This piece was inspired by Akorfa Ama Akoto’s post on https://littlebigissues.com/blog/the-name-i-never-had/ in which the writer gave a discourse on some Ewe names.
Ever wondered why many Northerners bear names such as Mohammed, Alhassan, Sayibu, Haruna, and the likes and not Kwame, John, Kofi etc?
Well, let’s take a look at naming among Dagombas in the erstwhile Northern region of Ghana(Now Northern and North East region). I use Dagombas here to refer to three ethnic groups(Mamprusis, Dagombas and Nanumbas) belonging to the Mole-Dagbani group.
The Dagombas are the most populous in the erstwhile Northern region. The ethnic group is endowed with a very rich naming system. To understand how Dagombas name their children, let’s first take a look at the sources of names in Dagbani.
The Dagbong area and the Northern part of Ghana for that matter came into contact with the Islamic religion very early, around the 14th Century. Islam was brought to North by Arab traders from North Africa. Historians have it that this happened during the reign of Naa Zanjina. It happened that the Dagbong kingdom was faced with challenges. And the situation was salvaged through Islamic spiritual intervention from one of the Muslim traders who came there to trade. As a result, the then King of Dagbong, Naa Zanjina became a Muslim, adopted the name Mohammed, and then urged his followers to embrace Islam. In present day Dagbong, people bearing Mohammed are nicknamed Zanjina. By embracing Islam, Dagombas adopted Islamic/Arabic names and naming henceforth. It is worthy to note that just as the way dialects of language form, the pronunciation and subsequent spelling of some of the Islamic names have been corrupted by the Dagombas. For instance names such as Fusheini, Awabu, Yirisu/Yiri, Yinusa, Suale, Imoro etc are corrupted forms of Hussein, Hawaa’u(Hawa, Eve), Iddris, Yunus, Sualihu/Saalis, Umar respectively. Very few names such as Ibrahim, Musah, Yahaya etc however still maintain their original forms. These Islamic/Arabic names are usually taken from the Quran, Sayings of Prophet Muhammad, Islamic stories, etc. For instance, my first name, Ikililu is said to be the name of a male twin born to Adam, the first man. The female twin was called Iklimah, which both have the same meaning of Tuahir(corrupted as Tahidu, meaning, pure/purity).
It is important to note that not all names mentioned in the Quran, Hadeeth or Islamic stories are actually suitable for naming children. Only names of people who are believed to have been pious, names that depict the attributes of God, names of words/places that are meaningful to Islam, etc are adopted.
2. Buɣ’yuya(idol names)
In the past, couples who had difficulty getting a child would go to a traditional priest to ‘seek’ for a child. The child so given is believed to be a product of the idol(god) and therefore must be given a specific name. Examples of such names include, Wumbei(Wumbedoo for male; God is alive), Neeina(Neeindoo for a male; a name of an idol), Pooni(Ponadoo for male; a name of an idol), Fanjima(a name of a god), Azindoo/Azimpaga(name of idol for male and female respectively), etc. However, with the spread of Islam amongst Dagombas, these names are now believed to be in conflict with Islamic teachings, as it implies that there are other gods who have power aside Allah(God). And so are frowned upon. Only in remote areas where the traditional African religion is still strong that you will find these names being given to children.
3. ŋaha yuya (proverb names)
Another source of names for Dagombas is proverbs. Children are usually named using shortened forms of proverbs. Names such as Suhuyini( literally one heart/clear heart. full form being suhu yini gari buɣili, i.e. One heart/clean heart is better than an idol), Nniŋdini( what have I done?. full form being nniŋdini n zaŋ taali?, i.e. what have I done that is offensive?), Tiyuundiba (we are watching them), Dinviela( that which is good. full form being kuliga noli din viɛli ni laɣim nyuri ba,i.e. a river that has a good bank will have people coming there to drink), Wumpini(God’s gift. full form being Wumpini libigira, i.e. God’s gift comes when you don’t expect it), Tampuli(refuse dump. full form being ‘tampuli, be chihi biɛri, i.e. refuse dump accepts all garbage, meaning accommodative), etc are examples of proverb names in Dagbani. Another names is Tikuma(dry/dead trees, full form being tihi kuma ni puhi vari n libigi dari kabiriba, i.e. dry/dead trees will shoot leaves to the surprise of firewood fetchers).
