One of the most fascinating things I have encountered in Africa are people’s names. I have found them fascinating because they are so very different from the names I encountered in my “western” life. I have met someone called Orange that worked in the same team as someone named Juice; I have met Happiness, Pretty and Remember, I have known a Wax; and I will always remember Mylord, the barman.
You see, for some African cultures, particularly for the Shangaans whom I’ve spent most of my time with, names aren’t just a “something” to identify children from other children. A name is important and more often than not, earned and carefully considered; a name must speak about your identity and you personality.
Giving a name is normally something reserved to the mother of the child and the name chosen is based on circumstances around the child’s birth, blessings the mothers cast upon the child, wishes for their lives, or it can be based upon a child’s personality. This is all part of the complex task that will be influencing someone based purely on the name they chose to give him.
“A name is considered a precious and marvellous gift while a person without a name is regarded as a non-human being,” writes Mkhacani Chauke of the University of Venda in the journal Anthropologist,
Anyone that has worked in the lodge industry know that their personality and their behaviour will or has enticed them to a Shangaan nickname, chances of you ever knowing that nickname however, are pretty rare. You might know someone else’s nickname but no one will tell you yours. This is how I found out that a couple in one of the lodges I worked in, had started being called Hawk Eagle. This nickname was given due to this couple’s ability to work together to screw people over in order to climb the power ladder.
As luck would have it, there are certain conversations in life that will automatically send you on a name quest. If there is something I have learned from Shangaans is that there is much more to a “name”. I can still remember the missed call and the ensuing message “are you free to talk?” that sent me on this quest after a mild panic attack, as the last time she texted me with such urgency it was only to convey the saddest news.
“What’s wrong, what happened?”
“Nothing wrong. Well, just phoning to tell you you’re going to be an aunt”.
Gaby and I grew up together and like sisters we learned how to fight like cats and dog, how to defeat all the monsters of Yoshi’s story, divide equally all our McDonald’s chips, how to lean on each other when boys broke our hearts but more importantly we learned that the fiercest of loves knows no boundaries.
“When, how, what?” were some of the many questions I blurted out with teary eyes.
After an uncontrollable bout of tears and giggles that only girls know, she then blurted out:
“It’s a girl”.
Sometimes when a statement is made out loud into world, it carries a powerful message felt only by those who are willing to listen. The power of this statement and everything it conveyed was a powerful as it was tacit between the two of us. I believe it couldn’t have been any other way, Gaby comes from a line of strong women, to even fathom the idea that her first born wouldn’t have been a girl was impossible, Tia Nery, I’m sure, had something to do with this (sorry Jose, you had no chance).
“What are you going to name her?”
“We don’t know yet. It’s complicated. We don’t want to use a name that’s been used in the family before. It’s gotta be a name easy to pronounce in English, Spanish and Portuguese”
“Oh dear lord. And you’re vetoing all the family names already used?”
To put it into perspective for you dear reader, we have quite a unique and large family spread across the world, and in many different languages. This task won’t be easy.
“No, but if you find names you like you should send them to me”.
After suggesting a few western names, I decided that the way forward was actually share some of the local African names. The world could use some variety.
This is how I started thinking about the importance of names and sending Gaby all the cool names I would hear around. Pretty, Gift, Remember, Thandiwe, Lindiwe, Thandi (hihi),Kelego, Glory, Patience (God knows we need one in the family!), etc.
Gaby liked Waxela (which means alive in Tswana) however names also have to be pertinent to life, being called Wax in Washingtong DC might not have been the easiest for this little human that’s coming into the world. So we vetoed that one too.
My most favourite one of them all has always been Happiness as I believe the name in itself yields power and a promise of goodness. This was however not a name for me to give. Although she wasn’t planned, Gaby’s little girl showed us all that her soul was done waiting for her parents to find the right moment. Just like Gaby, she decided herself that she was ready to conquer the world and everyone else would just to deal with her timing. Whatever name her parents chose, I will give her African nickname once I’ve met her…we already have a sense of personality of this feisty little human that is coming like a hurricane.
What her name will be, we don’t know, I don’t know, but I’m sure the wind will whisper it to us once we meet her.
If you want to have a look at some more names, because they are really interesting perspectives of life, you click here