Tuesday, February 19, 2008

English Words as African Names

From the NY Times October 1, 2007

In a Land of Homemade Names, Tiffany Doesn’t Cut It

BULAWAYO, Zimbabwe — Thirty-two years ago in western Zimbabwe, a baby boy named Tlapi was born so sick that his parents feared he would die. They took him to sangomas, or traditional healers, and to Western-style doctors, but nothing worked. It seemed that God, not man, would decide his fate

Smile, a truck driver in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, shows a facial expression fitting of his name.

So when he was 1 year old, Tlapi’s parents changed his name to reflect that. “Some people think I’m lying when I tell them my name,” said Godknows Nare, who survived to become a freelance photographer. “They think I am teasing them. But I’m not.”

Not at all. In Harare, Zimbabwe’s capital, another Godknows was a waiter at a popular outdoor cafe. So was a man named Enough, about whom more will be said later. Across southern Africa, in fact, one can find any number of Lovemores, Tellmores, Trymores and Learnmores, along with lots of people named Justice, Honour, Trust, Gift, Energy, Knowledge and even a Zambian athlete named Jupiter.

Some Westerners chuckle. Perhaps they are oblivious — Oblivious is another Zimbabwean name, actually — to the fact that they once idolized a cowboy star named Hopalong or that many baby girls are given the name of a jewelry store to carry through life.

Indeed, Godknows, Enough and company are a continuation of an African tradition arguably more logical than the one that churns out Justins and Tiffanys in America. In southern Africa, a child’s name is chosen to convey a specific meaning, and not, as is common in the West, the latest fashion.

Increasingly, however, those traditional names are bestowed not in Ndebele, Sotho or some other local language, but in English, the world’s lingua franca. English names arrived with colonial rule, were further imposed by missionaries and, for some, became fashionable with the spread of Western culture.

But for Godknows, Enough and others, the result can be confusion — and sometimes, hilarity — even among fellow Africans.

“Quite a few people tell me I am cursed,” said Hatred Zenenga, an editor at Zimbabwe’s government-controlled newspaper, The Herald. “They say my name is un-Christian. They tell me that I should change it to Lovewell, or some other Christian name. And others are just surprised — ‘How did you get that name?’”

Hatred got his name the way millions of other children here have — as a means of recording an event, a circumstance or even the weather conditions that accompanied their births.

“For instance, if it was windy, the name may be Wind. If it was rainy, it may be Rain,” said Matole Motshekga, the founder of the Kara Heritage Institute, based in Pretoria. “If there are problems in the family, they will use the appropriate name. So you cannot just name someone out of the blue. It has to relate to something.”

Thus a Zimbabwean baby born to parents who had spent years trying to start a family might be named Tendai, which expresses thankfulness, and a child born in a time of troubles may be named Tambudzai, which literally means no rest.

Or, just as likely these days, a baby will be named Givethanks or Norest. If a Sotho-speaking girl becomes pregnant before marriage, her unhappy parents may name the baby Question or Answer — an answer to the question of why their daughter was behaving so strangely before the pregnancy became known.

Hatred has its own story. Mr. Zenenga is one of seven children born to hard-working parents who were determined to educate their brood. The family’s rising status made the father’s illiterate brothers jealous. So except for the first child, who died as an infant, all the children were named to address the jealousy and other emotions that raged among the adults: Norest, Hatred, Praise, Confess, Raised-on and Abide.

For Mr. Zenenga’s parents, the names were an inside joke, a fillip in the continuing family feud. “My father’s relatives didn’t speak English,” he said. “So he said, ‘We’re going to name our children in English so they won’t understand what we are saying to them.’”

Some scholars, including Dr. Motshekga, frown on the trend toward Anglicized names. “It’s an entrenchment of a loss of identity,” he said, “a joke. You say ‘I’m Wind,’ and they really make fun of the person.”

The Financial Gazette in Harare loosed an assault on the trend toward English names in a 2004 essay. “Oh, please! Why burden our children so unnecessarily just for the sake of feeding our misguided ego?” a columnist complained. “Quite frankly, these names amount to a form of child abuse.”

In some cases, maybe. Have-a-Look Dube is a well-known Zimbabwean soccer player. There are Zimbabwean children named Wedding, Funeral, Everloving, Passion and Anywhere, among others. A spirit medium who recently duped Zimbabwean officials into believing he had found diesel fuel flowing from a rock has the unfortunate name of Nomatter Tagarira. A Bulawayo truck driver is named Smile, and true to form, he is never without a broad smile on his face.

That said, none of the monikers were plucked from “1,001 Baby Names” or chosen to imitate a pop star. Consider Enough, the Harare cafe waiter. Asked how he got his name, he said simply: “My mother had 13 children. And I was the last one.”

Then there is the fellow from Dopotha, a village west of Bulawayo, who was born while his father was in Congo, fighting in that nation’s civil wars. When the father returned, the father concluded that the newborn almost certainly was not his, and he decided to make that clear.

The son’s name? Never Trust a Woman.