Aawambo traditional naming ceremonies - Part 1

Child-naming plays a significant role in the tradition of the Aawambo as is the case in other African tribes.

Names are bestowed upon both animate and inanimate beings. But naming a child enjoys the highest priority because it is accompanied by a ceremony known as eluko in Oshiwambo.

When a pregnant woman is in labour, she moves into a ondunda yosakalwa (birthing hut) accompanied by the omuvalithi (traditional midwife) who attends to her during and after the delivery of the baby. The midwife takes the ongalo into the birthing hut, because it is where the baby lands. Ongalo is regarded as the “magic basket”, which confers fortune upon a newborn.

After the baby is delivered, the midwife bestows a name upon it, which might describe the times of the day, seasons of the year, circumstances around the child’s birth and so on. This is popularly known as an edina lopongalo (a name linked to the sieving basket). The midwife may inform the father at the main reception area where he is traditionally supposed to be seated about the delivery of the baby. In some Aawambo sub-tribes, for example among the Aakwanyama, the father then shouts out the name after the notification.

In some tribes e.g. among the Aandonga, the mother spends days in seclusion after delivery. On the day the newborn’s navel falls off, a name is officially bestowed upon it by the father or a paternal relative. For such an occasion, a big party is organised.

The actual naming of the baby takes place privately between the parents. The father moves to the hut of the nursing mother before sunrise. They conduct a special session before the actual naming begins. Sitting on the ground next to his wife, the father takes up the infant and passes it under his legs twice before handing it back to her with the remark: “Here is your child, his/her name is so and so.”

The father says the name in a very low tone. If the mother does not hear the name, she is not allowed to ask him to repeat it, because it is believed that if the name is repeated, the baby will become an idiot. The relatives and friends are then called and the name is disclosed. The child is given the oshinyenye2 (traditional necklace) by the father at olupale lwondjugo (the sitting place opposite the mother’s hut).

Such an oshinyenge is passed on to the next child. The mother remains at the entrance of the hut with her child on her lap. She eats oshithima4 (mahangu porridge) and ekaka5 (dried spinach). She is then smeared with oil and the big morsel is dipped in the gravy, which she eats greedily without breaking it into pieces. Everyone in attendance rubs themselves with the oil too. The newborn’s mother is then given ondhikwa6 (a baby carrier) made from an animal skin, particularly admired by the clan.

Someone from a paternal clan takes the child to the kraal if it is a boy and pretends to be looking after the cattle and tells the child how to look after them. If it is a girl, it is taken to the pounding area where the pestle is taken and whomever carrying the baby pretends to be pounding mahangu into flour.

The ceremony is accompanied by a popular dance:

Oshike she twe eta?
Oluvalo!
(What has us made come?
Offspring!)

This dance is accompanied by ululation by the women and a shout of praise by the men. The birth of twins, triplets or a baby whose legs came out first (omukwana guupili) during birth is treated differently. In the next issue, the birth of twins will be described. It must be pointed out, however, that despite the traditional practice followed in Oshiwambo tradition, modernisation now has an effect on the naming ceremony. Many babies are now delivered in hospitals and this means that the many traditional practices followed back in the day in naming the baby have been abandoned. The traditional midwife has been replaced with the modern midwife in the hospital and the ondunda yosakalwa have been replaced with the maternity ward and so on. Although the father still gives the official name, the name is conferred upon the child by a pastor on many occasions. The father has lost the prerogative to announce the name publicly. PF