Naming a child is a responsibility every parent faces, and one that shouldn’t be taken lightly. Whatever moniker the child is given will remain with him/her for life. It makes me wonder why some American celebrities failed to put a bit more effort into their selections. (Frank Zappa, you named your daughter Diva Thin Muffin? Need I even mention North West?!)
The Acholi people have a different system of naming than we do in the US, but regardless, I still see some striking similarities when playing the name game. Each Acholi child is given two names. The first is given at the time of birth and the second one is given at Baptism. Although they technically do not have last names, their Acholi name is like our first name and the name received at birth is much like a surname. It is not common to give a third name, or middle name.
The first name is easy. The child is simply given a name that the parents like. Children are often named after a friend, a relative or a person that the parents look up to. In many cases it is a religious name seeing as it is given at the Baptism. This is pretty much identical to the naming rituals in American culture, and much like in our case, there is room for error. I was told that, many years ago when Coca-Cola started giving a lot of money to Uganda and there was maximum advertising, people were quite interested in the name Coca-Cola. And so the story goes, the next time you are in Uganda, don’t be surprised if you run into someone named Coca-Cola. It’s a classic.
The second name, or Acholi name, is where things get a bit more complicated. Each Acholi name has specific meaning, and the perfect name is to be chosen based on the child, the family, or a special circumstance. Some popular Acholi names and their meanings are as follows:
Oceng: Given to a boy born during the day.
Alum(f)/ Olum(m): A child born away from the home. This name was commonly given during the war when children were born out in the bush.
Acan(f) /Ocan(m): A child born into poverty.
I would be remiss to not include some names that are negative and would be viewed as ostracizing in our culture.
Ajok(f)/Ojok(m): A child born with birth defects such as extra fingers or toes, a short leg or arm, etc… The name translates to “witchcraft” or “of the witches.” It is believed the child was transformed by witches which resulted in the abnormality.
In some cases, culture dictates what the name shall be, and the parents do not have a choice. If one births twins, for example, the first twin born is to be named Apio(f) or Opio(m). The second twin is Acen(f) or Ocen(m). A child born following a set of twins is to be named Akello(f) or Okello(m).
Ayaa(f) is given to a girl born into a family of boys, and Okeny(m) is given to a boy born into a family of girls.
I am proud and honored to have been baptized with an Acholi name on my last visit. No, my head was not dunked under water, which is what my children asked when I told them.
In a previous post, I wrote about going to meet a group of parents in their village who had children with special needs. One of the great things this group does is collect money amongst themselves each week. A member of the group is named treasurer, and the treasurer is responsible for collecting the money and recording it. When someone in the group needs money to buy medication for their child or has an emergency hospital visit, that person is able to borrow money from their collected fund with the intention of paying it back when possible. At the end of my visit with this group, I offered them a monetary gift to put towards their fund. It was the least I could do for a group of people sharing their lives with me.
It was then decided that they would baptize me with an Acholi name. I was given the name Aber, which means to be a good person. From that point on I am considered to be part of their family, and that village where we met will always be my home when I travel to Uganda.