4. Festival/Month/Day Names.
Dagombas also names their children according to the month or the day in which the child is born. We usually give the name of the month or the day to the child. For instance, you will often hear, Damba(a child born during the month of Damba festival), Chimsi( a child born during Eidul Adha). Only these two months are given to children as names. Others such as Tani(Monday born) , Laaba(Wednesday born), Laamisi (Thursday born), Azima/Azumah(Friday born), Sibri(Saturday born) and Lahiri (Sunday born) are names giving according to the day the child was born.
5. Names of Aspirations
Another way Dagombas name their children is according to what aspiration the parent has about the child. Names such as Timtooni(be ahead), Suhudoo(peace), Yumzaa(love all), Simdi (friendship), Katari(fortune/opportune), Saha (luck), Kasi(pure), Chelpang(forgive), Chentiwuni(give to God), etc. These category of names were rare in the past. In recent times however, lots of parents give these names to their children.
6. Names Given through ‘Buying’ of a Child.
There’s a practice among Dagombas that when a woman records still births, or if she records at least one infant death, then she gives birth to the next child, they pretend that they are throwing away the child. On the way out, anyone who meets them would offer to ‘buy’ the child by giving a token, but doesn’t take the child home. The ‘buyer’ only acquires the right to name the child, usually according to the tribe the buyer is. It is believed that after undergoing this process, the child won’t die like the earlier brothers/sisters. Names such as Kanbondoo(Akan man), Jangbedoo(Hausa man), Modoo/Mopaga( Moshi Man/woman), Saɣ’yelidoo/Saɣ’yelipaga( Sagayeli man/woman), Kalinchedoo/Kalinchepaga( Kalinche man/woman), Laabandoo/Laabanpaga(Laabansi man/woman), Kulikulidoo/Kulikulipaga(Kotokoli man/woman), etc are examples of names gotten through ‘buying’ of a child. The parents of the child however will still give the child a name of their choice in addition to the name the child got through being ‘sold’. For instance, my father is popularly known as Jangbedoo (Hausa Man). This is because my grandmother recorded a number of infant deaths before giving birth to my father. So he was ‘sold’ and ‘bought’ by a Hausa man, and was named Jangbedoo (Hausa man). I remember during my very first day at school when I was asked my name, I told them Jangbedoo Ikililu. Then I was told to go back and ask for my father’s name. Then I was told my father’s name is Mohammed. Most people got to know my father’s name through the surname of my brothers/sisters and my self.
7. Reincarnated Names
Dagombas believe strongly in the concept of reincarnation, i.e. the reappearance of dead relatives. You will often find a parent naming his child after his father, mother, grandfather, grandmother, uncle, or other family relations. The child will bear the same name as the dead relative. However, in Dagbani culture, it is abominable to address an elderly by his first name. So reincarnated children are given additional names attached to their reincarnated names. For instance, one of my younger brothers was named after our grandfather, Abubakar. This way, everyone consider him as our late grandfather who has come back. Since we couldn’t address our late grandfather by his first name, we equally can’t address my younger brother as Abubakar. So we have to address him the way we used to address my grandfather, i.e. Baba, Zemoli, etc. My father, uncle’s and aunties all have to address him as Baba(Daddy). They cannot call him Abubakar whatsoever.etc.
