Today, in the course of pre-testing our new survey instrument, I interviewed two brothers, Kidega and Ocaya. Loosely translated from Luo, their names mean “they hate me” and “they have despised me”. Meanwhile, one of my research assistants is named Komakec, meaning “unfortunate”.
Most Acholi have both a Christian name (James, Geoffrey, Florence, etc) and a Luo one. Traditionally, the Luo name is chosen for the circumstances around the birth. Hence anyone named Caesar was born via a C-section, and a child named “they hate me” might have been unwanted or unexpected. More likely, Kidega and Ocaya’s probably mother lost several children before giving birth to them, and hoped that by giving them ill names that God would be less likely to take them away. (While I haven’t met their mother, I’ve heard this explanation several times from others.)
Names can also be a way for a mother to send a message to an errant husband. I have several friends named “drunkard”, which is more or less self-explanatory. Others are more positive, such as Amara, meaning “love”.
Of course, since everyone gets two new names at birth, no one keeps the last name of their father. This is somewhat frustrating for the researcher doing panel surveys. Tracking families over time becomes a challenge. Doing so here, however, is easier than in western Kenya, where I found that children change their names when they move to a new place, or join the household of an aunt or uncle.
After you’ve been around a while, you might get an Acholi name, usually associated with the circumstances of your “birth” in Acholiland. Jeannie’s is Amony (“born in a time of war”) since she first arrived in 1999, with the conflict in full throttle. Less glamorously, mine is Okec, or “always hungry”. But it’s so true.
What’s in a name? I have heard of studies that suggest that one’s name influence one’s later life success (e.g. Taylors more likely to be tailors, Smiths more likely to be metalworkers, etc). This seems a bit fantastical. Who becomes a tailor or a blacksmith nowadays? Google has also failed me in my quest to find the paper in question.
However, Marianne Bertrand and Sendhil Mullainathan found that people with African-American sounding names are less likely to get job interviews than those with White sounding names in their experimental paper, Are Emily and Greg More Employable than Lakisha and Jamal?
I see a northern Uganda Freakonomics paper in the making here. Of course, being named Drunkard is unlikely to be random, and any adverse outcomes later in life probably stem from your inebriated father than your name itself. All I need is the exogenous variation in naming. I am open to ideas…