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In the summer of 2013, I took part in International Citizen Service, a UK-funded volunteering initiative which brings young people from the UK and developing countries together to fight poverty.
My 12 weeks were spent in the city of Dire Dawa, eastern Ethiopia; a dusty desert town born out of the French Addis Ababa-Djibouti railway project in the early 20th century. Living with a host family and working in a national NGO with an Ethiopian counterpart gave me an unbelievable insight into what life is like for a young person growing up in Africa today.
While I learned so much about international development in practice, I also learned just as much about what it means to be Ethiopian; and the process of naming demonstrates this perfectly. A name, perhaps even more so than in Western culture, is imbued with meaning, as well as acting as a time capsule – a name will tell you a lot about the circumstances of the person’s birth.
Before we go any further, a quick disclaimer; all the names I’ll mention are female. My strongest friendships and bonds from my time in Dire Dawa were with the women and girls in the community; my host mum and sisters, my lady colleagues, and the female volunteers. Friendships between members of the same gender are incredibly powerful in Ethiopia, and provide a safe forum to discuss everything from dreams to fears, and as it happens, what names mean. By the time the girls in my host family and I got onto the meaning of our names, we’d already covered everything from the best places to buy fabric to Bollywood movie stars. I was in the sisterhood.
Ethiopian names often have a simple meaning, easily translated into another language, which makes discussing them with broken Amharic and English far more straightforward than explaining British names. (Try explaining the meaning of Laura, a crown of laurel leaves, to someone who has never seen a film with gladiators in it). A name reflects a parent’s hope for their child, particularly the children born in my generation. The Dergue regime crippled the country during the 1970s, when The Red Terror and famine swept Ethiopia. One of the Ethiopian volunteers we worked with, Selam, was so named because her parents lived through the horrors of that period, and never wanted their child to have to suffer the same. Her name, which means peace, reflects the wider mood of the time, when the first democratic government was installed in Ethiopia, promising a brighter, less violent future. My work counterpart’s name, Mehret, means mercy; again, holding a mirror to the years preceding her birth; other names such as Tigist (patience), Addis (new/fresh) and Tesfaye (hope) were also popular among girls my age.
My 4 year old host sister, Temar, was given her name as something to live up to. She had been born in a very comfortable family, who spared no expense to ensure that she had the best education money could buy to become a high achiever. Her name comes from temari, meaningstudent/learnedone and it was expected that she would study hard, go to university and have a successful career in the field of her choice. Considering that girls traditionally occupy a lower place in Ethiopian society, seeing a family who were challenging the stereotype not only through the way they supported their daughter, but the very name they gave her, was completely inspirational.
A name in Ethiopia is not simply a parcel of hopes though, it’s an identifier. The name given to a child will often make evident the ethnic background or religious persuasion of the family. Ethiopia is home to over 80 distinct ethnicities, each with their own language, dress, dance and names. Some names, like Kokobe (bright star, Amharic) and Senait (gift, Tigray) are drawn from the oral traditions of a particular group; others, like Gelila (fromGalilee, Coptic Christian) and Amina (honest, Islamic), signal which religion is practiced by the family. I thought it was wonderful that cultures and languages were being kept alive through the meaning of names; in the same way that I can tell people what my Gaelic middle name means, people I met could tell me things like ‘my name means ‘precious’ in Oromiffa because my mum is Oromo’.
As I settled into my Ethiopian routine, I began noticing that my host family were calling me Laura less and less, and instead using Lauritee, a pet version of my name. Nicknames are really popular amongst close friends, and tend to elongate the name rather than shorten it – being called Laura less and Lauritee more was a sign of affection and acceptance. My host mum also thought that giving my name an Ethiopian makeover would help me to feel at home and settle in faster; Laura isn’t a name in Ethiopia, and the closest word there is, naura, translates as ‘whitewash’. Appropriate, but not exactly flattering. When I got talking to people in public transport, and I told them what my name was, they would also try to re-name me with a similar-sounding, but betam konjo (more beautiful) name. The most popular candidates came from the Oromo language, widely spoke in Dire Dawa, and on more than one occasion I’ve been ‘officially’ re-named Layla (another); Lalla (tulip); Lelo (grace); Lula (a general pet name). It’s great to be a different person every day – try it!
Children often go by numerous nicknames depending on who is speaking to them at the time. The youngest girl in the family is often referred to asmama, or mamayay (a little bit like us calling the youngest child ‘baby’); in a similar vein, Temar would switch between her full name, mama,Temariyay and dimbet (mouse child) in the course of a single conversation with different participants, all the while fully aware that comments were being directed at her. I once heard my host mum’s friend speaking to her new baby, and rather than using anchi (you), she had elongated the word so it became anchiyay, reinforcing the bond between her and her child.
Outside my host family, friends and colleagues, names continued to follow me all over the city. Foreigners aren’t a particularly common sight in Dire Dawa, and so the arrival of 12 British volunteers caused a bit of a sensation in the community. Wherever we were, people would shout various things in our direction to attract attention and say hello – sometimes there were greetings, but most of the time, they were substituted names. The most common thing shouted in our direction was ferenjii, an Amharic take on the phonetic pronunciation of foreign; most of the names given to us in the street commented on our appearance, from the flattering konjo (beautiful) through to the far more accurate kyo (red face). Many people also framed our arrival in the context of the ferenjiis who had come before us, and there was definitely an age element to how people named us. Much older people would often greet me in either Italian or French, or call me Mademoiselle or Signora when talking to me; as has been mentioned previously, the French had a presence in Dire Dawa through the building of the railway, and the Italians briefly invaded Ethiopia during the 1940s. I had Ruski shouted in my direction on a few occasions, probably due to how pale I am (so my Ethiopian friend told me), but it’s also worth remembering that the Dergue were a Soviet-backed party. My Ethiopian peers’ favourite name to shout at the UK volunteers was China (those who actually are Chinese get treated to Jackie Chan as a sign of differentiation). The Chinese government has been heavily investing in Ethiopia in the 21st century, and many of the foreigners in Dire Dawa in the recent past are likely to have been Chinese, there to work on the massive infrastructure projects.
Before I travelled to Dire Dawa, when someone said Ethiopia, the first image that came to mind was children with sunken eyes and distended stomachs, weak from hunger. While Ethiopia has come a long way from the famines which plagued it in the 1970s and 80s, even the name of the country carries its own meaning. Ethiopian people are hyper-aware of this association, and are quick to tell visitors that the Oxford English Dictionary’s definition of famine uses Ethiopia as an example. And yet in recent African history, Ethiopia has been a by-word for self-determination, native rule, and resistance to colonisation. I do not doubt that in years to come, the positive strides that the country and its people are making will tie promise and positivity to the meaning of Ethiopia, and it will once again be a name to be proud of, not just a footnote in the OED.
My experiences in Ethiopia showed me how central names are to the relationships we form in our societies, not only between parents and children, but amongst friends, acquaintances (and in my case) total strangers. They help define who we are, and where we come from, and understanding the forces behind the names we are given – and give to others – is a way of understanding the world we live in. While in Dire Dawa, I have been a stranger, a foreigner, a friend and a part of the family all in one day; many things to many different people, and each new relationship marked with a different name.