When my sister was hunting around for a name for her child, I suggested naming the baby after a saint.
“No, “ she said, “I want her to have an African name.”
“Ever heard of Saint Bakhita?”
“Look her up. She’s an African saint.”
When it comes to naming children, many Africans believe that you can either give them a Christian name, an African name, or both, but never the twain shall meet. This misconception can make Christianity seem “exclusivist” and marginalizing of African people, cultures and naming conventions.
Speaking to black South Africans, I sometimes get the sense that they may feel left out or neglected when it comes to Christian names for children. They feel that the names of saints, traditionally taken up at baptism, are European in heritage and therefore somewhat colonial and oppressive. Hence why some black people call Christian names their “slave names.”
I came across this quite often in university. The conversation would often run like this.
“What’s your name?”
“Okay, but what is your African name?”
“Yeah, I get that. But what’s your other African name?”
“I don’t have another African name. It’s Namisi. That’s it.”
They’d then give me a pitiful look, or a withering glance. Sometimes some people would tell me that’s I’ve been colonised and need to be decolonised. One even called me a “house nigger.”
There is something to be said for the “decolonization” argument, especially when one looks at the naming conventions amongs black South Africans over the past five or six decades. Doing a case study of the names of famous politicians, I get the sense that those born between the 1920s up until the 1950s tended to have very “European” first names. But when you look at those born from the 1960s onwards, you will seldom find your Walters, Pixleys or Nelsons. My theory is that black consciousness had caught on and become a some very powerful cultural wave by then . It was almost as though the African first names signified a sort of emancipation from colonialism.
Having said that, there are many African, and “African sounding” saints names, which Christians can use at Baptism. Note that several of the names in the list below are conventionally regarded as surnames. When I mentioned some of them to an Italian friend of mine, his response was that you cannot use a surname as a first name. To that objection, I answer that no such rule exists, and several European Christian names are surnames or place names, such as Justus, Borga or Carmen. Some are even concepts, such as Dolores. Inventing rules where none exist can only suffocate creativity and inculturation.
This is an important issue because the Catholic Church specifically, claims to be “catholic” or universal, but we Catholics are a little lazy when it comes to finding expressions of this “for all people, everywhere, at all times”-ness. I think that we lay Catholics, myself included, are largely to blame if the Catholic Church is ever accused of being “colonial”. Speaking of the onward march of human society towards a growing respect and understanding of human dignity as expressed in all legitimate societal norms and cultures, Jacques Maritain offers this consideration:
“Indeed, whether it has remained Christian or become secularized, this idea of the historic vocation of mankind is of Christian origin and derives from Christian inspiration; the surprising thing is that many Christians have lost sight of this idea and, while remaining attached to the dogmas of faith, put aside the inspiration of faith when it comes to judging human things.”
Jacques Maritain. “The Rights of Man and Natural Law”.
The list below will grow as I discover more Saints names, and hopefully, as more martyrs from places such as Rwanda (the 1994 genocide) and Nigeria (current religious persecution) are canonized. The names below belong to men and women who have either been canonized or are solidly on their way there, and also “sound” distinctly African. I hope this debunks the myth that the Catholic Church isn’t universal in its scope.