What's in a name?

A few years ago I was in Atlanta, Georgia, where I came across an African-American young man who introduced himself as Jebu-len. I asked him to spell his name for me; it spelt out as Jabulani.

Having established his real name from the spelling, I then advised him on the correct pronunciation. As we know, Jabulani is a name given to a child when the parents wish to acknowledge their joy at the arrival of the new-born infant, usually a boy.

I asked the young man how he got the name. He said his father, also African-American, had lived in South Africa for a time and, having fallen in love with the name, had pledged to name his first son Jabulani.

There are many such examples of African-American parents who have named their children using African names. The names have been drawn from West Africa, South Africa, Zimbabwe and other parts of Africa.

These are names that have meaning.

In southern Africa, the arrival of missionaries and colonials brought confusion to the naming conventions of African people. Missionaries required baptismal candidates to adopt a Christian name, which was usually linked to a canonised saint in the Catholic Church or some other well-known biblical figure.

As a result, many people ended up with names such as Thomas, Peter, John, Ignatius, Agnes, Elizabeth, Catherine, Monica, Jacob and Esther.

Some parents, who were less persuaded by this approach and often held strong Africanist views, declined to give their offspring these so-called Christian names. They elected, rather, to give them good, old-fashioned African names, which became the children’s baptismal or Christian names. To this day, you will find them on any documents identifying these individuals.

Pop Motsisi

The pressure to give children European names seems to have crept into the realm of the ridiculous when parents chose for their children such names as Only, Between, Surprise, Chastity, Million, Clause, Goodison, Pardon, Prize, Lookout, Given, Lovejoy and Manners.

These are not made up. I have come across all of them, and many more besides.

The worst example I have ever come across is that of an individual I met in 1970 whose first name was European. He seemed to carry the name with pride at the time. Fortunately, later on in his life he forsook the name in favour of names from his native language. He became an academic of some renown.

The issue here is that families, hoping that their children would gain acceptance into what was in the past, and continues to be, a white-controlled world, gave their children these Christian names, which sometimes border on the ridiculous.

The pressure to conform to white tastes continues.

I have met many young Africans whose origins range anywhere from Cape Town to the Zambezi escarpment. Many of them, who have attended schools staffed by white teachers and populated by white pupils, will introduce themselves with a senseless shortened version of their parent-given African name.

I have asked these youngsters to give me the full name so I can get my bearings as to who they really are. When they have done so and I am able to deduce its meaning, I ask if the shortened version they have offered means anything. The response has always been that it means nothing. When I have asked why they use it, they have said that is what their white teachers and their fellow white pupils prefer to call them.

In essence, these teachers and pupils unilaterally impose their own version of these African children’s names because they cannot be bothered to pronounce the long forms of their names correctly. This is the arrogance of our white compatriots, and it riles me.

What is disappointing is that these young African people continue to perpetuate the incorrect shortened versions of their names as they go through life.

We need to recover our pride and walk tall with our African names, and we need to do so very soon.

So, let us bless our children and give them African names. Let us give them beautiful names which say something about what we think of our children at birth. Names like Bontle, Khumo and Khetiwe.

Let us give them names that remind us of what was happening at the time of their birth, like Motlalepula and Phefo. Let us give them names that show our gratitude to the deity; names like Refilwe, Masego, Siyabonga and Siphiwe. Let us give them names that reflect our hopes in them, such as Bhekumbuso, Enzokuhle, Mmoloki, Mothusi and Motsumi.

African names usually have an attached meaning. My good friend, a retired academic, touched on the subject when he gave a speech at his birthday a few years ago. He ended off by giving this example of an African name that speaks of the individual: Vuk’ungiphinde. I can confirm that this story is true – and that it was the first and last time I heard of this name.

Motsisi is director of MPM Advisory Services,a corporate finance advisory boutique


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