The Significance of Names

By Paul Thiessen

Our daughter Ruth reminds me of Ibrahim, one of my earlier Siamou language helpers. Both of them have pointed out the names of shrubs, flowers, grasses and trees, giving me an appreciation for the plants growing around us.

Knowing the name of something helps us to appreciate it more. Learning the name of a plant or animal or star increases our curiosity about it and leads to further discoveries about God’s creation. This progression can benefit us spiritually as we marvel at the beauty of what God created and as we worship the Creator with a heart full of wonder and gratitude.

Ibrahim gave me the names of many plants in Siamou as I studied the language and began my first entries for the Siamou dictionary. He told me how each plant was used, and why it was valued. He gave me information about roots, fruit, leaves and bark.

Many plants, such as the Fúfwóon-shínkpàr, have a traditional medicinal value. I never did find out why it was named “viper’s sleeping mat”. In the village of Tin every old, huge ‘bláa’ tree has a name….such as ‘tónyinembláa’ (the tree under which meetings take place). They have value for their fruit and for their shade. Each of these trees belongs to a certain village elder.

There is a spiny shrub with pretty white flowers known for the snuff boxes that can be made from its hard-shelled fruit. The Siamou people call it KÈmÈkpityÈE—“thorn tree gourd” or “snuff box tree.” These are examples of plants in Burkina Faso that point to the ingenious creativity of our heavenly Father who made all of them.

On my bicycle rides near the village of Tin, I often enjoyed the radiant yellow blossoms of the gbishel tree. Flat tires were all too common. But if I had a tire pump and an extra patch with me, the glue for the patch was not hard to find. I just had to locate the nearest kpáal shrub with its climbing vines. A picked leaf became the reservoir and then a small slit into the bark produced a generous amount of white latex—perfect for gluing the patch onto the tube.

Here in Canada, Ruth has educated us about Manitoba plants through her work at Prairie Originals. With her encouragement we have planted many different wildflowers in our backyard. We look forward to each plant in turn, calling them by their names as they bloom throughout the summer: crocuses, violets, harebells, columbines, milkweed, giant hyssop—each flower becomes beloved as we wait for it to bloom.

I hadn’t heard about “dark sky preserves” until recently, even though we were living in one in Burkina Faso! In the village of Tin there were no street lights, no yard lights, few cars on the road, and houses had kerosene lanterns. It was frighteningly dark at night—just perfect for watching stars. So we took our children out into the night to look for constellations: Orion the Hunter, Scorpio the Scorpion, Canis Major, The Southern Cross and Gemini. And we learned the locations and names of stars: Rigel, Sirius, Castor, Pollux and Antares.

After having seen and enjoyed the beauty of Scorpio the Scorpion from our backyard in Tin (where we could see the entire constellation), I was delighted one day back here in Canada to discover that the top half of this constellation, including the star Antares, can be seen from southern Manitoba on a clear summer night. Psalm 147:4 says, “He determines the number of the stars and calls them each by name.”

Gloria Gaither once wrote about her parents who gave her an appreciation for nature and the connectedness of all things: “I was taught a reverence for life and an awe for the fact that something—plant as well as animal—gave up its life for every bit of food we enjoyed. From this, I learned that we should live in gratitude and practice responsible conservation. I was taught the names of things—trees, wild flowers, algae, animals, constellations, human beings—and I learned that naming was important to identity and value” (What My Parents Did Right, compiled and edited by Gloria Gaither, p.14, 1991).

In Genesis Adam gave names to all the animals: “to all the livestock, the birds in the sky and all the wild animals” (Genesis 2:20). Is it possible that the act of naming resulted in an awareness of the value of these animals? Was there a link between naming them and caring for them?

Maybe if we would learn the names of the trees and flowers and animals and birds around us we would be less likely to destroy them—and we would be more likely to cherish them with God-honouring care.

Lois and Paul Thiessen

Paul and his wife Lois have been involved in Siamou language and culture learning, Bible translation, and dictionary work for the Siamou people of Burkina Faso since 1984. Paul Graduated with his Master in Global Studies from Providence Theological Seminary. He and Lois currently live in Blumenort, Man.

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