African names carry stories of who you are, where you’re coming from, and what you’ve been through, so that you and others can “know” you.
If you were born an African child, you might be taught to recite a special chant of self-naming that identifies your family, community, and regional affiliations; proclaims your clan and revered ancestors; announces your place in society, as well as other special circumstances and characteristics.
In a lifetime, an African person may acquire many “praise names” – or epithets (= descriptive substitutes for a person’s name) – which embody not only the virtues but also the vices of the person and/or the person’s ancestors. So important is such African naming that sophisticated oral art forms called “praise poetry” have developed in almost every African traditional society.
An individual’s naming song tells the story of who s/he is by recounting the lineage that s/he comes from—that is, chanting back through the praise names of illustrious living and dead ancestors of the individual’s family, clan, and people.
African praise names can describe:
- conditions of entry into the world (e.g., a boy after three girls, birth in the midst of a terrible draught, special joy in a child who lives after a series of infant mortalities).
- unusual features of the birth (e.g., born wrapped in a caul or feet first) that are believed to denote character or spiritual affiliation.
- a spiritual force known to have interceded in the child’s conception or an ancestor “come again” (reincarnated) in the child to form part of her/his complex soul, character, and exerting influence on her/his destiny.
- genealogy or kinship group affiliations—of the individual’s people, clan, family, revered ancestors—that connect and identify the individual with the past and the community (past & present), and whose mythic and social history (key events, generalized character, special ancestors) may shape the individual’s future.
- geographical affiliations of place and region, or elements of the natural environment (past and present) that identify and influence the individual and her/his community, kinship group.
- totem (e.g., animal, plant, natural object) epithet--usually determined by divination or special revelation (e.g. a dream or vision)—of the individual and/or clan influencing the individual’s character, values, and/or destiny.
- an important past experience or unusual incident (e.g. accomplishment, tragedy, special escapade, twist of fortune or fate) with which the person is identified (has gained the person either celebrity or notoriety), which has marked the person, and/or which reveals key character trait(s).
- the (initiation) stage or social role in (spiritual and/or communal) life that the person has attained on her/his journey toward achieving full “humanness”.
- special “age-mates” to whom the person is bonded by shared affinities, experiences, character traits, spiritual destiny, etc.
A series of Praise names or epithets (descriptive terms that substitute for the names of persons or things) comprise the poem’s content. Each line of the praise poem is comprised of one praise name or descriptive epithet. No connector words or transitional phrases are generally used to connect lines or explain relationships between lines.
Rhythm and sound are carefully attended to, for a praise song is meant to be chanted to rhythmic beat or sung to music. In communal performance, the lines of the praise poem would be called by the chanter, and audience-participants would be expected to respond as a chorus at regular, rhythmic intervals within the chanted praise song.
Ambara, The Interpreter
Example of a Dogon Tige (Praise Song) to an individual
Ambara, The Interpreter
Pushed up through hollow bamboo
Men of mud
Cutter of the road.
Source: Solange de Ganay: Les Devises des Dogons, Paris: Institut d’Ethnologie, 1941; p. 149.
Here is an explication (line-by-line interpretation) of “Ambara, The Interpreter”
Line 1. Ambara (names the person)
Line 2. Abundant cloud (greeting given primal Dogon blacksmith when He arrived on Earth with the possibility of rain, reminds Ambara he is Dogon; the Dogon also associate this phrase with mystery and occult knowledge known only to high initiate in a Dogon secret society)
Line 3. Pushed up through hollow bamboo (“hollow bamboo” is praise name of the Dyon branch & clan of the Dogon and recalls their arrival to the region of the Bandiagara cliffs)
Line 4. Fatigue (associated with the neighborhood of Sanga and clan history: Ambara’s ancestors wore themselves out carrying soil from the bottoms of evaporating ponds up onto the rocky terraces of Bandiagara—beginning agriculture in this inhospitable desert environment; Also indicating the curse of the human condition)
Line 5. Banished brothers (For a mythic seven years in the past, the Dyon clan was banished from the villages of Ogol for breaking a serious taboo)
Line 6. Men of Mud. (“mud” indicates a water source and identifies the quarter of Ogol villages where Ambara’s immediate family lives)
Line 7. Cutter of the Road. (This final epithet characterizes Ambara’s personality type and social role—he has a facility of interpretation, which he has inherited from an ancestor whose life Ambara is reliving under different worldly circumstances.)
Source: Central Oregon Community College.
Our African Heritage Online