African Naming Tradition


Africa has a rich naming tradition, which varies across the continent.This article by the BBC goes over some of the African naming traditions. I added a few more, and removed their ‘celebrity culture’ section, given that naming children after celebrities is not an African thing but a world thing, and dates as far back as the world. Don’t forget to check out the article I wrote on ‘My Name’ by Magoleng wa Selepe. You can read the full article on BBC.


Traditional African names often have unique stories behind them. From the day or time a baby is born to the circumstances surrounding the birth, several factors influence the names parents choose for their children. Whichever ethnic group you look at, these local names reveal a wealth of information about the bearer. Here are [eight] different ways African parents name their children:

Events surrounding birth

African Woman

Among several ethnic groups, picking out names can be influenced by positive or negative circumstances the family finds themselves in around the time a child is born. Often, such names are complete sentences.

  • Ayodele (joy has come home) is a unisex name for a baby whose birth brought happiness to their Yoruba parents in Nigeria.
  • Adetokunbo (crown/wealth has come back home) is a unisex Yoruba name often given to a child born abroad.
  • Ajuji (born on a rubbish heap) is a Hausa name given to a baby after those born before it failed to survive. It is believed that giving the child a “terrible” name will deceive evil spirits into thinking the child is not loved and as a result, allow it to live.
  • Kgomotso and Pumza (comfort) are given to babies born shortly after a death or tragedy in Sesotho and Xhosa families in South Africa.
  • Kiptanui and Cheptanui are often given to babies whose mothers may have suffered extreme difficulties during childbirth among the Kalenjin ethnic group in Kenya.
  • Lindiwe (we have waited) is an isiZulu name often given to a baby girl after a long line of boys.

Emotional warnings

Flag of Zimbabwe
Flag of Zimbabwe

Some names, especially in Zimbabwe, [and Nigeria] reflect the mood or circumstance of the family at the time of birth. Some of them serve as warnings or rebukes.

  • Nhamo means misfortune
  • Maidei asks the question “What did you want?”
  • Manyara tells someone “You have been humbled
  • Yananiso means bringing the family together

  But this is not unique to Zimbabwe. [It can be found across the continent, from Malawi, to Nigeria, to Ghana, etc.]

Order of birth

In many African cultures, there is no need for someone to explain whether they are the eldest or youngest of their siblings. This is because their names can reveal that much. This is especially true of twins.


If you meet a Ugandan boy or man called Kakuru or Wasswa, he is likely to be an elder twin. The younger male twin is usually called Kato. These are names specially reserved for twins.

Similarly, the Kalenjins in Kenya refer to the first born as Yator (first to open the way) and the last born Towett meaning last.

The Yorubas call the first twin Taiwo (taste the world) and the second Kehinde (came after).

In Ghana, the unisex names Panyin and Kakra, which basically mean older and younger, are used for twins.

[In Cameroon, in the Bamileke culture, the child who follows directly after twins is given names such as Kenfack, Kengne or Kammagni. While the parents of twins are given the special names of Magne (mother of twins) and Tagne (father of twins), and the Magne used to have a special place in the society just like the twins. Moreover, babies born breach are also given a particular name, Tcheutchoua, to show how difficult the delivery had been.]

Day-born names

calendar Among some Ghanaian [and Ivorian] ethnic groups like the Akan, Ga, Ewe and Nzema, a name is automatically assigned based on the day the child is born. These day names correspond to the day of the week someone is born and so by default, everybody has one – though the name may not necessarily appear on official documents.

  • MondayKojo (male), Adwoa (female)
  • TuesdayKwabena (male), Abena (female)
  • WednesdayKwaku (male) [Kouakou in Cote d’Ivoire], Ekua (female)
  • ThursdayYaw (male) [Yao in Cote d’Ivoire], Yaa (female)
  • FridayKofi (male), Efua (female), [Kafui (unisex)]
  • Saturday – Kwame (male) [Kouame in Cote d’Ivoire], Ama (female)
  • SundayAkwesi (male), Akosua, (female)

These day names can vary slightly depending on the ethnic group.

Faith-based names

Across the continent, several local names have religious links. Among the Igbo and Yoruba ethnic groups in Nigeria, a name that starts or ends with Chi (Igbo), Chukwu (Igbo) or Oluwa (Yoruba) has some kind of reference to God.

  • Olusegun means God conquers (Yoruba, Nigeria)
  • Hailemariam means the power of Mary (Ethiopia)
  • Makafui means I will praise God (Ewe ethnic group in Togo, Ghana, Benin)

Day and night

Among some groups in eastern and southern Africa, certain names are selected depending on the time of the day or season a child is born.

  • Kibet means day and Kiplagat means night (Kalenjin in Kenya)
  • Mumbua and Wambua means rainy season for boys and girls (Kamba in Kenya) …
  • Yunwa means hunger or time of famine (Hausa)
African tree at dusk
African tree at dusk

While the Luos are very specific:

  • Omondi (dawn)
  • Okinyi (morning)
  • Onyango (mid-morning)
  • Ochieng‘ (sunny midday)
  • Otieno (night)
  • Oduor (midnight)

Girls are given the same names but starting with an A instead of an O. [For instance, Atieno (night).]

Meet the ancestors

Respected elders of the family may be dead but they continue to live on through their grandchildren. Parents often name babies after senior members of the clan whether dead or alive. But it is considered disrespectful to casually shout or call out the name of a senior family member that has been given to a child, so instead it is common to hear a child affectionately called Ouma (grandma) or Oupa (grandpa) in southern Africa.

Similarly in Senegal, a child who is named after a grandfather tends to bear the grandfather’s nickname as well. So a baby boy often ends up being called Vieux (old man), [or Pape, or Papa].

An antelope at dusk
An antelope at dusk, with the African sun

Rude nicknames

Somalia has a unique system. Most people have three namesthe ones they were given, as well as that of their father and grandfather [same in Sudan]. But many also have nicknames, which are so common that they can find their way onto official ID cards.

These nicknames often pick on the negative physical traits of the bearer, if he is male. Some common nicknames for men include Langare (limpy), Coryaan (handicapped), Lugay (one leg) or Genay (missing tooth).

Women, however, mostly get flattering nicknames like Lul (diamond), Macanay (sweet), Cod Weyne (rich voiced), Dahable (golden) and Indho Daraleey (gazelle eyes).

6 thoughts on “African Naming Tradition

  1. Pingback: Kouman ou rele? An Overview of Haitian Names – Onomastica

  2. That was a great post. I heard about Ghanaians using the days of the week for naming children when I researched various names in West Africa for fictional characters. I didn’t know that about most of the other cultures.


  3. Ingrid Lewis

    I was always conflicted with my European Name, I fell in love with the names Chioma and Xiomara ( not knowing their full meaning),
    Because, I was born on a Thursday 8:45 A.M. on the 13th day, I’m told my name is “ Yao,Yaw”.
    I still love the others.
    Thanks for these enlightening information


    1. Thank you Ingrid…. Yes… I always loved the name Chioma…
      Beautiful Sister Yao or Yaw… you wear Ghanaian names…
      We, Africans, have such a rich naming culture which we need to get back to.
      Thanks for commenting and visiting the blog. Keep visiting, commenting, and sharing.


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