Part two in a series
Africa – mostly in the south of Sahara – has some the richest cultures of names in the world. In Africa, the birth of a child is an event of great exultation and importance. In African traditions, names are not just picked and given to children; names are selected and consecrated to the new human on the ninth days of his living. The naming ceremonies are led by elders. A child’s name is the evidence of his existence. Each name attached to a child comes with the stimulation of certain specific forces of conscious intelligence. These forces combined create a complete matchless person.
Because the child will live his entire life with his given name, great significance is attached to the naming of the child. The hopes of the ancestors, the status of the family, current and celestial events as well as future expectations placed on that child are taken into consideration during the naming decision.
During the colonization of Africa, Europeans insisted that everything African was “primitive, barbarous, unholy,” whereas everything European was pure, proper and civilized. You certainly recall in Roots, Alex Haley, the slave master, stripped Kunta Kinte from his name and called him “Toby.” The move from African to European names found the most resistance in the African communities because people were being asked to lose who they were to become someone else. Nevertheless, a compromise was often found to bridge both cultures especially when parents were Christians. For myself, I Emmanuel (European Christian) Ngomsi (African name), is a great example of cultures bridging. The story of my name is long; let me share the shortest version.
While I have no idea who gave me the name “Emmanuel,” I know what it means (God with us) and am glad someone picked it for me. On the other hand, Ngomsi (pronounced Gum-See) was given with consultation of elders in my village. “NGOM-” means the “word,” “conversation,” “talk” and “-SI” is the word for God. Thus, “Ngomsi” is translated as “The word of God.”
Because the child is given his name in such a way that he lives his entire life according to the meaning that his name carries, I am supposed to always tell nothing but the truth, because that’s the way God talks. Most importantly, growing up carrying this name was sending a message to all adults and the whole community of the expectations my family placed on me.
Failing to live up to my name is a like blasphemy because the God’s word is nothing but the truth. I am the only Ngomsi in my extended family, and certainly in the U.S. My parents are not Ngomsi and none of my six brothers is Ngomsi. At school, teachers and students called each other by their last name only, thus reminding them of who they truly are and are supposed to be. As we are getting increasingly westernized, my children are the first generation to inherit their father’s last name. Unfortunately!
Outside of Africa many people have changed their names as a remedy to the culture that Europeans imposed to Africa. Examples abound: “Muhammad Ali” from “Cassius Clay,” “Kareem Abdul-Jabbar” from “Ferdinand Lewis Alcindor.” In Africa, many people and countries are being renamed, thus abandoning colonial names: “Mobutu Sese Seko” (former president of Zaire, current Democratic Republic of Congo) from “Joseph-Désiré,” the West African country of “Burkina Faso” from “Haute Volta.”
When someone addresses me with my last name, they have just respectfully identified a proud person of the Batié Village.
Emmanuel Ngomsi, Ph.D. is President of All World Languages and Cultures, Inc. He consults and coaches on cultures, cultural diversity and languages. He can be reached atinfo@universalhighways. com.