Next time someone tells you his name is Baba or someone has Baba in his names, it means it was named after his grandfather, and so his father named him Baba. Another example is Nantogmah/Natogmah, this popular name among the Dagombas. T literally means “The chief’s name sake” This name mostly not a main name. It is given to someone as a nickname if the person shares the same name as the chief of the locality or Traditional area, whether dead or alive. Because it is abominable to address the chief by the first name, addressing the child by the first name. That would look like you are calling the chief by his first name. Variations of this practice is the practice of addressing people who bear the same ame as one’s parents as ‘Mbatɔɣima’ (my father’s name sake) or Mmatɔɣima(my mother’s name sake). These are usually not assigned to people, but serves as a form of address by people whose parents share the same name as those they are addressing. For instance, I am supposed to address anyone bearing the name Mohammed as ‘Mbatɔɣima’, and not my their first name.
8. Akan Names
Another form of names in Dagbong is Akan Names. Some people, even though not Akans and have no Akan lineage, bear Akan names such as Kofi, Kwame, Donkor, etc. How come? It lies in the history of both the Dagbong and the Ashanti Kingdoms.
According to Fynn(1971), in the 1700s, Ashantis, under the leadership of the Adontehene of Kumasi went to war with, defeated Dagbong, and captured the King, Naa Gariba. On their way back to Kumasi, the then chief of Nasah, Naa Ziblim intervened and Naa Gariba was released. But Dagbong had to pay annually a ransom of 500 slaves, 200 cows, 400 sheep, 400 cotton cloths and 200 silk cloths to the Ashanti Kingdom. During this period, Dagbong came under the rulership of the Adontehene of Kumasi, who in turn trained some of the slaves to serve as his warriors while selling some of them to traders in slavery. These warriors became known as Kambonsi(Akans) and therefore adopted Akan names. Consequently, they started naming their children with Akan names. It is worthy to mention that till date, these warriors(Kambonsi) have become part of the Dagbong traditional setup. The chief warrior in Dagbong bears the title ‘Kambon Naa/Kamo Naa (Akan chief).
A friend of mine whose Father’s name is Kofi told me that his father said their grandfather was a Kambon Naa, and so named all his children with Akan names.
9. Circumstantial Names
In Dagbong, a child may be named according to the circumstance in which he or she was born. For instance, a child born while the mother is on her way to the market is named Dasoli (full form being Daa soli, i.e. on the way to market), a child born from a year old pregnancy is named Dayuuni, a child born next after twins is named Garo/Gado(bed), a child born after the death of their father is named Ziŋba or ʒiba(missed father or don’t know the father), a child born after the death of their grandfather is named Kayaba(Grandfatherless), a child born from a marriage between family relations may be named Tuŋteeiya(the creeping plant has crept ), etc.
10. Other Names
Parents may also give their children names based on the meaning of the name. Tipaɣiya(we are grateful), Soochi(affordable/affordability), Mandeeiya( I have accepted/tolerated), Tamaha(hope), etc are examples of other names.
In the past, local Dagomba names gave way for Arabic/Islamic names. But these days, parents have come to the realization that our local names are gradually vanishing, and have therefore started giving their children local names. I for instance gave both Arabic and local name to my daughter, i.e. Hibatullah as Islamic/Arabic name and Wumpini as local name. This way, we are able to maintain our identities as both Muslim and Dagombas.
Some Islamic scholars have preached against giving children Arabic and local names. They argue that parents should simply choose one and name the child that way. The name could be local or Arabic. However, in relation to the local names, we have to avoid names that are in conflict with the teachings of Islam such as idol names, as well as names that seems to cast insinuations at other people, e.g. Bejejugu(They hate the vulture, full form being be je juɣu ka o laanda. Be ni ti bori o ka o ku lali, meaning they hate the vulture but it lingers around. Time will come when they want it but it won’t be available), Nniŋdini( what have I done?. full form being nniŋdini n zaŋ taali?, i.e. what have I done that is offensive?), Tiyuundiba (we are watching them), etc.
Finally, Dagombas believe that names have an effect on the future of the child, i.e. good name brings good fortune to the bearer while bad name can as well being bad fortune to the bearer.
Reference: Fynn J K (1971). Asante and Its Neighbours 1700-1807. Longman (notes)