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To destroy the sovereignty of a people, you must first destroy their name.
That is because your name is your direct link to your history, culture, and thus to your psychological health – all three of the critical factors described by Cheikh Anta Diop as essential to a peoples total cultural identity.
We Black men and women in America know that our names were taken from us. But what makes matters worse is that the European names that replaced our original names serve as constan reminders that we have been cut off from our origins.
The psychological impact that using an alien name has had on us has been one of the most powerful sources of miseducation that we have faced.
Perhaps by reclaiming our original names and identities, we can start to move back into our right minds and our right places.
To do that, we dont need to reinvent the wheel. Our original cultures developed sophisticated rituals that we can learn and practice to re-establish our identities.
These practices have been adopted and adapted by modern groups like the Nation of Islam, the Five Percenters, and contemporary African scholars.
Traditional Naming Ceremonies in Africa
Africa is the world’s second-largest and second-most-populous continent with more than 3000 distinct ethnic groups speaking 2000 different languages.
Even though the rites and ceremonies practiced by these groups can be dramatically different, most of the ceremonies we have studied share a few common characteristics. These include:
- Starting individuals with a nickname, false name, or pseudonym. Newborns or new members of the community are typically given nicknames or are not named at all.
- Waiting until the individual has gone through a rite of passage before giving them their true name.
- Relying on Elders to give children or new members of the community their divine names. Elders in the community play a primary role in naming the child or individual. These Elders either interpret the child’s name from natural sources – like the day of the week – or from names passed to them through the Ancestral realm (the Egun).
Here are some ceremonies from well known groups across the African Diaspora.
The Edo Naming Ceremony
Also referred to as the Bini or Benin ethnic group, the Edo are the descendants of the people who founded the Benin Empire, which is located in South/Mid-Western Nigeria now called Edo State.
The traditional ceremony is usually a female affair that is performed on the seventh day after birth. Before 10 am, family Elders and very close friends gather to consult oracles and pray for the child and its parents.
During the main program of the ceremony, everyone sits down with the males on one side and females on the other side of the living room. The mother who is dressed for the occasion in her best attire holds the child. The eldest male representative of the head of the family says the opening prayers in Edo language with Kola-nuts and drinks. He breaks the nuts and shares them.
The eldest female member of the family now takes up the remaining activities of the evening. She will ask the mother of the child what she calls the child.
The same question is asked seven times. On each of the first six occasions the mother will give a silly or ridiculous name to the child (like Donkey Kong) which the other women will reject.
In response to the seventh question, the elders whisper the child’s name to the father, who then whispers it to the mother, who then announces it publicly.
In response, all the women affirm and pray that the child lives long with the parents. Additional prayers, food, and drink follow.
The names given to Edo children pay homage to their king, reflect high moral values, or pay homage to their homeland. Examples of Edo names include:
- “iEkinadoese”: One who does good deeds
- “Edorisiagbon”: Edo land is the center of the world
- “iEhiosu”: Protected by the Ancestors
The Yoruba Naming Ceremony
Yorubaland is the home of Ifa – the ancient African religion that we wrote about here.
The naming ceremony – called Akosejaye or Esen’taye – is so much more than deciding what to call a child. It is a process of determining the entire destiny of that since it is believed that a child eventually lives out the meaning of his or her names.
The Ceremony is presided over by a Babalawo (priest of the Ifá oracle) dressed in white begins with a small prayer and the introduction of the family and the baby and the welcoming of the guests and well wishers.
Prayers and songs of praise to their ancestors and / or God welcome the new addition to the family.
The presiding elder then preside over the event with 7 symbolic items that are traditionally used to express the hope or path of a successful life.
The elder then presides over the rest of the ceremony, which involves presenting the child with seven core symbolic items. Traditionally, the items are rubbed against the child’s lips, but the modern approach to this practice involves the mother tasting the items on behalf of the child. The core items –water, salt, honey and /or sugar, palm oil, kola nut, bitter kola, pepper, and dried fish – and their symbolic significance are described below:
- Water: Water is everlasting and has no enemies, since everything in life needs water to survive. Symbolic Significance: The child will never be thirsty in life and that no enemies will slow its growth.
