What’s in a name

Happy MannIn the US, we don’t notice names that have meaning as long as they are common names, especially girls names. So Hope, Faith and Rose are seen as normal. In fact, we might not even think about their meaning when we say them. But give a child a name that has meaning that is not usual, and people raise their eyebrows. I was amused by this Canadian election campaign sign for a candidate for the WildRose party. Yes, his name was Happy Mann. He did not win, so was Happy happy after all?

The Bible is full of names that are odd from our perspective. On the same day, Eli the High Priest died, his two sons were killed in battle, and one of their wives gave birth. She named the boy Ichabod – literally “Glory Gone” to mark the tragic events. The naming that tops them all, though, is when the prophet Isaiah named is son Maher-shalal-hash-baz which the Good News Bible translates as “Quick-Loot-Fast-Plunder”. Can you imagine the introductions?

This is my fiancé, Quick-Loot-Fast-Plunder
Hi, I’m Quick-Loot-Fast-Plunder and I’m applying for a job as a security guard

Child naming practices in parts of Africa where I have lived are sometimes strange to my American sensibilities. In some places a child’s first name is the day they were born on.

President of Nigeria Goodluck Jonathan

President of Nigeria Goodluck Jonathan

So I have known a good number of Friday’s including a great Nigerian colleague, Danjuma (meaning Friday) Gambo. Here in Ghana, Ashantis can give a child up to 10 names, including one for the day of the week. Lots of names are names of hope or of blessing. You will meet lots of people here in Ghana named Naana, which means Chief. Oh, and you will meet some named Chief and a few named Prince. The president of Nigeria is a man with a wonderful handle – Goodluck Jonathan.

But some do not hesitate to give names of calamity and despair, just like the biblical Glory-Gone and Quick-Loot-Fast-Plunder. A child born in times of famine and be given that as a name.

Nessiel Nodjibogoto

Nessiel Nodjibogoto

My favorite is the name of my dear Chadian friend Nessiel Nodjibogoto. Nessiel’s mother carried her first 3 pregnancies to term, but the babies were stillborn or died shortly after birth. Nessiel was her forth and she named him “He won’t last” which is the meaning of Nessiel in her language, Ngambaye.

Many years later Nessiel was going to a meeting outside of Chad. He went to see his now aged mother before leaving. In the course of the conversation she said to him: “You have given me grandchildren. We should consider changing your name!” But Nessiel told her that he wanted to keep his name. He said that some might call his development efforts in Chad, one of the poorest countries, “It won’t get done”. He likes the reminder, he told his mother, that those who say negative things are not always right.

Divine Munukum, one of my Ghanaian colleagues

Divine Munukum, one of my Ghanaian colleagues

Naana Nkrumah, one of my Ghanaian colleagues

Naana Nkrumah, one of my Ghanaian colleagues

Nessiel Ndjibogoto

Nessiel is the man who leads the organization I will be working with. A few years ago he told us an interesting story about his life. His mother had carried four pregnancies to term and lost the baby at birth or shortly thereafter. Her fifth pregnancy was Nessiel. So when he was born she named him Nessiel, which in her language means “He won’t last”.

A few years ago Nessiel went to visit his now aged mother. She told him that now that he had given her grandchildren it was time to reconsider his name! Nessiel responded by telling her that he was involved in Bible translation in the languages of Chad of which there are over 120. He told his mother that man might call that task “It won’t get done”. So he wanted to keep his name to show that God’s evaluation of a situation are not the same as man’s.

(This was originally posted on a different site. It was republished here in March 2012.)