Malawi: What’s in a Name?

My Name Is for blogA person’s name has meaning.  Any Tom, Dick, or Harry has a story of how they got their name, even if its that you were named for a favorite uncle, a childhood pet, or the guitarist of your mom’s favorite band.  I have a one-syllable last name and my parents decided to give me and my siblings first names of three or more syllables to balance it out.  My mom once told me she and my dad had a name all picked out — an unusual (I would call it crazy) long first and middle name combination (Desdemona Ezmeralda) — but my grandmother wanted a name from the bible, so my mom, a bit cheekily, picked a very minor character of ill repute.  (No worries, it’s still a fairly popular name.)

It is an awesome responsibility to name your progeny, to bestow or saddle upon him or her with a moniker they will be branded or blessed with for life.  When I was pregnant I decided I would name my daughter a first and middle name combo with the initials “CJ.”  Though it took some time to actually decide on the names — as someone talked me off the ledge of “Jakarta” (the city of her conception) as the middle name – I ended up with what I think is a lovely and normal combination, which took into account the initials I wanted and the original meanings.  My daughter, too, will have a story behind her name — the one she got… and the one she didn’t.

It has been a while since I have really thought about the naming conventions of another culture.  When I traveled around and eventually moved in with a family on the Indonesian island of Bali for about half a year,  the unique way of naming children by birth order became apparent quickly as nearly everyone I met had the same seven names.  It took me a little longer to appreciate the naming traditions of Malawi.

As I understand it, the traditions for naming one’s child in Malawi are similar to other countries of Africa.  One will find many persons named after the tried-and-true Biblical/British names.  There are many Chris’, Johns, Peters, Henrys, Josephs, Michaels, Graces, Marys, Janes, and Teresas.  There are also older English names, some are Biblical, some British surnames turned first names; you have likely heard them before though in the western world these days they would be considered less common and more vintage: Gladwell, Godfrey, Tobias, Moses, Felix, Cornelius, Florence, Esther, Edith, Wellington, Wilfred, Beatrice.

Similar to other African countries, Malawians often name their children after positive or negative circumstances that surrounded the birth or the feelings of parents or family members.  There are common unisex names in local vernacular (Chewa, Ngoni, Tumbuka, etc) such as Chifundo, Chikondi, Chikumbutso, Chimwemwe, Chisomo, Chiyembekezo, Kondwani, Madalitso, Mphatso, Mtendere, and Thokozani.  In my experience interacting with the urbanites of Lilongwe, I have come across many people with these names, and sometimes with the English translations: Mercy, Love, Memory, Joy, Grace, Hope, Rejoice, Blessings,  Gift, Peace, and Thanks.  My nanny is named Thokozile; her daughter is Rejoice.  Some of these names are fairly common in the U.S. too.  My mother’s middle name is Grace.

These are mostly names reflecting positive feelings but there are some that on first glance appear negative, such as Mavuto, which means “troubles,” or Tamala, meaning “finished,” but Malawian friends have explained to me that bequeathing a child with such a name is a way of bringing about closure of a difficult time.

Other English names along these lines I have frequently come across are Bright and Beauty, but Precious, Lucky, Lonely (a wonderfully friendly guard at the Embassy), Knowledge (a newly born baby I met in the course of my duties) and Smart (a somewhat befuddled gentleman who attempted to run for President) are out there too.   A prominent human rights defender in Malawi has named his three children Freedom, Justice, and Peace.  I cannot begin to say how much I love that.

And then there are just those names that leave you scratching your head.  Some countries pass naming laws prohibiting parents from legally attaching an embarrassing or offensive moniker to their offspring.  In the United States, there are few restrictions on naming children.  Mostly rules disallow the use of accents on non-English characters (like the ñ or ë), hyphens (like Mary-Kate), or symbols (such as the singers P!nk and Ke$ha).  And thus you end up with some interesting names.  Celebrities seem to have a greater penchant for these unconventional names:  Frank Zappa famously named his daughter Moon Unit.  Kim Kardashian and Kanye West have named their four children North, Saint, Chicago, and Psalm.  Two of Michael Jackson’s children are named Paris and Prince.  But a look at the Social Security Administration’s list in any given year also reveals other, um, noteworthy names such as Fanta, Lemon, Halo, and Espn showed up in 2017.

The U.S. is not unique in this regard.  While adjudicating visas in Mexico and China one could always come across an interesting name like Kobe (after the basketball legend) or Led Zeppelin Sanchez.  But there just seems something about Malawi…  I have come across eye-brow raising names on a much more regular basis.  A Malawian friend, an incredibly smart and culturally astute woman, told me that in the southeastern part of the country, where the majority of the ethnic Yao live, one will often find older persons (and some younger, by tradition) adopted names after kitchen utensils or everyday items as a legacy of colonial times (and the inability of foreigners to pronounce or even bother to learn to pronounce local names).  You might find some people in that region named Cup or Saucer, Table or Bicycle.

But I have come across so many unusual names.  For instance, I looked through the list of all individuals who ran for seats in the 2019 parliamentary elections, persons I have met in the course of my duties, and the running list a colleague has compiled during her time in Malawi, and here are some of the names: Flattery, Biggles, Tryness, Orphan, Helix, Square, Genesis, Doublestar, McTonnex, Simplex, Leckford, Manifesto, Commodious, Flangson, Loveness, Heatherwick, James Bond (a Member of Parliament from Kasungu), Perks (the Malawian Ambassador to the UN), Spoon (the former commander of the Malawi Defense Forces), and my personal favorite: Dryvat.

My friend also told me that it is common, especially in the northern parts of the country, to name children after something “in fashion.”  This could result in a name like “Climate Change” or, she says, it is only a matter of time before someone decides to name their child Covid.

Every name means something.  And the naming traditions of Malawi as a whole demonstrate the rich traditions, cultures, and history which have weaved together the story of this country.  I expect Dryvat has quite a story.

Edited to update: my nanny gave birth on June 5 to a beautiful baby boy named Effort Peace.