When Did Naming a Newborn Become a Revolutionary Act?

This blog was originally featured in Impatient Optimists

According to a long-held custom in Ethiopia, children aren’t named at birth. Parents wait a few months because for so long, healthcare was scarce and infants often passed away in the first few weeks of life. 

But today things are changing, thanks to an improved health system where frontline health workers reach more mothers and their children. A big driver of this progress has been the UN Millennium Development Goals. 

In his recent annual letter, Bill Gates recalls a trip he took last year to Ethiopia and shares the story of a young mother named Sebelia. 

“Sebsebila Nassir was born in 1990 on the dirt floor of her family’s hut. With little access to lifesaving vaccines or basic health care, about 20 percent of all children in Ethiopia at that time did not survive to their fifth birthdays. Two of Sebsebila’s six siblings died as infants.

But a few years ago, when a health post opened its doors in Dalocha, life started to change. For the first time, she had access to contraceptives, so she could have children when she and her husband were ready. When the time came last year and Sebsebila became pregnant, she received regular check-ups from her health worker. The worker also encouraged her to have the baby at a local health center, instead of at home where she gave birth to her first child.

Sebsebila didn’t receive her own name until several weeks after her birth. And when her first daughter was born three years ago, she followed tradition and waited a month to bestow a name, afraid her child would not survive.

But a lot has changed in Ethiopia since the birth of Sebsebila’s first child. This time, with more confidence in her new baby’s chances of survival, Sebsebila didn’t hesitate to name her. In the blank at the top of the vaccination card, she put "Amira"-"princess" in Arabic. Sebsebila’s newfound optimism is not an isolated case.”

Watch the video below for more about how something as simple as a name is signifying hope for a generation of children.

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