5. Nancy’s African Blog: The Naming Ceremony

Rarely has a day in my life contained so much experience, so much learning, so much pain and so much joy. Here’s the first stop on our day’s journey.

We began the day at the crack of dawn. Up at five a.m., departing our hotel at six. Traveling in Ghana is quite the adventure. For our trip, we were blessed with an excellent Accra native, Francis, who made driving our small bus look quite simple. However, I dared not watch as he wove in and out of the packed streets and paused for the inevitable speed bumps installed to get you to slow down, notice and take care for the market vendors and shoppers in the towns. Some roads are nicely paved, smooth surfaces. Some roads are surfaced with packed dirt and frequent potholes. I don’t think an American car would last a week in Accra. During the frequent slowdowns and stopped traffic, between the lanes of cars came motorcycles, or in the market areas, women walking and selling things stacked in large bowls carried on their heads. An advantage to living in Accra is that you can do your shopping, while stopped in rush hour traffic.

Three hours after leaving our hotel, we arrived in the town of Yamoransa. We waited for a while in the bus, until a taxi arrived with a man who helped organize the event. We would meet him again later at Cape Coast Castle where he led the completion of the ceremony.  

We climbed the stairs of a small building, entering a room where sitting tribal elders welcomed us. They were dressed in traditional colorful garments draped over their shoulders and around their bodies. Those with African ancestors, sat in the front row. My husband and I sat behind them to witness the event.

Millions of Africans kidnapped by slave traders and shipped to America in horrid conditions lost their names, along with the loss of their human dignity, homeland and families during the slave era. Today the African Americans in our group, were finally receiving their African names, during this ceremony in English and the native Ga language.

The ceremony began with libations. We followed an elder out into the hall. I remember our Global Education program years ago involved a libation ceremony where we remembered and named ancestors, pouring water. The elder scattered water on the floor, outside the room where we gathered. Then we returned to the room for the ceremony

The West African naming tradition involves naming children, based on the day of the week they were born and their gender. On a later tour, our guide explained its usually done about two weeks after the child is born, when they could be reasonably sure the child would survive. The chief gave each of our members of the diaspora, those generations of lost Africans, a new name, and explained its meaning. Remarkably, the people in our group found their name syncing with aspects of their personalities.

The chief gave one woman the name meaning “fighter”. She told us she’d been fighting all her life. To another, a retired boss, he gave a name meaning authority. To another woman, a name meaning powerful and complete. She said, “I’m complete by myself. I don’t need a man.” He gave one man a name meaning “man of wealth” and to another, a “man of faith.” Outside the drummers maintained a steady beat sounding the significance of the day with a primordial rhythm.

The tour guide told my husband and I (the only white folks in our group) that we could be witnesses. I appreciated that role because that’s what I came to Ghana to do. I want to witness what has happened to the people of West Africa and how that history intertwines with the history of my country. It’s a story of sadness and the capacity of humans to do great evil. The evil sends ripples out into our present day. Like yesterday, when I read the news about another mass shooting, a racist man targeting black people in Jacksonville, Florida.

But today I witnessed the goodness of this homecoming for my fellow travelers. I witnessed the tribal elders welcoming them back to the land of their ancestors. He gave them each a bowl of palm wine to drink, in celebration of their return. At the end of the ceremony, he invited them to stand and introduce themselves to the group. With great hospitality, they also shared the palm wine with my husband and me, the witnesses.

As we left the building a woman invited me to dance. I moved gently in sync with her, celebrating the African naming of my friends. As we danced, the newly named posed for pictures with the tribal elders and the drummers continued the beat of this day the diaspora came home.

What a gift that woman gave to me, inviting me to dance at this special time. Could she know how much I love to dance? Do you see how wonderful it was for me, a witness, to be invited to dance this day?

And as a witness, I’m writing this down, to share it with you. Perhaps you’ll want to dance, too!