A few days ago I received an anonymous email from a compatriot in Europe, who happened to be an EPRDF supporter, in which he stated that the current naming practice in Ethiopia (a given name followed by a father's given name and a grandfather's given name) was imposed by northerners and suggested that Southern Ethiopians should adopt a naming system that is used in the West: a given name followed by a family name (surname). The gentleman's argument for adopting the Western naming system was that the Western system will, in his own words, "enable us to see the contribution and role of the people from the south in the country".
As a person who had a hard time understanding the idea of a family name and did not like being called by my grandfather's name when I first came to the United States, I did not know what to make of the gentleman's assertion that the current naming system is an imposed one. To further support his argument in favor of adopting the Western naming system, the anonymous person also stated that some ethnic groups in the South, like the Hadiya, identify themselves with big family names (surnames), for which he did not give an example. The Hadiya, like the Somali and their other Cushitic cousins, do identify themselves with big family names such as Baadogo, Soro, Gindo, etc. To the best of my knowledge, however, these names are not used in the same way family names (surnames) are used in the West.
Being a person of Hadiya heritage myself, I got curious about this and I decided to share the gentleman's email with a Southern email list to find out if there is any truth to the gentleman's assertions. What I learned from the discussions on the list is interesting and it's worth sharing with a wider audience. I will also share with you what I found out about this issue from my simple search on the internet. Here is what I have learned:
1. The Hadiya use the suffix 'manna', meaning 'house of' or 'people of', to identify lineage (ex. Degagmanna). This naming practice is not universal among the Hadiya. When asked for their name, Hadiya folks give their father's name first and their given name second. For example, I would give my name as Helebo Fikru instead of Fikru Helebo. I lived among the Silte people, who are neighbors of the Hadiya, and I am aware that they also have a custom of giving their name in the reverse order in their culture.
2. The Shekacho and Kaffacho people do have a naming system which resembles the Western system. In Shekacho and Kaffacho communities, people are identified by a patriarchal family name that they belong to. A person is known by his/her first name and then by the family name (surname). For example, if two individuals have the same last name, say Gatimo, it means that these two individuals have some kind of blood relationship. Unfortunately, the Shekacho and Kaffacho have been discouraged from using their indigenous naming system by the dominant (read Amhara) culture.
3. I searched on the internet and found out something that startled me. The 1960 Civil Code of Ethiopia, which you can read in its entirety here (Amharic version here), has an article that attempted to codify a naming system for Ethiopians. Regarding names, article 32 in chapter 2 states the following:
(1) Every individual has a family name, one or more first names and a patronymic.I can't be sure, but I do not think that there is a people group in Ethiopia which practices the above naming system that the Civil Code was attempting to standardize. So, it seems to me, what this 1960 code was trying to impose was a brand new naming system on all Ethiopians, a naming system that, apparently, is an adaptation of the Chinese naming system, but with some modifications.
(2) He shall be designated in administrative documents by his family name followed by his first names and by his patronymic.
I do subscribe to the argument the anonymous person put forth about encouraging Southerners to use names that are indigenous so that their contributions to Ethiopia could be easily recognized. But based on the feedback I got and my own little research, I seriously doubt that the current naming system is imposed on Southerners by northern Ethiopians. In reality, Southern Ethiopians have a lot in common with northern Ethiopians in naming patterns and conventions than some would like to acknowledge. An exhaustive study on Ethiopian naming conventions could help to dispel misconceptions some people have on this subject. Obviously, this is not an exhaustive study and it should not be treated as one.
Coming back to my own naming system preference, I am now used to the Western naming practice and, actually, I have come to prefer it over the Ethiopian one and have adopted it for my own family. On the other hand, most Ethiopians I know in the seem to prefer the use of the Ethiopian system for their families. It seems to me that the Ethiopian naming system is too strongly attached to the psyche that most Ethiopians who have immigrated to the can't fathom abandoning it. As far as Southerners or any other Ethiopians adopting the Western naming system or the one advocated by the Haile Sellassie regime, I think it is a good idea but I doubt that the "Ethiopian" culture, be it southern or northern, is ready for such a change or will it ever be!
PS1: I am sure that there are some of you out there who are knowledgeable on this subject. It would be educational for Ethiopians and others if you kindly share your knowledge with us in the comments section.
PS2: Please check this web page for a summary of naming systems from around the world.