Zimbabwean names still haunted by the ghosts of colonialism

22 September 2023 - 12:40 By Tendai Mangena
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Naming trends in Zimbabwe are a creative refashioning of imperial debris that helps keep traditional knowledge alive, says the author. Stock image.
Naming trends in Zimbabwe are a creative refashioning of imperial debris that helps keep traditional knowledge alive, says the author. Stock image.
Image: 123RF/Noriko Cooper

In African cultures, the names given to children are important because they are often laden with meanings.

As a team of professors of literature, linguistics and onomastics (the scientific study of names and naming practices), we have shown in our research that the names parents give their children at birth can help us make sense of many things, including a family’s heritage and events in history.

Our most recent research paper analyses naming practices in Zimbabwe. It shows Zimbabweans in the former British colony still often choose English names like Robert or Oliver over traditional ones like Vulindlela or Ntombenhle.

Names make it possible to understand the effects of colonialism and, in more recent years, the importance placed on restoring tradition. Embracing traditional practices matters as a way of keeping culture alive so people can benefit from its knowledge.

Relics of colonialism

English-language names are abundant in Zimbabwe. This could be one of the effects of the introduction of colonial languages and the displacement of their indigenous counterparts. It demonstrates the difficulty of erasing the mentalities acquired in the colonial era.

We argue that British missionaries and colonisers “invaded” the “mental” space of the colonised and significantly changed the way Zimbabwean people use English and indigenous languages to name children.

“Typical” English names maintain a connection to a time when schoolchildren would often be given new, English names to mould them into British-like subjects.

Names in literature

Literary works can help us better understand names and naming patterns. Celebrated Zimbabwean author Yvonne Vera’s novel, Butterfly Burning, for example, shows how names in Zimbabwe’s Ndebele language were progressively abandoned for English ones.

This change saw the use of abstract English names such as Gilbert instead of meaningful indigenous ones like Vulindlela, a boy’s name meaning “open the way” that expresses the parents’ hope that the child will bring good fortune to the family.

This cultural shift can be considered a form of erasure of a significant component of indigenous cultures. Such erasure is part of the larger-scale losses suffered through colonisation. This cultural loss was never fully recovered, even in the decades after independence in Zimbabwe in 1980.

Naming practices in Zimbabwe today

There’s evidence that, in the past couple of decades, parents in Zimbabwe use English and indigenous languages to name their children. Naming practices from colonial times live on.

In Zimbabwe, these English names fall into different categories. There are typical English names like Ashley and Jean. There are also biblical names like Isaac and Peter. We also find Africanised biblical names such as Jowero (Joel) and Mateu (Matthew).

And then there are “Zimbabwean English” names like Decent and Choice: English names translated from indigenous names. Zimbabwean English names offer an opportunity to understand the potential of drawing from traditional African knowledge — where names record personal experiences and aspirations — through using English. Colonial entanglements reveal adaptations of traditional forms.

We also notice “religious” names translated literally from indigenous names, like Takomborerwa (We have been blessed). The alterations are clear effects of colonialism, emanating from the establishment of Christianity. Examples of these “vernacular Christian names” include the Shona language names Tapiwanashe (We have been given by God), Tawananyasha (We have found God’s grace) and Anotidaishe (God loves us).

Biblical English names and Africanised biblical names

Like the English language, Christianity was at the heart of colonialism in Africa, spread through missionaries. This saw the increased popularity of biblical English names in Zimbabwe.

“Africanised biblical” names are related to Christian biblical names, adapted to “fit” indigenous language rules of grammar. Since the translated Bible remains an “English book”, Africanised biblical names do not become indigenous names. Rather, they remain biblical English names. For instance, the Shona name Ruka is adopted from the biblical name Luke. Ruka is simply a Shona version of Luke.

Zimbabwean English names

Besides typical English, biblical English and Africanised biblical names, a large category of Zimbabwean English names are now popular. These have also been called “non-standard” English names to disrupt the dominance of British English that created tropes like “hilarious names”. Examples of such are Bastard and Darling, used in Zimbabwean novelist NoViolet Bulawayo’s award-winning novel We Need New Names.

The majority of Zimbabwean English names are literal translations of indigenous personal names, illustrating the enduring power and assumed prestige of the language of Empire. At the same time, translating indigenous names shows a clear interest by Zimbabweans in retaining indigenous values and naming patterns.

Refashioning imperial debris

In these uses of English names with and without indigenous equivalents, the long-term effects of the language of colonisation are made visible.

So on the one hand, these names tell a story about how indigenous ways of life were looked down on and how this colonial disdain still influences people’s naming choices. This could be a result of an internalised colonial mentality in which the English language continues to index the power and prestige that it accumulated through the violence of the colonial era.

On the other hand, we see how these Zimbabwean English names draw on long-standing indigenous traditions and creatively reclaim the English language for local purposes. From this perspective, we interpret naming trends in Zimbabwe as a creative refashioning of imperial debris that helps keep traditional knowledge alive.

Tendai Mangena is a professor of African Studies at the University of Leeds

This article was first published by The Conversation

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