A simple way to distinguish one ethnic group from another is by their cultural practices.
One such cultural practice is the naming system of the Tooro people of Uganda.
Now considered an endangered cultural practice, the naming system, known as Empaako, was among four elements recently put on the Unesco List of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding. The listing helps countries mobilise international co-operation and assistance to safeguard their heritage.
The Empaako naming system is the second Ugandan element to be listed, following the Bigwala — gourd trumpet music and dance from Busoga in eastern Uganda — that was inscribed on the list in December 2012.
Every child born of Tooro parents is given a special name, an Empaako, from among 12 names shared across the Batooro, Banyoro, Batagwenda, Batuku and Banyabindi communities found in Western Uganda. The Empaako is proffered on a child before a given and family name.
The main Empaako are Okaali — which is reserved for a king; Apuuli, Araali, Bbala and Acaali — exclusively for men; and Akiiki, Adyeri, Amooti, Ateenyi, Atwoki, Abbooki and Abwoli for both sexes.
The Empaako is given at a naming ceremony performed three days after the birth of a girl, and four days after a boy is born. The number three and four are considered sacred.
The Empaako is considered important in three situations: Greetings, calming anger and tension between disagreeing parties, and to address another person as a sign of respect and honour.
In greetings, two people address each other using their Empaako, and one only asks for the Empaako at the first interaction.
In situations of anger or tension, addressing one by their Empaako is a sign of compromise, peace and reconciliation.
It is used as a sign of respect and honour when addressing a parent, an elder, a leader, spirit medium and gods. It can also be used to express affection to a companion or a lover, and when giving thanks and bidding farewell.
Even though Empaako is given along with a surname, the two serve different roles. The surname is for official or impersonal address, while the Empaako offers a deeper relationship.
The head of clans are the custodians of the naming ritual.