Tuesdays are for the Ocean.
Sundays are for the universe. Mondays are for peace. Wednesdays are for the spider. Thursdays are for the earth. Fridays are for fertility. Saturdays are for God.
When we look to Ghanaian naming traditions, a name marks a person’s place and signifies belonging to a spirit, to a history, to a circumstance. You may find that many Ghanaians know the day of the week that they were born as a result of their name. For instance, Akan, Ewe, and Ga children are often named according to the day on which they are born, and these names are sometimes referred to as soul names. Each day of the week is believed to be under the jurisdiction of a god. The premise is that the spirit that guides the child is what permits the child to enter into the world on the day they were born. Thus, it is believed that the child’s behaviour and destiny are connected to their day of birth and represented as such by their name.
Traditionally, these names would be considered informal and primarily used within the home. You may not even see these names on official documentation. Are such names any less legitimate? If you are called by a name, but it is not officially written down, does it have any less effect on how your identity is constructed? Despite an inherent soul name, there is still the requirement for official naming to give legitimacy to the new life as if the call of the spirit is not enough to ground you here on earth. This begs the question, is our essence, is our being not documentation enough? What is pen to paper when compared to blood in veins?
The process of officially naming a child is a family affair that takes place eight days after birth. Naming is delayed for the first seven days of life because it is believed that the child is still tied to the spirit world and has yet to officially settle on earth. During those seven days, the child is kept away from the outside environment and is considered a stranger. The Krobo would say, “Wanɛ lɛ lolo, ebe biɛ lolo” (“We have not seen him, he has no name yet”). On the eighth day, the child is taken outdoors and introduced to the external environment, introduced to the family, and given a name. This is known across Ghana’s many ethnic groups as the “outdooring” process.
A name signifies the child’s place here on earth. It signifies belonging. For given names, there is a lot to consider. Many of these names are chosen based on the circumstances through which the child came into the world. For example, the Akan name Anto, meaning “late” or “missed,” could be given to a male child whose father died before they were born. For children born to mothers who have suffered multiple miscarriages, children may be given unpleasant names such as Donkor, meaning “slave,” or Obimpɛ meaning “you are not wanted” as a protection against infant mortality, willing the spirit world not to call the child back. Given names can also pay homage to an elder or declare a prophecy over a child’s life.
Names often come with quite the load to carry, and who’s to say that’s wrong? Hoping, atoning, remembering? There is such beauty in those things. There’s beauty in hope. There’s justice in atonement. There’s love in memory. But to be called by these things, what does that mean? What does that do? Just because they are beautiful doesn’t mean they aren’t heavy. Similarly, just because they are heavy doesn’t mean that we aren’t meant to stand the load.
I wonder what takes place in those first seven days before the official naming. I wonder what the spirits see in us that makes us worthy of staying. I wonder what we’ve brought with us, the tide, the web, the soil, and all that calls us worthy before anyone else gives us a name. I wonder if our loved ones and those that name us get a glimpse of our spirit, our soul in those first days.
Maybe they can see it – that’s the hope anyway. The desire would be that those naming us do so unburdened by their years here on earth so that they may call on us with clarity allowing our names to sound like breathing instead of the rattling of cages meant to confine and distort. For life to be breathed every time you are addressed. For your name to be a declaration, a complete sentence. Subject and verb. Agreement.
I was given my soul name. Abena. It is written down, formalized. Until recently, I only knew that it meant I was born on a Tuesday. I didn’t know that Tuesdays were for the ocean, but lack of this knowledge didn’t make it any less true. I asked myself if it were possible that I was more earth than ocean. I contemplated if I were more peaceful than waves or if my vastness was more universe than deep blue. I was comforted by the assurance that when planted on a shore I would find myself rushing in to meet the tide, and when presented with all of space and time, I would seek out an anchor. I concluded that my soul and my name agree with one another.
Our names and how we are addressed and identified bear heavily on how we orient ourselves in our social environments, whether those names show up on official documentation, amongst friends and family, or are whispered silently to ourselves. If given names signify belonging to a group, soul names may signify belonging to oneself. And just like soul names and given names, we belong to ourselves long before we belong to anyone else.
Names and the processes through which they are established are a delicate balance between the individual and the collective. A name is just a name until we give it life. However, names are a reminder that we cannot remove ourselves from our context. A name is a call that we answer. Names are whole stories that we must simultaneously hear and tell.What name do you answer to? To whom do you belong? In this life, we are called many things by many people, but how sweet it is to hear your name spoken by mouths that were meant to hold it.
Agyekum, K. (2006). The sociolinguistic of Akan personal names. Nordic Journal of African Studies, 15(2).
Akpebu Adjah, O. (2011). What is in a name? Ghanian personal names as information sources.African Research & Documentation, 117.
Huber, H. (1993). The Krobo: Traditional social and religious life of a West African people. Studia Instituti Anthropos,16.Today