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As Africa’s Population Booms, Meaningful Baby Names Gain Popularity

  • Anita Powell

FILE - Children play on rocking horses at a toy library run by Cotlands, a local nonprofit organization that promotes early learning opportunities for children, in Johannesburg.

FILE - Children play on rocking horses at a toy library run by Cotlands, a local nonprofit organization that promotes early learning opportunities for children, in Johannesburg.

Move over, Noah and Sophia - Lovemore and Nthabiseng are gaining on you.

As Africa bears down for a massive baby boom, the global balance of baby names is also going to get a lot more interesting.

As increasing numbers of Americans are going with names that are old fashioned or creative, parents across Africa are also drawing from a rich culture, history and imagination for names for their bundles of joy. From the apple-cheeked Sundays of Nigeria, to the roly-poly Alemayehus of Ethiopia, to the cute-as-a-button Perseverances of Zimbabwe, these are just some of the continent’s more popular - and fun - names.

Africa's baby boom

Mohammed Khan has a front row seat for Africa’s baby boom.

The 20-year-old man has a stall at a popular Johannesburg mall, where he sells framed certificates printed with poetic descriptions of common names.

New parents are his best customers -- and through them, he’s gained insight into the names of Africa’s next generation, as the continent prepares for a massive population boom in the next 35 years.

“Some of the most common names we get is Eli. Eli, Mohammed, Yusuf, Ibrahim. Also Dineo, or Koratile. Very common names, they come up,” said Khan.

Khan proudly notes that his given name, Mohammed, and its many variations, is the most popular boy’s name in many different countries, including Mali (it’s Mamadou, according to Mali’s 2010 census), and Britain (according to UK government stats).

Most African nations don’t release reliable statistics on baby names, like the U.S. Social Security Administration does.

Those annual lists of America’s most popular names give great insight into the nation’s psyche: classics like Noah and Sophia took the two top spots in 2013.

American names seem to increasingly reflect popular culture. The popular website BabyCenter gives inspirations as varied as popular TV shows, celebrity culture, great-grandmothers and exotic destinations -- like the newly popular “Kenya” for girls in the United States.

Stand the test of time

By contrast, Khan said, he sees African parents reaching for meaningful names that stand the test of time.

He said he rarely sees the trendy, quirky names that have become so popular with top celebrities.

“We hardly get that. I think someone came with Apple. Someone did come with Apple,” he said.

In South Africa, parents say they are trying to shed the nation’s racist past, where many South Africans of a certain age were given an African name and a Westernized, so-called “Christian” name.

That included late president Nelson Mandela, whose real first name, Rolihlahla, translates roughly to “troublemaker.” A teacher gave him the name “Nelson” on his first day of school.

First-time mother Zanele is one of many new parents who have jettisoned that tradition. When her son was born a year ago, she named him Nhlanipho, which means “wise” in Zulu.

“I feel that he doesn’t have to have a Christian name. He can have a Zulu name and keep the only name that he has. Because we are Zulu after all,” she said.

'Answer from God'

Proud father Toki Mathe named his first son Karabo, which means “answer from God” in the Southern Sotho language.

“The new generation, we’re trying to bring back that African, more of an African name, that you know what it means. Our parents were forced to give us names that are English and they don’t know what they mean,” said Mathe.

But English names are holding strong in proudly English-speaking Zimbabwe, home of delightfully descriptive -- and self-explanatory -- names like Lovemore, Blessing, Bright and Precious. And in some West African nations, like Ghana and Nigeria, parents name babies for the day of the week they were born.

But U.S. popular culture is also spreading across the continent. Lindsay, 28, said she went for one of the top American boys’ names -- Aiden -- for her firstborn. But, in true African fashion, she packed it with meaning.

“I like the meaning of it. The meaning is fire. And his middle name is Dominck. D-O-M-I-N-C-K. And that means belonging to God. So in full his name means ‘Fire belonging to God,’” she explained.

But old traditions continue to rule in other nations. Mozambique-born pastor Joaquim Livura chose to anoint his daughter with the Portuguese name Gabriella, which means “angel.”

“In Mozambique, probably because of Portuguese culture, probably we do European names. Not like here, here they do national African names. I like it, they way that they do here, in South Africa,” said Livura.

These names and others are sure to keep entrepreneurs like Khan busy seeking meaning among names for the next generation.

What’s your favorite African baby name, and what does it mean? Share in the comments.

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