaper, published in Namibia by Paragon Investment Holding. It is the country's oldest and largest circulating weekly.

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