Our Names: From the Biblical to the Absurd
Unlike Europeans, personal names mean a lot to Eritreans both Christians and Moslems. In this article I will dwell on the names of Tigrinya speakers.
You ask a European what his or her name is and after being told, you ask again for the meaning. “What do you want it to mean, it is just Williams,” wonders the European.
Then you tell him that your name Gebreyessus means: the servant of Jesus, or Abdellah which means servant of Allah or again Abdelkadir meaning the servant of the Almighty.
And if you are a woman, your name Abrehet means: she gave light, or Tihira which means pure, or Kidsti meaning: holy or sacred. And Woleterufael which means: the daughter of Rafael.
You see, some Eritrean names are not necessarily nouns but verbs and adjectives, and the longest name among Christian Eritreans is GebreEgzihabiher which means: servant of the lord. Some Eritreans terrorized by its length shorten it to Gebrezgi or even Gebre or Gerie. I have even seen some writing it as GebreXavier which alters its original meaning and make it to mean Servant of St.Xavier.
Once an Eritrean economic refugee in Italy found a job with a Sigonra. He swallowed all the humiliation from the Signora like a Greek stoic, but when one day the Signora tired of calling him GebreEgzihabiher asked if she could simply call him Gherie, he inevitably blew his top:
“Per niente! Questo non cambiero mai! (Never! I will never change this) you call me either GebreEgzihabiher or I quit!” shouted the degraded servant. OurNames: From the Biblical to the Absurd “Va bene, va bene,” whined the Signora. But unable to continue with this game of tongue twister every morning for three solid months, she fired him in the end. Give me my proper name or give me death, sighed Gherie. For our poor little fellow, his exotic name was his pride.
But what’s in a name? A lot and more. Take for example Hitler. They say his real name was Schicklgruber. Then just imagine saluting the fuehrer with Heil Schichlgruber! And the goose marching Nazi soldier would break step.
If Vladmir Ilich Ulyanov hadn’t changed his name to Lenin in time, we would have Marxism-Ulyanovism Leninism. The latter sounds better, although at present most people wouldn’t careless. I think that is why Mr. Trotsky failed. Trotskyism is very hard to pronounce. Again most people couldn’t care less.
In case you have many Tigrigya names to study, the prefixes of Tesfa Gebre, Lette, Habite, Wolde, Haile, Tekle mean: hope, servant, daughter, possession, son, power and tree respectively (refer to Musa Aron’s Tigrigya and Tigre names published in tigrigyan in 1994).
When Sarah gave birth to her first child rather belatedly (at the age of 90), she thought it was funny and gave the name Yishak to her offspring meaning: laughter or something like that.
In the same line an Eritrean mother who gives birth in time of abundance would more often than not name her child Tsigab which means just that. Such practice of naming one’s child according to the times and events including the chances and fortunes of life was so common in the past that at times, the name offended its bearers at maturity, and many a child suffered in school as a result.
Back in the day most names were from the bible and they sounded good and those who bear them were proud of them when the teacher called the roll and their names popped up like: Samuel, Jacob, Jonathan. Others were semi-biblical like Tesfayesus or traditional like Abrehet. Then suddenly the teacher would call out and say “Godefa” (which means more or less garbage) and you heard chuckles making rounds in the classroom and girls giggling, and the victim hated his parents for what they had done to him.
But his parents were not wrong to call him ‘garbage’. Many of Godefa’s brothers and sisters had died before him. So the parents said to themselves; enough is enough, let us outsmart God by naming our child Godefa and the Angel of Death will simply pass him by.
It seems to me that the idea is to erase the child’s name from the heavenly register so that when the roll is called by the Death Committee, the name Godefa which is not ‘heavenly’ will not be in the list.
Once I asked a friend of mine who went by the name Abraha:
“Why is it that your grandmother sometimes calls you WoldeGebriel?”
“That’s my church name,” he replied.
“What does that mean? I asked again.
He went on to explain that he had two names, worldly and heavenly. When he dies and rises up again to wait for the last judgment, the angles will call him only by his church name to tell him to proceed towards the Pearly Gates. Abraha means nothing for them. It is only if the verdict is negative that the demons will use the worldly name Abraha and politely show him the door to hell.
But I have a rather strange explanation. In ancient Semitic tradition, the name of none was to be taken in vain. It was kept sacred and most of the time hidden from those who might use it to cast a spell on you. The occult science numerology is not dead yet. So the best way to keep one’s soul safe is to keep your real name secret. Only your priest knows it and he uses it to communicate with heaven on your behalf.
Your real name can also be used when conducting exorcism. Now, if the demon were to enter the name of Abraha with the result that he needs exorcism to drive out the intruder, the exorcist uses the name WoldeGerbriel and not Abraha in the healing process.
Nowadays, Eritreans are going for the seemingly more fashionable names like Yodit, Suzy etc. The old traditional names such as Gebray, Milite, Tirhas, Asmerom etc are out of circulation among the new generation to be replaced by Hebron,
“What is your name young lady?”
“What on earth does that mean?
She doesn’t know it. To many it sounds like a name for a cleaning product. But it is from the bible and is the name of a bird. Her parents couldn’t care less as long as it sounds modern.
“What did you say was your name?”
“Whatever that means?”
“I don’t know, ask my father.”
So I ask his father and get a strange reply:
“Rekem is a descendant of Judah through Herzon’s son Caleb…
” Right! Strange isn’t it? What happened to Efrem or N’ftalem?
This one tops everything.
Once in an airport, there were some problems in flight schedule and only very few were allowed to board the plane. The airline officer took the passengers list and began to read aloud the names of those who were lucky to fly:
“Yes” and she would board the plane laughing all the way. “H a t s e….Hashte…… Haptesh……er……shit!” the officer blood began to seethe in his veins.
“That’s Hatshepsut,” shouted the father of the girl with the strange name.
“Can’t you give your children simple and down-to-earth names? What is going on with this goddamn generation? Shouted the officer. Hatshepsut was an Egyptian queen who lived 4000 years ago. The father named his daughter after this queen because the later sent an expedition to the southern tip of Eritrea in search of incense and myrrh. The poor girl was about to miss the plane because of the Egyptian queen.
During the armed struggle for independence the names were Sahel, Salina, Semhar (important places) and after independence Awet, Kisanet, Selam, etc (victory, tranquility and peach, etc).
And then you have the absurd, the Beckhams’, Ronaldos’, Russells’, Bethanys’, and the list goes on and on, no meaning what so ever. Heritage along with common sense goes straight out of the window. Before you know it, you end up having family members with names straight out of hollywoods “Brady Banch.”
Do Eritreans have family names? Yes and no. We have family names in the sense to identify kinship belonging, but the whole notion of family name ends right there.