- Palm oil (epo): Used to prevent rust, to lubricate and to massage and soothe the body. Symbolic Significance: Given for a smooth and easy life; and living a life in love and no friction.
- Bitter Kola (Orogbo): Unlike most other kola nuts, bitter kola lasts a very long time. Symbolic Significance: Given so that the child will have a very long life.
- Kola nut (obi): Kola nut is chewed and then spat out. Symbolic Significance: Given to repel the evil in life.
- Honey (Oyin): Used as a sweetener in food. Symbolic Significance: Given for a sweet and happy life.
- Pepper (Ata): Pepper has many seeds within its fruit. Symbolic Significance: Given for a fruitful life with lots of children.
- Dried Fish (Ẹja): Fish lives in water, its natural environment, and uses its head to find its way in water, no matter how rough the water may be. Symbolic Significance: Given so that the child will remain in its natural environment (the love of its parents) and will find its way in life and never be overcome, even in tough times.
- Salt (iyọ): Used to add flavor to and preserve food. Symbolic Significance: Given so that the child’s life will not be ordinary, but filled with flavor, happiness and substance, and so that the child will preserve all that is good.”
With each of the items administered the child’s names are then given starting with the grandparents and parents, and afterward by the community. All the names of the child are called out, and repeated by the community.
The ceremony concludes with food, dancing and celebration to honor this new life. (Source)
According to Ile Ifa, “In addition, Esen’taye provides a family with a detailed analysis of the newborns’ predestined character, moral strengths, ethical flaws, ambitions, major life transitions, and age-specific needs in an effort to avail parents of the best ways to raise the child in the midst of a volatile, hyper-capitalist, and intolerant society.
Esen’taye also gives children a much needed reservoir of self-esteem, self-respect, and dignity. The psychological and sociological effect of Esen’taye on children is very, very positive due to the positive impacts of knowing the path to prosperity and success throughout various stages of one’s life. This self-knowledge is absent from the lives of the vast majority of the world’s population, which lead chaotic lives of doubt, self-deprecation, and perpetual apprehension.”
The Akan Naming Ceremony
The Akan, found mainly in Ghana and The Ivory Coast, are the descendants of the founders of the Kingdom of Bonoman.
From the 15th century to the 19th century the Akan people dominated gold mining and trading in the region and, from the 17th century on, they were among the most powerful groups in west Africa.
Traditionally, Akan children receive their name according to the day of the week they are born into the world.
Unlike the Edo culture, the Akan naming ceremony begins and ends before sunrise and it is the Father that has the responsibility of naming the child. Here is how the Akan naming ceremony is conducted:
The Elders gather for prayers and libations, and invoke the presence of their honored ancestral spirits (called Nananom Nsamanfo) to help with the ceremony.
After the name is acquired, the infant is given to an Elder from the father’s side of the family who announces the child’s name to the world for the first time.
There are two cups ritually utilized during the ceremony. One cup contains water and the other nsa (wine).
The Elder dips his index finger into the water and places it on the mouth of the infant saying, “When you say it is water, it is water.”
He dips his index finger into the nsa and places it on the mouth of the infant saying, “When you say it is nsa, it is nsa.” This is repeated three times. The purpose of this part of the ritual is to instill a sense of truth to the newborn – whether the consequences of truthfulness leave a pleasant taste in your mouth (water) or a bitter taste in your mouth (nsa), honesty must be upheld.
The rest of the water and wine in the two cups is then mixed together and given to the parents, that they may participate in the ritual in unity with their child.
The parents are here confirming the importance of the moral lesson taught to the child and at the same time vowing to reinforce this lesson throughout the life of the child.
The stability of the family is directly related to the stability of the community, and the parents are making their vow before Nyame (God), Nyamewaa (Goddess), Asaase Afua (Earth Mother), the Abosom (Divinities/Goddesses and Gods), the Nananom Nsamanfo (Honored Ancestresses and Ancestors) and the family.
