While travelling throughout Ghana, I acquired several new names. Ghanaians do not hesitate to announce that a visitor is in their midst, and children as well as adults called out the local word for “white person” whenever I passed. In the southern/central parts of the country where Twi is spoken, I became obroni. Although obroni directly translates as “person from a different land”, race is a huge indicator of belonging, and therefore visitor becomes synonymous with white or lighter-skinned person. In the Northern Region where Dagbani coexists with a diversity of other languages, I became salminga. In the Upper East Region where Frafra and Kusaal are spoken, I became nasara, literally “English speaker.” In practice, this word describes people with lighter skin, including asians, latinos, americans, europeans, etc.
Day in and day out people called out and chanted these names at me. Some people just wanted to announce my presence or get my attention, but often times, it felt like harassment. Regardless of whether I responded or not, I could count on renewed shouts of “obroni, obroni, obroni” or “nasara, nasara, nasara.” I just wanted to be left alone, to be a little more anonymous in a place where my appearance stood out so much.
However, most of these people were well-meaning.Taking the time to greet and chat with another person is an important aspect of life across the various regions and cultures of Ghana. As I hurried through streets with my mind on a mission, I was being rude by disregarding the social part of life. When people called out to me, they were reminding me: stop, acknowledge me, come here, let’s enjoy each other’s company.
Once I arrived in the village, I received my first unique name. Robert, my host, baptized me Awinpoka, which means God’s woman in Kusaal. After marriage, a woman moves with her husband’s family, oftentimes sharing the same yard or compound house with her in-laws. The husband’s family gives the wife a new name. What I thought was an innocent, welcoming gesture, others interpreted as a symbol of my marriage into the Apiim family. Many people soon learned that I did not favor the idea, and they loved to joke that I was Robert’s wife, which was guaranteed to infuriate me.
Marriage aside, names in the village are often symbolic and meaningful. Whenever I shared my actual name, people always asked the meaning of Jenna, a question to which I had no answer (Babynames.com tells me it means little bird). They cannot fathom that my parents chose my name for its pleasant sound, rather than its significance.
Most children are given two names: a Kusaasi name and a “Christian” name. The Kusaasi name might reflect the day of the week on which the child was born. Monday is Atinidad; Tuesday, Telata; Wednesday, Alaridad; Thursday, Alamishi; Friday, ;Saturday, Asibi; and Sunday, Alahadad. (Forgive my phoneticized spellings of Kusaal.) This practice is common with other groups in Ghana. The Kusaasi name might also express religious beliefs. For example, Robert and Mary have included Awin, meaning God, in the names of their three children. The first born is named Awintuma, which means God’s work; the second born is named Awinpanga, which means God’s power; and the third born is named Awinyeye, which means God sees. Robert explained that these names indicate that he and his wife have abandoned traditional beliefs and taken up Christianity. Most children in the Apiim family are named for their birthday or for their devotion to God. Other Kusaasi names refer to unique characteristics or events of an individual’s life. For example, one of Robert’s great nephews is named Akumbo, meaning death will not lose. Akumbo’s mother died while giving birth, and his name serves as a reminder of this sad occurrence. The second “Christian” name would be better described as an English name. Common names include Mary, Sarah, Hannah, John, Gifty, Stephen, David, Lydia, Comfort.
A final fun fact about names in Kamega: when a man establishes a family, he chooses a new surname for his wife (wives) and children