African Baby Naming Ceremonies

African Baby Naming Ceremonies

Contributed by: African Fathers Innitiative


Choosing an African name 

Choosing the name of a baby is highly important. In Africa this is perhaps more so as it is believed that the actual choice of name can influence the the life of both the child and the family. An over ambitious name could have significant repercussions whereas a simple name will not carry such high expectations. Names reflecting the day of birth and the environment or circumstances surrounding the birth are common.

Names in African cultures are pointers to their users' hopes, dreams and aspirations; they may reflect their users' geographical environments, their fears, their religious beliefs, and their philosophy of life and death. Children's names may even provide insights into important cultural or socio-political events at the time of their birth. The circumstances surrounding a child's birth may be considered when a name is being chosen.

In ancient African cultures, names held a mesmerizing mystique, which has carried over to many contemporary baby-naming celebrations.

The origins of African baby names 

Africa is a massive continent. There are many languages and these divide into hundreds of regional dialects. There are hundreds of different Ethnic groups and these can encompass a range of beliefs including those adhering to Christianity, Muslim or tribal religions. The name's can derive from foreign languages such as Arabic, English, French, Dutch or Portuguese. African names also obviously derive from African native languages including Hausa, Zulu, Yoruba, Swahili, Shona and Kongo.

Factors such as the day of the week of the birth, the time of day (dawn, morning, dusk, afternoon, evening, night), the season of the year, the order of birth, the location a person is born, the specific circumstances relating to the child and to the childs family, the attitude of the parents as well as the gender of the child all play significant roles in the overall naming process and in the actual name given.

If one's parents suffer or suffered from child or infant mortality, one is likely to have a funny, survival or death-prevention name believed to be capable of preventing and/or eliminating totally such deaths since it has the power of preventing parents in the underworld from causing the death of such children. Names in African societies may even be important indicator(s) of the bearers behavior and as pointers to the name-bearers' past, present, and future accomplishments.

Personal names in Sub-Saharan Africa are therefore not mere labels showing which person (parti!cularly, which father) is responsible for a childs birth. There is also a close identity between the name and the name bearer such that the name links to the name-givers overall experiences.

Following are examples of baby-naming ceremonies in four African countries.


The custom for young Edo couples is to ask the grandfather or great-grandfather to send a name.

According to Dr. Nowa Omoigui, an American cardiologist whose ancestry is the Edo nationality of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, Edos perform the traditional naming ceremony on the seventh day after a baby's birth. Family elders and friends gather to pray for long life, health and prosperity, amid oracular consultations. Then the elders present the family name to the baby's father.

It is customary that all those present place a gift or any amount of money in a bowl, then state the name they want to give the child. After each guest gives a name, the chorus responds: "Ogha gue dia. Ise," meaning "May he or she live long, Amen." Food and drinks follow.

Later in the evening, the main "naming" ceremony takes place. Prayers are accompanied by the consumption of exotic ingredients by family members and guests. These include alligator pepper (to energize the child's speech); honey, sugar, and bitter kola nuts, which symbolize the duality of life's sweet and sour experiences; native chalk and salt, to symbolize happiness; water, because it has no enemy; and palm oil, seen as an emollient to life's problems.

During the ceremony, the eldest female member of the family repeatedly asks the mother what she calls the child. To the first six questions, the mother replies with an unthinkable name, which the women reject amid traditional songs and music. When the question is asked for the seventh time, the father of the child whispers the actual name to his wife, who then announces it publicly.

In his article, "Edo Naming Ceremony," Dr. Omoigui lists examples of Edo names:

Onaiwu: This child will not die again.

Osamamianmianmwen: God did not forget me.

Ighiwiyisi: I shall not get lost in a foreign land.

Nowamagbe: He who is not harmed by members of his family cannot be harmed by outsiders.

Iyare: Safe journey.


According to Godffrey Olali's article: "Traditional Child Naming" published in the Daily Nation's national audio site in Kenya, some clans hold the baby naming ceremony on the third day after birth, while others have it on the eighth. The Kamba community have the Mwithakya, birth attendant, help choose the baby's name, which is either selected from a hereditary name pool (dead family members or friends), or from a circumstantial pool, relating to the child's birth.

There are different boy and girl names for a premature child, others for babies born after the mom's due date, still others for a child born "en route" to the birth attendant's home. Then there are names referring to natural conditions at birth. For example, Wambua is a name given to a boy born on a rainy day. A girl's version of that name would be Symbua.

In the text, "African Religions and Philosophy," J.S. Mbiti states that the Luo tribes seek a name for a newborn while a baby is crying, during which time different names of the living and/or dead are mentioned. If the child stops crying when a particular name is called out, family members and attendants assume that the spirits calling for that name have been appeased, and the baby receives that name.