As Akanfo (Akan people), we recognize the name to be intimately expressive of the function for which Nyamewaa-Nyame (Goddess-God, the Supreme Being) has conceived and fashioned us and Asaase Afua (Earth Mother) has borne us. This is precisely why during the periods of enslavement and colonialization our Afurakani/Afuraitkaitnit (African) names were and continue to be replaced with the foreign names/labels of our absolute enemies, the whites and their offspring. These perverse names/labels are totally devoid of power and consciousness, and are directly antagonistic to our spiritual development and endeavor. – An Akan Scholar
Examples of Akan names include:
- Asabe (Saturday child female)
- Balarabe (Wednasday child male)
- Danasabe (Saturday child male
- Jummai (Friday child Female)
Renaming in the Nation of Gods and Earths
Names in the Nation of Gods and Earths are taken once a man or woman enters the Nation.
These names are often based on the Supreme Alphabet, and are most likely self subscribed since sovereignty is a fundamental principle of the 5 Percent Nation.
Some members keep their European imposed first names, but replace their last names with an element from the Supreme Alphabet, similar to the way members of the Nation of Islam keep their first names and replace the last name with an X.
Examples of NGE names include:
- “Supreme Allah”
- “I Master Allah Self Savior Universe (IMASSU)”
- “Queen Mother Supreme”
- “Supreme Universal Master Cipher Allah”
Renaming in the Nation of Islam
Members of the Nation of Islam go through three renaming stages; 1) Separating from their imposed last names 2) Adopting the letter X to symbolize their unknown original last names, and finally 3) adopting a traditional Islamic name that either pays homage to a prominent figure in Islamic history (Muhammad, is a popular one for obvious reasons), or describes ones character.
Examples of NOI names include:
- “Christopher 2X”
- “Abdul-Nasser (which means Servant of the Helper, Granting Victory)”
- “Mahdy (Guided to the Right Path)”
- “Asad (Lion Hearted)”
- “Samir (Entertaining Companion)”
- “Sulayman (A renowned Prophet)”
The 20th Century Re-naming Ritual
Today, we have adapted the practices of our Ancestors to address our condition in this period of time known as the Maafa. To undo the damage done by slavery and white supremacy, the following ritual was taken from Know Thyself by Dr. Naim Akbar.
Procession: The Drummers should engage in a festive drumbeat to
announce the opening of the ceremony and the beginning of the procession. The
procession is led by (1) the Officiating Elder followed by (2) the Libator and (3)
the Initiate(s) flanked by (same gender as Initiate ) blood relatives. (This may be
as many as four relatives on all sides or a minimum of two with one before and
one behind.) The ritual party should enter into the ritual area at a slow rate with
the drums continuing to beat. The procession may be as elaborate or as simple as
you choose. It can proceed through the community or simply from another room
in the house.
Officiating Elder: This will be the master of ceremonies for
the ritual and will lead the party through the various aspects of the rit-
ual. This should be a respected Elder of the Community who may or
may not be a member of the Initiates family.
Libator: This will be a person familiar with the ceremony
and procedure for the pouring of Libation which is a form of prayer
and remembrance of the Creator and His agents. The Ancestors.
Initiate: This is the person or persons who have chosen to
select a new name and be re-named.
The Opening Libation Oratory
(This is led by the Elder or Libator after the procession has assembled in the meeting area for the ceremony.)
Hail! Hail! Hail! May happiness come! (Response of all: “Ashaa!)
Hail, may happiness come! (Ashaa!)
Whenever we join up to make a circle, may our chain be complete. (Ashaa!)
Whenever we dig a well, may we come upon water. (Ashaa!)
May it be darkness behind the stranger who has come. (Ashaa!)
And brightness before him. (Ashaa!)
May we leave whole, and may we return in whole. (Ashaa!)
May his/her mother have long life. (Ashaa!)
May his/her father have long life. (Ashaa!)
May s/he eat by the labor of his/her five fingers. (Ashaa!)
May s/he labor for his/her father. (Ashaa!)
May s/he labor for his/her mother. (Ashaa!)
May we forgive him/her everything forgivable. (Ashaa!)
May s/he grow to respect the world. (Ashaa!)
May s/he not steal. (Ashaa!)
May s/he not lie. (Ashaa!)
May s/he be blessed. (Ashaa!)
