Did you know that among the Bakonzo and Nande communities in western Uganda and eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, names are majorly given following what is known as “birth ranks”?
“Birth ranks” in this regard mean the order in which the children born of the same mother and father follow each other, ranging from the oldest to the youngest.
For every Mukonzo, the surname must tell whether the child is the first, second, or third born, up to the last born.
Some other names are given depending on the situation like war, famine or massacres at the time the bearer was born.
According to Jackson Buseku, a resident of Kyalhumba Sub-county in Kasese District and a veteran Kikonzo culture media campaigner, the names of the Bakonzo were given to boys in seven birth ranks, whereas those for female children are eight.
“The Bakonzo women have for a long time been among the most fertile in Africa. By the 1990s, some strong women were producing up to 16 children. Such a woman would have a chance to finish all the male and female names,” Buseku told Sunday Monitor.
He listed the names given to the boy children, from the first born, as; Baluku, Bwambale, Masereka, Kuule, Thembo, Mbusa and Ndungo.
The female names are Masika, Biira, Kabugho, Mbambu, Ithungu, Kyakimwa, Nziabake and Bulubasa.
“These names are not given without considering who was born before who. You cannot name your first born Masereka. This will be a disorder because Masereka is the third born male child,” Buseku said.
One must be wondering where the name “Mumbere”, which is sometimes mistaken for a king’s title because Omusinga Charles Wesley Mumbere is not mentioned in the order.
“Mumbere” is another name for “Baluku” (the first born male child). Others say “Kambere” to refer to the same person - Mumbere.
However, the same child can be named “Nzanzu” if both parents were virgins at the time they consummated their marriage. A first born female produced by such parents is named “Kanyere”.
Buseku further explains that “Kasoke” and “Musoki” are names for a first born who is male or female, respectively, if the child’s paternal and maternal grandparents are still alive by the time he or she is born. The first time the parents produce a child of a different sex from the first one, the child is named “Muhindo” if male or female, and “Mbindule” if female.
“Bethubanji” is another meaningful name given to the first born who is able to see the same light with his or her parents’ grandparents. This means the baby has its grandparents alive at the same time their parents are also living. This child is referred to as “Akatsukulhu,” meaning a person who has two generational grandparents.
Much as death is something that everyone fears to associate with, the Bakonzo have names that tell that someone was born after the other child/children had died. If this person if male, he is named “Kibaya”, “Kyithi”, “Bisogho”, “Kamabu” or “Bisiika/Kyirere”, whereas females in that category are named “Mutsuba”, “Kyabu” or “Bisiika”.
The twins are named according to their order of birth too. The first to come out is named “Nguru”, while the second is “Ndobya”. The child who follows twins is named “Kitsa”, followed by “Kamalha”. These apply to both sexes.
There are also situational names such as “Muthende” for a child born when boys had gone for a circumcision initiation ceremony, “Byerire” for one born during time of great harvest and many other proverbial names.
However, despite the unique way of naming children, this culture is facing extinction because of factors such as the modern campaign of family planning in which parents are encouraged to produce a number of children they can easily provide for.
Paul Byakatonda, a resident of Kyasenda in Karambi Sub-county in Kasese District, attributes the fast extinction of some of the names to people drifting away from their culture by opting to copy names whose meaning they have no idea of.
“Our people are running away from their culture and that is why our culture is facing extinction. Why should someone copy a British or American name and make his child known by that imported name instead of popularising the name Baluku, Bambale or Masika?” he wonders.
Byakatonda said much as family planning is now necessary because of the prevailing economic situations and scarcity of land for production, it is important to preserve the culture by giving the few children one has, the original names.
For Jackson Buseku, the Bakonzo naming culture will only perseve if all [birth ranks] children are produced and bear the names.
“It is not preserving when you produce five and give them the right names. What we need to do is to produce all the children because these names were given by our ancestors for a reason,” Buseku suggested.
Fr Balinandi Kambale of Kasese Diocese, also a Lhukonzo literature author, said the Bakonzo women are still fertile to fulfill God’s command to “produce and subdue the world”.
“It is poverty that forces the people to produce few children but it is also ignorance of culture that they are not giving those few their real names. The women are still fertile and if possible, they should produce all [birth ranks] the children to fill these names,” said the priest, who also teaches Lhukonzo language and culture on local radio station Kasese Guide Radio every Tuesday.
He said very soon, he will release a book giving the names of the Bakonzo, with their meanings with the hope the young generation will understand and use them to make the culture consistent.
Rwenzururu kingdom speaks out: ‘We want to involve Unesco’
Elly Thembo Nyakango, the minister for culture in Rwenzururu Kingdom, is another man disturbed by the near extinction of some of the names of the Bakonzo.
He said copying other names from the neighbouring ethnicities is “poisonous to our culture,” adding that children need to be named according to their birth ranks.
“People are copying names of our brothers the Banyankole and directly translate them to name their children. The Bakonzo have not been having names such as “Lwanzu”, which is from Rukundo, “Athwanzire” from Natukunda and “Apipawe” from Ahimbisiibwe among the Banyankole. These names are fronted by parents ahead of the birth rank names such as Baluku, Thembo and Mbusa,” he said.
The culture minister also said the kingdom cabinet has already deliberated on this growing concern with a view of officially writing to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) to advise on how to preserve the names.
“The cabinet has already discussed this concern. As Bakonzo, we have a unique culture worldwide because we are well named according to our birth ranks. We need Unesco to help preserve this culture that is now threatened,” Mr Nyakango lamented.
Unesco has already taken steps in preserving the pet names (Empaako) of the Batooro and Banyoro tribes in Uganda. These names are not given according to birth ranks, but rather at a ceremony where selected elders are invited to give a praise name.
There are fears that with the names of the Bakonzo being ignored by parents while naming children that the 14 clans may also be at the brink of not being cherished.
Each clan among the Bakonzo has a totem and “fake enemy”. The “fake enemy” is another clan that is jokingly an enemy of the other.
For instance, the Bakira clan members will joke that “Bahira bahwere” (the Bahira clan is finished) when they see a new moon. These jokes, elders say, were used to make the young ones understand their clans better. The Bakonzo clans that give the same names are Abakira, Abasu, Abahambu, Abahira, Abaswagha, Ababinga, Abathanji, Abaseru, Abanyisanza, Abalegha, Abahinda, Abakunda, Abalumba, Abasongora (not the cattle keepers’ tribe).
The order. Jackson Buseku, a resident of Kyalhumba Sub-county in Kasese District and a veteran Kikonzo culture media campaigner, lists the cultural names given to the boy children, from the first born, as; Baluku, Bwambale, Masereka, Kuule, Thembo, Mbusa and Ndungo. The female names are Masika, Biira, Kabugho, Mbambu, Ithungu, Kyakimwa, Nziabake and Bulubasa.
“These names are not given without considering who was born before who. You cannot name your first born Masereka,” Buseku says.
About the Bakonzo
Who they are. The Bakonzo, sometimes called Bayira or Banande, are a Bantu-speaking group of people in western Uganda and eastern DR Congo. In Uganda, they are concentrated in Kasese and Bundibugyo districts. Others live in Bunyangabu and Ntoroko districts. The Bakonzo are the subjects of Rwenzururu Kingdom, whose king is Charles Wesley Mumbere.
The Bakonzo are mostly short and stout.
Their main economic activity is farming, especially in the area of cultivation.