(Did that blog post title scare everyone away? Anyone still reading? ;)
I had a very interesting conversation recently with my friend and coworker, Kelechi Eke, on the importance of names in the Yoruba and Igbo cultures of his native Nigeria. It all started when I came across an intriguing Yoruba proberb: oruko lonro ni, which means “names imply behavior.” The Yoruba people believe that names — and their transparent underlying meaning — are extremely important, and that they in fact affect or determine the behavior of the person so named. As I read, “[a] child with the name Sumala, meaning ‘thief,’ would go on to steal anything that wasn’t tied down. If parents make a bad choice of name at the birth of their child, the only way to deal with the problem is to rechristen the child.” 
Of course, the Sumala example is probably apocryphal or merely instructive. Assuming such a belief system, what parents in their right minds would ever give a child a name like that? But in any case, I wanted to know more, so I sought out Kelechi (whom we know here around the office as “K.C.”) to dig a little deeper. Kalechi speaks Yoruba and Igbo natively, and I’ve engaged him previously in conversations of this nature, over lunch at a couple of the very few African restaurants squirreled away here in Dallas. I knew he’d be receptive to the inquiry, and I was not disappointed: he gave me a wealth of detail to share with you.
Apparently, the belief is indeed alive and well in Nigeria, though it has been on a gradual decline due to the steady westernization of West Africa in recent decades. I found from Kelechi that the practice also tends to be perceived as more honorific than determinative, though it is still somewhat the latter; but it’s definitely a pervasive belief among the Yoruba, Igbo, and even to some extent the Hausa tribes in Nigeria to this day. Hausa, of course, both its language and its people, has been much more influenced by Arabic and Islam, so one encounters “determinative naming” less there. Most of the pre-Arabic Hausan names have disappeared. Likewise, in the Igbo tribes, the similar (but lesser and later) influence from Christianity has introduced a number of Biblical names such as David and Helen (the actual first name of the Nigerian singer, Sade; her middle name is Yoruba: Folasade = “honor confers a crown”). The Yoruba show a mixture of these belief systems and linguistic influences, but seem to retain more traces of their original pre-Christian / pre-Islamic religion — one still finds evidence of a pantheon of gods and goddesses worthy of the Greeks or the Egyptians, each with his or her dedicated province. K.C. tells me that these ancient deities are probably still worshipped in the remotest villages, even today.
But regardless of the tribe, Nigerians are considerably more aware of the underlying meanings of their names than we are here in the West. K.C. tells me that he can commonly deduce a number of things about a person, simply by hearing his or her name. For instance, he can get a sense of where they come from, which region of the country, which tribal origins, sometimes the exact village they call home, and so forth. Often, he can also draw some conclusions about the familial circumstances surrounding the person’s birth — all just from a name.
For example, the Yoruba name Babatunde means “my father has returned” — which suggests the premature loss of that parent not long before a child was born. The equivalent for a daughter is Yetunde = “my mother has returned.” A similar name in Igbo is Nnamdi = “my father still exists.” Another interesting name is Yoruba Abeni, meaning roughly “we asked for this daughter, and now we have her” — suggesting perhaps a difficult conception. And some names give you some information about the rest of the family or the circumstances of the birth, as in the quirky names, Idowu = “born after twins”, Ige = “born feet first”, and Okoye (Igbo) “born on a market day”. Many of the names are astonishingly creative.
K.C.’s own name is rich with meaning. When he was born, his mother experienced dangerous complications, which his parents acknowledged in his naming. In Igbo, Kelechi means “thank God”, and Eke means “creation”. The usual Igbo name for God, Chineke, means literally, “God of Creation”, and you can see both elements (chi + eke) in his two names. When K.C.’s own son was born, it was in the wake of difficulties in bringing his wife to the United States; consequently, they chose the name Oluchi, meaning “God’s work”, suggesting their gratitude that the immigration problems were resolved before his mother went into labor. Such explicitly Christian references are very common in Igbo. A less Christian, but more or less equivalent name, is Uzoma (Ijeoma for a girl), literally “good road”, implying a safe journey leading up to the birth of the baby. This is the name of one of K.C.’s brothers, and it reflects the fact that he was born a week before coming to the United States.
If Igbo names tend to be more religious in nature, Yoruba names — no less descriptive or elaborate — are often more related to the suggestion of royalty. Originally, this was literal royalty, but today, the usage is more metaphorical. Common elements include ade– “crown”, ola– “treasure”, and oba– “king”. Igbo, to a lesser degree, also has elements of this sort; as an example, K.C.’s daughter’s name, Adanze, incorporates the Igbo element ada– “princess”. I told K.C. about a Nigerian friend I used to know, whose name was Mobolaji. K.C. immediately told me this meant “I woke up with a (little) king” — what a beautiful sentiment for the naming of a child. Certainly a far cry from naming your baby Apple, Pilot Inspektor, or Moxie CrimeFighter. These are real names, by the way, lovingly (?!) bestowed by lunatic Hollywood parents on their innocent children. Then again, perhaps these names are determinative after all — all translating roughly as “expensive therapy later in life”, hahae.
It’s different for the children of Europe and America. Even though I know the meaning of my own name, it doesn’t have any special determinative or descriptive significance for me. Or almost none: I do have a strong affinity for swimming in the ocean. ;) But were I a Yoruba or Igbo and given a name meaning “healer” (as my first name signifies in Greek), I would have grown up realizing the significance of this and would almost certainly have actually become a doctor. I would have wanted to live up to my name, to justify my parents’ choice of it.
The brilliant Nigerian writer, Chinua Achebe, may be another example — Chinua = “God should hear” + Achebe = “Guidance”. Perhaps the decision to express himself — to provide a permanent written commentary on Igbo society as it struggles to find its place, to the extent it still has one, in our “modern” world of colonialization and globalization — had something to do with his awareness of the meaning of his own name. If I ever get to meet him (unlikely as that is), I’ll be sure to ask!
As far away from this kind of universal awareness of the meanings of names as we are here in the West, in the 21st century, this kind of culture reminds me of Tolkien’s naming practices, where his choice for the name of just about every person and place is richly imbued with meaning. The Yoruba element oba– is almost a direct equivalent to the tar– prefix in the names of the Númenórean kings, for instance. And what would you make of a family line with the names Númendil, Amandil, Elendil, and Meneldil? If you knew a little Quenya, their reverence for and loyalty to the West, the Eldar, and the Valar would be no mystery to you at all. As with a Yoruba or Igbo family, you’d be perfectly justified in drawing some conclusions, wouldn’t you? Too bad it isn’t like that in the “civilized” West. If it were, I’d surely be a doctor-king on some remote island! :)
 Moore, Christopher J. In Other Words. New York: Walker Publishing Company, 2004, p. 78.