Global Outreach

Ugandan Surnames – Understanding What's in a Name

Posted by Jennifer Ostrowski on Jul 23, 2015 8:02:00 AM

Ester Masane and Deborah Zuluka are sisters – they come from the same family and have the same parents. For many people from outside of Uganda, however, the sisters’ presumably different surnames make their relationship confusing. This is because Ester Masane and Deborah Zukula do not have surnames in the manner which people outside of Africa have a familiarity – instead, they have clan names. Like most Ugandans, rather than receiving given names and surnames at birth, Ester and Deborah received religious names and clan names.

All of the clan names within a family – such as Masane and Zuluka – are associated with a given clan, but each family member receives his or her own individual clan name. As a result, a mother, father, and their children do not share a single name – as is usually the case with a surname – but have different names that are all associated with the same clan.

When a Ugandan hears a clan name, they are able to associate that name with a certain clan, or with the region where a given clan comes from. For example, the clan names Masane and Zuluka are from Busoga, a region located just across the Nile River from Nkokonjeru, the main location for CARITAS child sponsorship programs in Uganda. 

Zuluka and Masane are sisters who appear to have different last names to those unfamiliar with Ugandan naming convention. Deborah Zuluka and Ester Masane are sisters. Their clan names, rather than what is perceived as their Ugandan surnames, indicate their relationship.

Deborah Zuluka and Ester Masane are sisters. Their clan names, rather than what is perceived as their Ugandan surnames, indicate their relationship.

In many ways, a clan is like an extended family, meaning clan names, like surnames, can help to identify family ties and relationships. With a few exceptions, people from the same clan are regarded as family members and are not allowed to intermarry.

Yet, unlike surnames, clan names are frequently used like given names or first names. Ester Masane can just as easily be called Masane Ester. As a result, if I were to greet her, I could say either, “Hello, Masane!” or “Hello, Ester!” In that sense, a clan name is more analogous to another first name than to a surname.

While religious names can be selected by any family member, or even close friends, clan names are almost always chosen by a child’s paternal grandfather. Children are sometimes named according to a favorite proverb, the season of their birth, or birth order. For example, the name Babirye indicates that a girl is the first born in a set of twins.

Unlike many clan names, however, Babirye is not specific to a given clan. Thus, when a girl named Babirye introduces herself, she will usually be asked which clan she is from, because clans, like surnames, are an important part of identifying family ties. Although the clan is almost always reflected in the clan name, it sometimes remains ambiguous, as with the name Babirye.

Sister Carolyne stands with Tobit Babirye, Oliver Nakitanda, and Jovia Nabakawa (from left to right), who are sisters, despite having different names. What appear to be surnames, to those unfamiliar with Ugandan naming convention, are individual clan names that are used by their specific clan. Ugandans are readily able to identify them as coming from a specific clan based on their individual clan names. As indicated by her name, Babirye has a twin, David, who was born just after she was. Sister Carolyne, CARITAS For Children Program Coordinator-Nkokonjeru, stands with Tobit Babirye, Oliver Nakitanda, and Jovia Nabakawa (from left to right), who are sisters, despite having different names. What appear to be surnames, to those unfamiliar with Ugandan naming convention, are individual clan names that are used by their specific clan. Ugandans are readily able to identify them as coming from a specific clan based on their individual clan names. As indicated by her name, Babirye has a twin, David, who was born just after she was.

As a result of different naming customs, the names of many Ugandan children in CARITAS child sponsorship programs differ even among siblings and family members, and often indicate birth order, a proverb, or some other information. If you sponsor a Ugandan child, consider asking them which clan they are from, and whether their name has any special significance.

Find out more about our  Child Sponsorship Programs

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