May s/he prosper. (Ashaa!)
May his/her path be straightened for him/her. (Ashaa!)
May all mishaps be cleared away. (Ashaa!)
Life and prosperity to all his/her children
And those yet unborn. (Ashaa!)
Hail may happiness come!
(Ashaa! Ashaa! )
The Pouring of Libation for the Ancestors
(Performed by the Libator.)
The forms of these ceremonies vary widely, but they are intended to acknowledge the contributions and continued spiritual presence of our ancestors.
The person identified as the Libator should already be familiar with this ceremony and should be prepared to explain what is being done to those present who may not understand the ritual. The Libator may also perform an appropriate prayer following the performance of the Libation.
Reading from the Inspired Word
(Holy Qur’an, Holy Bible, Husia or other appropriate scripture)
Either the Libator, the Elder or some other appropriate person should select an appropriate selection from Divine Revelation that speaks to the importance of a name.
Announcing The Occasion
A knowledgeable Elder should present instructions about the significance of this ceremony. The Elder should explain why a person named in the tradition of former slaves might consider changing their name to a name more consistent with their true culture and tradition.
It is important to note that the change of name intends no disrespect for those immediate ancestors and parents who have passed on the slavery name, but the change represents the reestablishment of the true identity of a person who has been lost from the true knowledge of themselves.
Assembling And Presenting The Altar
For use in the ritual, there should be a fireproof bowl or other surface in which some items can be burned later in the ceremony.
There should also be a flowerpot of dirt for the symbolic burial of theses ashes. It would be good to have either pictures or other personal items from the ancestors of the initiate on the altar as well.
Carvings, cloth or other items connected with Africa should also be on the altar. The initiate should select some objects of significance to him/her that they would like to include on the altar.
At this point, either the initiate, a family member or another selected person should talk about the altar or why the objects that are included (Explanations for the urm and flowerpot to the audience can be saved until these items are used in the ritual).
Burying The Slave’s Name
The Elder calls forth a parent or other member of the initiate’s family.
The Elder says: What name was this man (woman) given at birth?
The Family Member replies: (S)he was given the Christian slave name of (state the first and middle given names of the initiate.)
Elder: Have you brought dignity to the European slave name that you were given?
Initiate: I have brought dignity to the European slave name that I was given at birth.
Elder: You may now destroy the foreign name that was given to you at birth.
The Elder should burn the family name as was done for the given names. The initiate should bury all of the ashes in the dirt on the altar after the family name been burned. The dirt containing the ashes should later be returned to the earth outside.
Elder: We humbly pay homage to our ancestors who labored under these alien names. We thank them for their sacrifices and we ask them to join us in blessing this occasion. We seek not to dissociate ourselves from them and their sacrifices, but from the oppression that made their suffering necessary. We celebrate them and their fine work and we ask the Creator to grant them continued blessings. We ask their blessings and support in the burial of a painful past. We celebrate the dignity that they brought to the names that were put on them by cruel masters who sought to take them from themselves.
The relative who provided the name above should now give the initiate his/her first and middle names written on a piece of paper. The Initiate turns to the left in a counter clockwise direction, four (4) steps making a complete circle. The four (4) steps in the turn represent the four (4) centuries that the correct name has been taken away. As the Initiate turns (s) he states at each step of the turn: I now return the foreigner’s name that was given to me at birth.
The Initiate then gives the piece of paper on which the name is written to the Elder. The Elder burns the paper in the urn on the altar.
Elder: What is the family name that this man (woman) was born into? The same or another family member should say: His/her family was given the name of their slave master that was.
The same procedure that was done for the given names is now repeated for the family name except the Elder says: Have you and your family brought dignity to this name that was given to you?
Initiate: My family and I have brought dignity to the slave master’s name that we were given.
Elder: You may now destroy the slave name that was given to your family during their captivity.
While making his four (4)step circle as above the Initiate says: I destroy the name that was given to my family during our captivity.
