What’s in a name? God Knows!
When my husband and I were living and working in Zimbabwe as development workers, Jem was a pharmacist at the District Hospital of Zvishavane. Not long after starting, he was dispensing drugs and needed to ascertain the identity of a patient. “What’s your name?” he asked the man in front of him. “God Knows,” came the reply. Thinking that perhaps the gentleman hadn’t understood the question as most of the local people were Shona speakers, Jem repeated, “My name is Jeremy. What’s yours?” “God Knows,” the man replied yet again. It then dawned on Jem that this really was the man’s name!
It was whilst we were in Zimbabwe that we began to appreciate how important names are in different cultures. Names are deeply personal. They help to define us and give us a sense of identity. A four-year-old will go to great effort to learn to write their name in large, wonky script, and that name will become part of who they are for the rest of their lives. But in some cultures, choosing a child’s name is more than just researching the latest fashion in boys’ or girls’ names or naming a child after a parent or grandparent. There are many other cultural considerations. A person’s name can tell us a lot about them and their background. Showing interest in their name or names communicates respect, deference and that you genuinely value them.
In Zimbabwe and in many other African nations, a person’s name may describe the positive or negative circumstances surrounding their birth. So, a baby may be named Abandoned if the father deserted the mother during her pregnancy, or Gift of God if the baby has been long awaited. In the Bible, Jacob’s wife Rachel died immediately after a gruelling childbirth. With her final breath she named the baby Ben-oni which means ‘son of my sorrow’, although Jacob renamed the baby Benjamin which means ‘son of my right hand.’ (Genesis 35:18)
Hardship and Hatred
I once met a child called Hardship and another called Hatred during my work on the African continent. In some cultures, a child may be given a ‘bad’ name in the hope that it will deceive evil spirits into thinking that the child is not loved and wanted and therefore allow the child to live. So Ajuji is a Hausa name meaning ‘born on a rubbish heap’ and may be given to a baby whose mother has lost other babies. Likewise in China, a baby may be given a negative ‘milk’ name to ward off evil spirits, before the formal naming ceremony 100 days after the baby is born, at which they will be given their proper name.
In many regions such as the Middle East and across Africa, names identify people in terms of their lineage, tribe, family and therefore their status. Names bond clans and tribes together. They can also indicate a person’s religious affinity. For instance, many male Muslims are given or take the name ‘Muhammad’ after the Prophet Muhammad, or Abu Bakr, the name of the first caliph of Islam. Or names may be taken from the Qu’ran, such as the female name Noor which means ‘light’.
Traditional names can be deeply engrained in whole communities. When I was frequently visiting Togo, I met so many people with the same name, I asked my colleague why this was. It transpired that the Akan and Ewe tribes have a tradition whereby people are given the name of the day that they are born on. So, all males born on a Friday are given the name ‘Kofi’ and all girls born on a Friday are given the name ‘Afi’. My colleague (who was born on a Wednesday and therefore named ‘Kokou’) was excited to learn that I am a twin, and he therefore gave me the name ‘Akwele.’
Names may also indicate the family status of a person. Once a woman in Zimbabwe has given birth, she is called ‘Amai’ (mother) followed by the name of her firstborn, for instance, ‘Amai Farai’ (‘Mother of Farai’.) She will be called Amai Farai no matter how many other children she has, and this title conveys respect. This practice is common in many parts of Africa and other regions of the world. When I lived in Zimbabwe, I was given the name ‘Amai Nherera’, which means ‘Mother of Orphans’, because of the work I was doing amongst children orphaned by AIDS.
Throughout the Bible, the giving of names is a serious business and changes of name may have prophetic connotations or indicate a commissioning or spiritual transformation. In Genesis 17:5, God changes the name of Abram (‘Exalted Father’) to Abraham (‘Father of many’.) In John 1:42, Jesus changes Simon’s name to Cephas (Aramaic) which is Peter in Greek. Jesus later declares to Peter, “…you are Peter (which means ‘rock’), and upon this rock I will build my church…” (Matthew 16:18)
I was once sitting and chatting to a young boy living on the streets in Zvishavane. A local pastor stopped and said, “Why are you bothering with that street boy? He’s trash.” I rounded on him in white-hot anger. “How dare you call a child trash that God calls ‘Treasure!” Individual people and ethnic groups can be branded with names that demean and hurt, and that give them a false identity. Far too many children that I work with overseas are branded as witches – a name and label that is hard to remove, and that leads to them becoming outcasts. Black people were once given the ‘N’ name. It originated from the Latin word ‘niger’ meaning ‘black’ and was established as a derogative name and racial slur.
The Name Above All
Those that we are reaching out to need to know that God has gloriously revealed himself through his son, Jesus, whose name means ‘The Lord Saves’, because he saves us from our sin and shame. They need to know that no matter what names they have been called or given, and no matter what their condition, Jesus Christ redefines those who choose to be united in love with him. He calls us ‘Adopted Child’, ‘Loved’, ‘Chosen’, ‘Holy and Without Fault in His Eyes’ (Ephesians1: 4-5) and ‘Friend’ (John 15:15). He knows us intimately and by name (Exodus 33:17). One day, we will see his face. Incredibly, our names will be forever recorded in the Book of Life and his name will be written on our foreheads as a sign that we are his for all eternity! (Revelation 22:4)
“All who are victorious will be clothed in white. I will never erase their names from the Book of Life, but I will announce before my Father and his angels that they are mine.” (Revelation 3:5)
May this glorious truth bring us great joy, hope and encouragement. May it spur us on to share the gospel of Christ and his love with others near and far and give those he adopts into his family cause for great celebration as they come to love the one whose name is above all other names!
Take time to reflect:
What has this blog brought to your mind? Has God spoken to you through it and if so, what is he saying?
Is there any action that Holy Spirit is prompting you to take?
As a nursing sister in the UK in the early 90’s, Susie specialised in the care of those living with HIV and AIDS. In 1995, she and her husband moved to Zimbabwe where Susie founded The Bethany Project that mobilises community-based support for children affected by HIV and AIDS. In 1998, she became Founding Director of the Pavement Project in the UK, which produces Bible-based resources for the restoration of street children in different continents. Also in 1998, she founded The Bethany Children’s Trust (BCT) that, with local partners, mobilises churches in different African nations to act and advocate with and on behalf of marginalised children. After 21 years as BCT director, Susie is now a consultant for the organisation. In 2012 she co-founded Stop Child Witch Accusations (SCWA) and is a member of the Steering Group. She is married to Jeremy, a church elder at the Community Church, Putney. Together, they are increasingly involved with the Unreached Network. Her book, Resistance Fighter is a must read that tells the early part of her story. If you’d like to contact Susie, you can do so here.