For the Nandis of the Great Rift Valley, baby naming takes place in the mother's hut while the men, who have been kept in the dark regarding the baby's sex, wait outside. The mother and attending women call a spirit's name to watch over the baby. The baby is supposed to sneeze to indicate that the name has been accepted. Snuff "helps" the sneezing amid the women's laughter! There are intervals interspersing the women's laughter, which the men, waiting outside, can count as an indication of whether the baby is a girl or a boy. In Nandi traditions, the original name that a child receives is not used until another substitute name, birth-related and selected by the mother, is given a few days later.

Traditionally, a father prepares beer uki and honey beer, slaughters a ram ilondu, a he-goat mbui, and, in some cases, a bull.

After the birth, a mother from the Maasai tribes will strap the baby to her back and carry him to the thorn enclosure near the hut where he was born. There, the waiting elders assign a name to the child, and a celebration follows during which the jugular vein of a cow is pierced to extract blood. The blood is then mixed with milk and drunk by everyone at the party, including the warriors. Maasai tribes depend completely on their cows and herds for their livelihood. They believe that, when sky and land separated, God Enkai sent them their cows. So it is only natural that the cows' milk and blood be included in their daily celebrations, and baby naming is no exception.


In the land embraced between Egypt and Sudan, a midwife, friends and neighbors assist the mom-to-be during childbirth, to help her ward off the curse of the evil spirits.

According to Egypt Magazine (society section, Summer 1996 edition), the attendants sing songs while the laboring woman walks, leaning on her friends' shoulders as they help support her weight. When the birth gets closer, a cloth is placed on the woman's head during pains and she is helped to her feet so that the baby does not touch the ground but falls instead into a plate. After the baby is born, the cloth is removed from the mother's head and cut in the middle to make an opening for the baby's head. The cloth then becomes the baby's first dress.

Seven days later, the baby's family holds a party, offering dates and juice to the guests, often to traditional dances and songs.


From the time of the ancient Egyptians, children were considered a blessing. Already they were referred to as today's Arabic version of staff, amoud el aagazah, meaning the staff of old age that parents can lean on when they, in turn, need support.

Marie Parsons, an ardent student of Egyptian archeology, ancient history and its religion, speaks of the manner in which children were valued in ancient Egypt. In her article, "Childbirth and Children in Ancient Egypt," she states: "Children had value in ancient Egypt. The Greeks, who were accustomed to leaving infants exposed to the elements, were stunned to observe that every baby born to Egyptian families was cared for and raised."

"…As in all areas of daily life, the gods of Egypt were connected to the birth process. The creator-god Khnum gave health to the newborn after birth. Women would place two small statues for the gods Bes and Taweret. The dwarf-god Bes was supposed to vanquish any evil things hovering around the mother and baby."

"…The Goddess Taweret, often carrying a magic knife or the knot of Isis, was the chief deity of women in pregnancy, childbirth and breastfeeding.

When it came to naming their babies, again the Egyptians relied on the influence of their gods. Says Ms. Parsons, "Most parents liked to place their children under the sponsorship of some deity, so there were children named Hori and others named Seti, and others named Ameni, that is, dedicated to Horus, to Set, and to Amun. Names could signify the god's pleasure, perhaps explaining why there were so many Amenhoteps, Khnumhoteps and Ptahhoteps, which signifies that the god was in front of, or the father of the child, as in the name Amenemhat."

After an infant's birth, the parents would enter the name in the registers of the House of Life.

In contemporary Egypt, a naming ceremony, Sebooh, whose roots may possibly be traced to the times of the Pharaohs, takes place on the seventh day of life. Celebrated by Moslems and Christians alike, this tradition involves the extended family members and friends. The baby is clothed in a white robe and the name is sometimes chosen by assigning different names to several candles, lighting them at the onset of the ceremony, then naming the child after the candle which burns the longest.

The mom places the baby in a large sieve, and gently shakes him, to help him become accustomed to the vagaries of life. Then the infant is laid on a blanket on the floor, with a knife placed along his chest to ward off evil spirits, while the guests scatter grains, gold and gifts around him, all being symbols of the plentiful abundance wished on the child. The mother side-steps seven times over the baby's body, again to ward off evil spirits, while incantations are chanted by the attendants for the child to listen to what his mother says, and always obey her. A procession of lights and incense follows. The mother carrying her baby leads the procession, followed by the singing children and guests, all bearing candles and incense to bless the house and its occupants. Then comes the feast!

Why are traditions so universal, so enduring across generations, with their unique ability to transcend time and space?

Perhaps because they are the very substance that weaves the thread, binding us into something larger than ourselves, towards which all of humanity gravitates. They symbolize our perpetual quest for continuity, for immortality, for the "now and forever" that we aspire to, and that most religions profess.

Although traditions center around the mundane fare of food and gatherings, their core is the thimble-full of things we do, to hint at the ocean that is human love.


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