The Elder: (The initiate should be seated in front of the Elder and
the Elder should state.) You shall be called Kwesi. (of course, the
name should be the first given name which is to be given
to the initiate. The name should be pronounced followed by a thorough
description of the meaning of this name.) For example:
The name Kwesi is common among the Akan people of Ghana and it refers to one born on Sunday for the Asante people. This same name among the Ga people of Ghana
means Conquering Strength. This name refers to the power of the inner
will. Though it is a warrior’s name, it does not refer to the power of
domination, but to the power of the will. It describes the power to con-
quer the enemies within oneself and to overcome the challenges of life
The person who carried this name acknowledges that he also carries
the power to overcome whatever obstacles may be put in his path
either by circumstance or by distractions within himself. Victory
always comes to Kwesi because he is endowed with the ability for
inner self-mastery that gives him the power to overcome difficulties
with compassion and concern. You are, with this name, never able to
claim weakness as an excuse. You are a natural conqueror, but you
conquer enemies and difficulties with compassion and concern. You
are also gifted to conquer people and situations. This is a power that
can be used for proper advancement or for exploitation. If you use it
for exploitation the very strength will become your weakness. You will
find yourself shackled and pursued by those things that were con-
quered out of greed and selfishness. We ask that the Creator who is the
Giver and Source of all strength will grant you the power to master this great gift. We ask that this “ Conquering Strength” should be used to
advance our people and advance you and our collective humanity.
The Elder will then ask the Initiate “Do you fully understand the meaning of this name and the responsibility that you are assuming in taking this name?”
Initiate: Yes, Elder, I do understand.
Elder: (To the Initiate:) Repeat after me. You are (I am) Kwesi. Initiate repeats the name three times with echo from the community as he turns slowly in a circle to the right. The Elder says You Are Kwesi. The Initiate says I am Kwesi.
The Drummers beat with each turn while the community echoes back “You Are Kwesi”
The same procedure is done for each of the names to be taken. The Elder should preface the definition of the last or family name by saying: You and your seed throughout all time shall be called [by the new last name].
Initiate’s Pledge: When the last name has been given, the Elder leads the following pledge that is repeated in phrases by the Initiate:
I [The full birth name that has been given up] do affirm in the presence of these witnesses and the spiritual and ancestral visitors who have joined us, my desire to reclaim a name of my great African Ancestors. I have chosen to make this change of my own free will. I recognize that in centuries past, my family who preceded me was forbidden to use their true spiritual and ancestral names. They were forced to wear the foreign and alien names of their conquerors. I wish to be known from this day forward as [new name] and I wish myself and my future offspring to be known by the family name [new last name].
Elder: You are now ( ‘full adopted name). From this day forward you are to be known by all people as [new full name]. In taking this name you have chosen to break the chains of our slavery and to spiritually reconnect your self and your family to the lost link with our Ancient Ancestors back to the beginning of time. For you and your seed, you have officially ended slavery today. We close the door on the kidnapping that robbed you from yourself. You have been restored to your Ancestors and have corrected the wrong done to those generations that were forced to live and die with an alien name. Those ancient and recently kidnapped ancestors are here today and cheer you as the one who has reconnected the circle. You have taken on a great responsibility. You have freed yourself, but you have pledged to live up to those outstanding attributes that you now carry in your name.
(The Elder then makes appropriate comments about the meaning of the entire name and its significance for the community and the responsibility of the initiate to live up to the demands of that name.)
Shemhotep (or peace be with you)
The Initiate Speaks: The Initiate shares with the community the significance
that his/her new name means to him/her. They should also indicate the commit-
ment that they are making to the name, to the ancestors and to the community in
taking this name.
Each member of the community, beginning with the Initiate’s immediate family greets and embraces the Initiate repeating the benediction: Shemhotep, may the Creator bless you and your seed forever. This greeting is accompanied by Drumming.
Closing Meditation and Reading by Elder or other honored guest.
A community-wide feast of celebration follows the Ritual of Re-naming.
A name is more than just a label: it is a declaration of who you are, the people you came from, and your divine mission on this planet.
Our Ancestors knew and respected this fact, and treated names and naming ceremonies with respect.
As you wake up to the truth about who you are, how you came to be, the world around you, and your place in that world, you are born into a new knowledge of self. And with that new knowledge must come a new name.