African Names

What's in a Name

The names used by many African tribes are often Arabic in nature, as Islamic traditions had a strong influence in Africa for centuries.

What's in a Name

Imani was the name chosen by actress Jasmine Guy and husband Terence Duckette for their daughter.

African names in use today come from many different tribes, but since most slaves came from the coastal areas of Africa, the names are taken from the languages spoken in these areas: Swahili, Zulu, Hausa, and Yoruba. African names are generally related to circumstances surrounding a birth or the parent's wishes for their child, which makes many of them a good choice for boys or girls. Some of the most popular names in use today are given in the following list. Most are Swahili, and many are very similar to the Arabic names used in the Muslim faith.

  • Abdu: This Muslim name, along with Abdul, Abduhl, and Abdullah, means “servant of God” or “worshiper of God.” It's a prominent element in many Muslim given names today and was used by basketball legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who started out in life as Ferdinand Lewis “Lew” Alcindor. His Muslim name translates to “generous servant of God who restores comfort.” Almost exclusively used for boys.
  • Ahmad: “Commendable” or “praiseworthy.” Also spelled Ahmaad, which was the preference for football player turned sports commentator once known as Bobby Moore when he changed his name to Ahmad Rashad. Also almost always used for boys.
  • Aisha: It means “life” in Swahili or “woman” in Arabic. Aisha was the prophet Muhammed's third wife and his favorite. This is a very popular name at the moment as it has the popular -isha suffix. This factor, combined with its strong connection to a wife of Muhammed, makes this name more feminine than masculine. Also spelled Aeisha.
  • Akila: “Bright” or “logical.” Also spelled Akilah.
  • Akua: Either “sweet messenger” or “born Wednesday,” it appears in several languages and countries.
  • Ali: Most famously borne by Muhammed Ali, this Muslim name means “sublime” or “exalted.” The feminine form Aliya (or Aliyah) is preferred for women and ranked 121st on the most popular girls' names for 1997.
  • Amal: “Hope.”
  • Amiri: “Thrive.” Another popular form is Amir.
  • Anika: “Goodness” (Yoruba).
  • Ayana: “Beautiful flower.” Also spelled Ayanna.
  • Aziza: “Special,” or “precious.” Mostly used for girls.
  • Chidi: “God exists.”
  • Dikembe: It's the first name of basketball player Dikembe Mutombo Mpolondo Mukamba Jean Jacque Wamutombo, who, for obvious reasons, only uses his first two names. Although the meaning is not known, the name could be a form of Dike, which means “warrior.”
  • Fahim: “Perceptive” (Hausa). Also popular as Fahimi.
  • Hadiya: “Guide rightly.”
  • Hakeem: “Wise” (Arabic).
  • Hamadi: A form of Hamid, it means “commendable” or “praiseworthy.”
  • Hasani: This name, as well as Hasan, means “beautiful” or “handsome.”
  • Hashim: From the Arabic, meaning to “destroy” or “crush.”
  • Hasina: “Beautiful.”
  • Imani: “Faith” (Hausa). The model Iman is most associated with this name, and it is a girls' name.
  • Jabbar: Along with Jabari and Jabir, it means “fearless person” or “comforter.”
  • Jaha: “Destined to be a ruler.”

  • Jamal: From the Arabic for “handsome.” It's a popular name among both black and Muslim families and is also spelled Jamaal. The feminine form, also very popular, is Jamila. This name is also closely related to Jamil and its variant spellings (Jamel or Jamell), which means “physically and morally attractive” (Swahili).

What's in a Name

The names of Reverend Ralph Abernathy's children represent several popular African-American naming fashions: Donzaleigh, Jaundalynn, Kwamae Luthuli, and Ralph David.

  • Kadir: “Capable,” one of the 99 attributes of Allah.
  • Kareem: “Generous.” A form of Karim.
  • Khalil: “Friend.”
  • Khari: “Kingly.”
  • Kofi: “Born on Friday.”
  • Kwame: “Born on Saturday.”
  • Malik: “Master.”
  • Masud: “Fortunate.” Used more for boys than girls.
  • Mhina: “Delightful.” This is a girls' name.
  • Muhammad: The most popular of Muslim names, it means “praiseworthy.” Always given to boys.
  • Mustafa: “The chosen one.”
  • Naeem: “Bountiful,” “contented,” or “happy.” Also spelled Naeemah.
  • Nkosi: “Blessing.”
  • Okechukwu: “God's gift.”
  • Osaze: “Whom God likes,” or “ruled by God.”
  • Rasheed: “Rightly ruled.” Also spelled Rashid. The feminine form is Rashida.
  • Rehema: “Mercy.”
  • Safi: “Pure.”
  • Sekou: “Learned” or “fighter,” again depending on the country and language.
  • Sharif: “Honorable” or “eminent.” The feminine form is Sharifa.
  • Saed: “Happy” or “fortunate.”
  • Tarik: “Morning star.” Also commonly spelled Tariq.

More on: Choosing a Name


Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Baby Names © 1999 by Sonia Weiss. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

To order this book visit the Idiot's Guide web site or call 1-800-253-6476.

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