Marvelous Nakamba, right, plays for Aston Villa NMC
Is a name like Bigboy or Kisswell a blessing or a curse, I wondered after being introduced to the boat skippers who would shuttle us up and down the Zambezi River on our holiday in Zimbabwe. The younger members of the group sniggered as I silently added the captains’ to my list of favourite Zimbabwean names.
Babies in southern Africa are often baptized to reflect family politics of the day, the state of the nation, or a drama surrounding their birth. The magic is often lost in translation to English.
When President Mandela was sworn in with his birth name Rolihlahla few outsiders knew that in isiXhosa, his mother tongue, it meant “troublemaker”. Commentary on Mbulaeni Mulaudzi, who won the 800m at the World Championship in 2009, would have been more startling than the starting gun if he’d been called “you must kill me’’, the translation of his name from the Venda language.
Bigboy, a riverboat skipper on the Zambezi, has a typically Zimbabwean name
Zimbabwe has a tradition of anglicizing first names and the results can be poetic, prosaic, and occasionally bizarre.
The advent of missionaries and colonial rulers in what was formerly Rhodesia pressed the local population to adopt solid British names, often biblical, or English translations of birth names that twisted foreign tongues. Mary and Peter are common, but the tendency to apply traditional naming philosophies to the English dictionary, bypassing Zimbabwe’s 16 official languages, has created generations of imperatives and abstract nouns.
Perhaps it is my own rather vanilla first name that fuels my interest in how the Enough, Godknowses, and Betweens got theirs. “I was the youngest of nine and my mother was tired,” was the story I heard from Leave it.
It is the diaspora, propping up the country with their hard currency remittances, who carry the heaviest burden of Zimbabwean names. In South Africa’s townships where xenophobia lurks, being called Lovemore, Jealousy, or Pride can be perilous. In Britain and the US, a name such as Innocent can draw as much suspicion as Danger.
Marvelous Nakamba, 27, the Aston Villa midfielder, a national hero and headline writer’s gift, reflects the power of prophetic baptisms. The parents of Strive Masiyiwa, 60, recently named Britain’s first (naturalized) black billionaire, ensured that he was never complacent.
Having grown up with an uncle Nevermind and an aunt Easy, the journalist Nqaba Matshazi was grateful for his Ndebele name until he studied at the University of Sussex “where it would have been more convenient to have something people could spell and pronounce”. He tagged his best #zimnames on Twitter “until it felt a bit mean”.
Zimbabwe’s highs and lows have long been tracked in school registers. When independence dawned in 1980 Freeman became common, but Lordcarrington (after the chairman of the Lancaster House conference) offered more context.
Kirsty Coventry’s swimming medal hauls at the 2004 and 2008 Olympics prompted a flurry of Goldmedals, Swimming pools, and the occasional Backstroke. Teenagers called Hyperinflation mark the stress of buying bread that had soared in price by 231,000,000 percent.
Thanks to Zimbabwe’s increasingly urban and sophisticated young population, its bluntest names are now mostly confined to rural areas where, even 40 years after the end of British rule, a preoccupation with English endures and often an ability to speak it with an ornate elegance not heard in Britain for decades.
“There is a complex that the better English you speak the more educated you are,” Matshazi, 39, says. “In rural areas that still applies, and children must carry those strange names like crowns on their heads.”
Today’s tumults will echo round classrooms in the future, he says. “It’s just a matter of time before we hear teachers calling Socialdistancing and Mask.”