A name is one of the factors that helps to develop our sense of identity. In the Eritrean society, the day of naming a baby is a great feast, next in importance perhaps only to the day of birth of the baby. On this day, social and religious rituals are performed and are often attended by relatives, friends and neighbors.
In almost all of the Eritrean ethnic groups, a woman goes to her parent’s house for the delivery of her very first child. This often gives the woman’s family a leverage in giving a name to the baby. The name of the baby is officially recognized at the naming ceremony, Sumeya (for Muslims) and baptism (for Christians).
Naming the newly born baby is such a big deal in the Eritrean society that it is not only the parents’ responsibility. Relatives and friends often propose whatever they think is the best name for the baby. In the Saho culture, the gender of the baby determines the gender of the giver of the name. If the newly born baby is a boy the male relatives are given the privilege to choose a name for the child and if it happens to be a girl the privilege goes to the female relatives. The traditional midwife also has a say in naming the baby.
Eritrean names tell a lot of personal information about the person. By simply looking at a name one may be able to easily figure out the date of birth, the era the person was born, the state of the family at the time of the child’s birth and the family’s aspirations, etc.
Eritrean names have many unique features and are rich in meaning. Many names come from the Holy Scriptures, the Quran and the Bible. Names of saints or prophets, usually attached to suffixes or prefixes, are common. For example, Mohammednur, Isa, Mussie, Fiqreyesus, Letemariam and Okbamichael have their roots in religion. There are also many names related to the day of birth of the person. For example, if a baby is born on Saint Michael’s veneration day, the baby may be named Weldemichael or Habtemichael.
Naming a child after kinsmen is common in the Eritrean society. It is a means of memorializing ancestors and bringing grandparents and grandchildren closer to one another. Such a name is also given hoping that the child would grow up to inherit not just the name but the virtues of the ancestor.
Some names are chosen to reflect the circumstances surrounding the birth of the child. They may relate to the general conditions of the period, or those that relate to the state of the parents and their family. The happiness, hope, distress and despair experienced by the family is often reflected in the name of the child born under these circumstances. For instance, if a woman gives birth to a babygirl after a difficult labor, the baby may be named Adhanet (which means the newly born has saved her mother). And if a woman had a miscarriage or her child has died, she may name her newly born babygirl Yihdega (a prayer asking for the baby’s life to spared). To express their happiness, parents may name their baby Desta (joy).
Names of places and plants constitute many Eritrean names. Denden, Dahlak, Nakfa, Semhar and many other historical places are common Eritrean names, and Momona, Ala, Sofia, Fiori, Embeba, Tekle, Tekleweini, Weini, Aranshi, etc. are common names that relate to plants. The Eritrean revolution also added a new genre to the types of Eritrean names. Hzbawi, Hzbawit (peoples’), Hager (country), Dejen (rear area), Yikealo (the name given to the freedom fighters), Fenkil (the military operation that liberated Massawa), Fthi (justice), Natsnet (independence), Awet (victory), Metkel (principle), Tsnat (tenacity) etc. have become common names.
Finally, as an expression of their burning desire for peace and tranquility Eritreans commonly name their children Selam, Saliem, Salm, Selemawi, Selemawit, Alamin, Aman, Rahwa, Rufta, Fkre, Fkri, etc., which all denote to peace and amity.