Guest Blogger: Why do some Rwandan parents name their children “pig,” “goat,” or “hyena”?

*I’m happy to share again an article from a guest blogger, Janvier. He has taken as his topic the role of totems in Rwanda. As he notes in his article, the importance of totems is decreasing due to the effect of globalization but, nonetheless, it is a still extant part of Rwandan culture and one that, I think, is very interesting and unfamiliar to Americans! I hope you like it.*

Totems are in great majority animals but also plants or any object, animate or inanimate. The totem has been interpreted as a sacred object which is symbiotically linked to the clan historically, physically and spiritually. These objects are revered by clan members because apparently they represent the soul and the spirit of their progenitor.

For example in the traditional Rwanda, there is about 20 clans, namely Abanyiginya and Abatsobe whose totem is a crested crane, Abagesera whose totem is a wagtail, Abega whose totem is a frog, Ababanda and Abacyaba whose totem is a hyena, Abasinga whose totem is a black kite, Abashambo whose totem is a lion, Abahinda whose totem is a squirrel, Abazigaba and Abenengwe whose totem is a leopard, Abungura whose totem is a robin, Abasita whose totem is a jackal’, Abakono whose totem is a frog, Abarihira whose totem is a chameleon, Abahondogo whose totem is a tick-eater bird, Abashambo whose totem is a lion, and Abongera whose totem is a deer. Those clans hold such names as metaphoric names because they imply either strength, speed, beauty or elegance.

In Rwanda, clans are not natural social groups and are not made up of people who are biologically related. This is evidenced by two observations: First, endogamy is allowed within the same clan and second, the same clans and totems are interethnic. Besides in Rwanda there is no physical symbol to designate the clan member: people know their clan membership and totem through oral tradition.

It is said that to protect the environment, clans decided to adopt either certain animals and certain plants to prevent them from extinction. But also, according to the meaning of a given name, clans might not have chosen their own totems but given to them by other clans to show sometimes that totems may have been selected as metaphors, clan members identifying with them because of what they like in their physical or character qualities, or metonymies because of the presumed mystical power of the animal. For this reason, according to tradition, Abagesera, apparently, were given the wagtail totem because they are peaceful people, Abasinga the black kite because they like meat, Abungura the chameleon because they are mean, and so on.

However, clans have the obligation to protect their totems: it is serious taboo, imiziro (in Kinyarwanda), for a clan to kill its animal totem. Despite all this, however, totems like other symbols don’t have an instrinsic value. There is no natural, inherent relationship between the totem and the clan. The value is only conventional, thus a social construction.

Names and totem animals

All Rwandan names have meanings. They are either descriptive, prescriptive or used as a laconic statement of the namer’s philosophy. Kinyarwanda has also names called amazina y’amagenurano, names given for specific purposes. In Rwandan culture, words referring to animals are used as proper names and you can meet some persons with such names: Gasimba ‘insect’, Kagurube ‘pig’, Kabwa ‘dog’, Senkoko ‘chicken’
Sehene ‘goat’, Sentama ‘sheep’, Kajangwe ‘cat’, Kayuki ‘bee’
Kavubi ‘wasp’, Gakeri ‘frog’, Kimonyo ‘red ant’, Gakoko ‘little animal’
Senguge ‘monkey’, Gakwavu ‘rabbit’, Mpyisi ‘hyena’, Ntare ‘lion’
Rugwe ‘leopard’, Kanyoni ‘bird’, Kanuma ‘pidgeon’, Kanyange ‘royal crane’
Semusambi ‘crested crane’, Segatashya ‘sparrow’, Sembeba ‘rat’!

Kinyarwanda names such as Ntare (Lion),Rugwe (Leopard), Segatashya (Sparrow), Semusambi (Crested Crane), Kanyange (Royal Crane), are also metaphoric names because they imply either strength, speed, beauty or elegance. There is supposed to be some kind of similarity, real or desired, between the name and the person. They describe the bearer’s name or prescribe what the namer wants the bearer’s name to be.

The names also reveal the existential experiences of the namer: has the namer been victim of high intant mortality, did he have bad neighbors, was the mother a good or bad wife, has he had serious problems in life? All this can be revealed in the child’s name. Because of high infant mortality, children were given bad names hoping to dupe death: for example: Rwabutozi( ant), Kagurube (Pig), Sehene (Goat), Kajangwe (Cat), Gikeri (Frog), Mpyisi (Hyena), Sembeba (Rat). These animals are either hated or despised. The pig is a dirty animal, the frog is ugly and has a terrible voice…but parents give their children these animals’ names.

I can say that all I’ve said about taboos is part of the traditional Rwandan mentality that is changing so quickly with the phenomenon of globalization: today’s generations don’t care much about it.

Dear reader, what do you think about this? Do you think there are such totem stories in US culture? Maybe sports mascots? What do you think the purpose of totemic animals is? Do you have any interaction with other cultures that had totems? I’m looking forward to your comments: all kinds of reaction will be very welcome!


3 thoughts on “Guest Blogger: Why do some Rwandan parents name their children “pig,” “goat,” or “hyena”?

  1. This is kind of like the Zodiac calendar.

    Although I don’t know much about it – each year an animal represents the people who are born in that year – and will supposedly take on certain characteristics of this representative animal.
    Tiger, Dragon, Snake, Rabbit, Rat etc. Some families will actually try to avoid having a child in a certain year (i.e. the year of the rat) to try to avoid their child taking on those characteristics.

    It seems similar. Although I’m not sure about how people feel about their connection to the animal itself.

  2. Hi Janvier,
    Another very interesting article!

    Two things come to mind in response.

    Like me, most of my friends are descended from ancestors who came from different countries of Western Europe. So, when they want to identify themselves, they almost have a menu to choose from. Do they want to talk about their “Irish side” implying poetic and tragic, their “Italian side” implying epicurean and passionate, or their “Swedish side” implying stoic? Each individual decides which “side” to emphasize or may choose to ignore their family history.

    The other thing that comes to mind is about the sports mascots you mentioned. Identifying with local sports teams is a common way that people identify themselves. And they often do so passionately. People love to wear t-shirts and caps from local basketball, baseball, football and hockey teams. And their cars have bumper stickers from their teams. Which animal is the mascot doesn’t seem to matter much.

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