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What’s in a Name?

May 9, 2011

It’s surprisingly not uncommon to receive calls bright and early here in Malawi. So when my phone rang at 6:45 Saturday morning, and I saw it was my good friend and one of the field staff from our office, I didn’t think much of it.
That changed quickly.

After the initial greetings, Maswaswa shared his exciting news that he had a new daughter born that morning. I quickly congratulated him, and expressed my excitement. He’s a great guy, amazing extension worker, lives very close to me, and was the one to set me up with my family here (who he is distantly related to). A new baby in the family/neighbourhood is something to celebrate!

Then he dropped the bomb; he asked me to name her.

Yikes! A name is important! It’s the first thing people will hear about her, it’s one of the few things that will stay with her for her entire life. This is something people pour over, that they agonizingly search out and debate. Can I do that for someone else’s baby? It took me almost a week to name my cat, how am I going to come up with a name for a child? Even more importantly, someone else’s child, in a different culture.

Malawi has some interesting naming practices to say the least. First there’s the sentiments: Gift, Happy, Thankful, Blessings, Precious, Trouble, Mercy, Clever. These can be given in English, Chichewa or Chitumbuka (probably other languages too, those are just the ones that I know). Then there’s the random nouns; Toyota, Oven, Nation, Pumpkineater, Boston, and there’s even a Canada in my niece’s class, the list goes on. Finally there’s a whole host of just name names. Some familiar, some not so much.

And in the end, it was one from that last category that I settled on. If this little girl is going to know that she was named by a Canadian, I felt like she should have somewhat of a Canadian name to reflect that. I decided on Maria. A tribute to my Mom’s Mom, on this weekend of mothers. A strong name, shared by both cultures, a connection to Canada and to Malawi. Hopefully a prediction of things to come for her.

Happy Mother’s Day!

11 Comments leave one →
  1. May 9, 2011 9:07 am

    Hi Alyssa. What a lovely honour.
    My congratulations to the mother & father,
    and best wishes for little Maria !

  2. Karen Forgrave permalink
    May 9, 2011 8:51 pm

    What a nice honour for you – and a great name too!!
    What are birthing practices like where you are? Baby born at home….with midwives, or…?
    Just interested!

    Karen =)

  3. Stephanie Rauhut permalink
    May 9, 2011 9:13 pm

    What a beautiful story for Mother’s Day!
    Welcome Maria 🙂 I’m sending warm wishes for health and happiness.

    I think you’ve chosen a beautiful name Alyssa – classic and strong as intended!

  4. May 10, 2011 1:45 pm

    What a wonderful and thoughtful Mother’s Day gift . I know my mom would have been honoured and proud as I am. If little Maria has half my mother’s love, compassion, strength, fortitude, perseverance, creativity, common sense, ingenuity, understanding, and beautiful voice, plus some spunk like Maria in the Sound of Music she will do well in this world. Google said that one meaning of the name Maria is “Star of the Sea”. How appropriate as my mom crossed the sea to Canada and you have crossed the sea to Africa and brought her her name. She therefore will definitely be a star! Hope to meet her when we come to Africa.
    Much Love and hugs to you and little Maria. Mom

  5. Holly Lindsay permalink
    May 10, 2011 6:03 pm

    Best story ever. Please tell me you will eventually publish this blog? The world needs these experiences!

  6. Kelly Braiden permalink
    May 10, 2011 9:23 pm

    Alyssa – what a great name ! and what a privilege to be asked! Miss you!

  7. Gloria Crouse permalink
    May 11, 2011 12:55 am

    Thumbs up! Cool! Love from Aunt Gloria!

  8. susan permalink
    May 15, 2011 4:26 am

    What a great honour! It was also lovely to read your Mom (Shirley)’s response to your post as well. It’s a beautiful testament to the wonderful women in your family and the connections that can be made across cultures 🙂

    Lyss, can’t wait to see you when you’re back!

  9. September 9, 2011 6:20 pm

    Alyssa, this may be a silly question, but… why you? Jordan just posted something similar. Why are Malawians asking foreigners to name kids? Is it a luck thing? A custom relating to guests?

    It all seems a bit odd to me, but then again, I’m very far away, and very North American.

    • September 18, 2011 11:11 am

      Hey Ward,

      I think there’s probably a number of factors behind it and its probably slightly different in every case. From what I can tell, I actually don’t think it has that much to do with foreigner, as it does with respected person in your life. Mostly I think its seen as a bit of an honour, a demonstration of the value they place on your relationship and importance to them – you’re probably not going to ask some stranger off the street to name your kid. My housemate in town was named by her grandfather, other people I know were named by other friends or family members.

      There’s also the fact that along with naming child inevitably comes a closer connection initially and on-going. I definitely provided some gifts for Maria, as I believe Jordan did as well for Kondwani, would I have done that anyway? Maybe, maybe not.. at least probably not to the same extent.

      who knows, maybe its just easier to get someone else to name your kid for you – could save the parents many hours of discussion and debate 😉



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