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Home arrow History arrow A Global History of Child Death: Mortality, Burial, and Parental Attitudes


Colonial Uganda and the Zulu of South Africa

Children in many African societies have meaningful names that generally point to circumstances or people relevant at the time of birth, which is opposite of the Western practice of naming as function of labeling. Shane Doyle’s study of parental attitudes toward child death in colonial Uganda, however, demonstrates the expectation of death. Examining the baptismal records of the Bunyoro society in Western Uganda, Doyle found that nearly one-third of names given during the colonial period referred to death.16

Names given to children such as Kembandwa and Mugasa indicated that the birth was a result of prayers to traditional spirits. As in China and Japan, where babies were named after rats, dogs, monkeys, or other unpleasant objects, many Bunyoro parents gave their children names to deter death by feigning contempt. Consequently, Kunobere (I hate this child) was a common name. Some names referred to the deaths of siblings such as Nyamayarwo (children are meat for it [death]) or Nkafiika (I am the only survivor). Over ten percent of names given signified a belief that the child would die: Ndoleriire (I am waiting to see what happens), Bagada (what a waste of energy), or Byeitaka (this child belongs to the soil). Interestingly, these types of names, which pointed to the parent’s surety that the child would die, were more common in 1920—1934, the time period following the years of the highest mortality.17 Doyle explains that the predominance of death-names in the baptismal registry may have been a self-fulfilling prophesy to some degree. Children who were more likely to die would have been baptized much earlier than other children. Doyle observed, however, that parents of babies whose names indicated an expectation of death waited thirty-one days longer than the average family to baptize.

The decline of death-names revealed that a new “sense of privacy, part of a self-conscious modernity, was valued: ‘Such [death] names were given in the past because people had the spirit of saying let me expose to the whole world what is going on here. Today people want to cover [it] up.’”18 It is possible that Ugandans’ conversion to Christianity changed the naming practices as well. In modern times, positive names, such as Asiimwe (thanks be to God), have become common. Bereaved parents are now encouraged to see death as a positive, temporary parting to heaven. In the past Ugandan parents did not know the cause of their child’s death, so naming indicated a call to the spirits. With the rise in AIDS cases diagnosed, and the subsequent HIV awareness education, parents came to understand that death was not mysterious; it had a cause (be it AIDS or another illness). Bunyoro’s example exhibits a rapid change in societal perceptions of death. After 1940 the use of death names declined, signifying a rise in infant survival rates. The use of death names, however, did not re-emerge during the AIDS pandemic, when infant mortality rates again increased. Doyle argues that along with a belief in the afterlife, this society experienced an evolution of perception about death. Bunyoro parents were aware that they had suffered much higher mortality rates and low fertility in the past.19

In Zulu, a Bantu language of South Africa, some examples of symbolic children’s names are translated as: “Where does he come from?”, which questions the legitimacy of the child; “Nail” (the mother was part of a polygamous marriage and had ‘hit the nail on the head’ by having a boy); and “Grow up” (the mother had told her father and brother that they must grow up because they were now grandfather and uncle).20 The name “Awaited” was given to a child whose parents had waited a long time for a living child. It appears that in the Zulu culture, like in colonial Uganda, the child’s name reflected the circumstances of birth, personality traits, perhaps hopes for the future and even strained family relationships. Like the Japanese, Chinese, and Ugandans, the Zulu also named children with the intent of warding off evil spirits. Names meaning “vile” or “excrement” were common, as was presenting a girl’s name to a boy. Because infant mortality was relatively lower for the Zulu than for other African cultures, names tended to emphasize the positive.

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