SJC Month 4: What If Your Parents Named You Economic Doom?

By April 20, 2010 culture, faith, language No Comments

Anytime I hear news of a baby’s birth, I ask of the newborn’s name. I may not know this child or the parents, but I ask because I love to hear how first and middle names fit together. I mull and toss the name about in my mind, considering how it sounds. The names these parents choose tell me something about them—are the trendy? adventurous? traditional?

For the most part, parents in our society are cautious about the names they select for their children. Parents take care that the name does not have some obscure, negative meaning or that it doesn’t have an odd ring when combined with their last name.

But what if we named our children according to the troubles and struggles of the day? Could you imagine naming your child Inconvenience? What about Vexation or Drain on Finances or Unplanned Disruption?

If this were common in our society, the grievances it caused would likely be a regular segment on Dr. Phil.

But in Malawi, such naming conventions are common.

I discovered this while reading The Boy Who Harnessed Electricity: Creating Currents of Electricity and Hope, written by William Kamkwamba (with Bryan Mealer). Kamkwamba grew up in rural Malawi and experienced famine firsthand. He says that during the worst stretches, Malawian parents often would name their children according to the current circumstances—if the circumstances were bleak, the names would be too. He explains:

In the villages where health care is poor, many children die early of malnutrition, malaria, or diarrhea. In hungry times, the situation is always worse. Because of this, names often reflect the circumstances or the parents’ greatest fears. It’s quite sad, but all across Malawi, you run into men and women named such things as Simkhalitsa (I’m Dying Anyway), Malazani (Finish Me Off), Maliro (Funeral), Manda (Tombstone), or Phelantuni (Kill Me Quick)—all of whom had fortunately outwitted their unfortunate names. Many change their names once they’re old, like my father’s older brother. My grandparents named him Mdzimange, which means “Suicide.” He later changed it to Musaiwale, meaning “Don’t Forget.”1

This month’s Social Justice Challenge focus is on hunger, and I have been reading books and researching organizations online to learn more about the crisis. Kamkwamba’s book has painted a picture for me of the desperate need in his country.

Kamkwamba now works to improve life for his village through various development projects—check it out at his blog.

The more we can help with economic development and agricultural training, the better life will be for Malawians. And fewer people will be stuck with a tragic name.

Join the SJC! Let’s read, act, and change together in 2010. Visit SJC HQ for details.

1. William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer, The Boy Who Harnessed Electricity: Creating Currents of Electricity and Hope (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2009), 95.

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