A few weeks ago I watched the video on this article in which a lady passionately encouraged other women to be proud of their African sounding names, and it got me wondering, why are African parents across Southern Africa fond of giving their children non-African names?
I’ve never quite understood why.
If you do not know about this, then you will find that its common in Southern, Eastern and Central Africa for a child to be given a Christian or English name. In Zimbabwe it’s arguably more widespread, and you have many people given first names such as ‘Destiny’ and ‘Prosperity’, but with a Zimbabwean surname. I don’t know how widespread English names are in former French colonies (Is it the case that French names are more popular?), but I know that in countries around Malawi, they are common.
Even amongst my friends, most have an English name besides an African name, and many have given their children English first names, which is okay. Whatever works for them.
I’m just surprised that even amongst those people who identify as Pan-Africanist, and ‘proud of being African’, if you probe a little, and ask them what their children’s names are, most often than not you’ll find English first or middle names.
What is going on there? Obviously everyone has the right to give their children a name of their choice, but isn’t a name a badge of origin? An identifier (who you are, where you come from) which marks your individuality and sets you apart ? If so, shouldn’t it be unique or at least point to your roots in some authentic way? In any case, in a country like Malawi, most parents maintain the surnames, so clearly some link to one’s origins are desirable.
Also, consider that Europeans or White westerners do not give their children African names. Imagine meeting a white British man named Chuck Demola Foshola Scott? Or a Canadian girl named Jessica Ochiugo Fraser? Imagine meeting a French girl called Marie-Chimwemwe Fournier…?? where do you even begin the conversation?
Now, I’m not about to lecture to anyone what kind of names they should give their children, but I’m just wondering why so many African Parents (including I must say my own mother), feel the need, or decide to give their children English sounding names; as if there are no good names to choose from in their own African languages??
In my case, my father gave me a Tumbuka name, and that was my only name until about 10 or 11 years, when somehow, my mother decided I should also carry my grandfather’s name ‘Joseph’?? And thereafter I was constantly reminded of this new appendage – not that I had any issues with it.
But what was the point of that? I had gone by one first name and a surname for 10 whole years without a problem, and suddenly I needed a middle name?? What the hell…
In the past, I’ve encountered research that suggested that children with white english sounding names have better prospects in finding a job (i.e. are less likely to be discriminated against or held back when looking for employment) than those with ‘ethnic’ sounding names. However, while the data is unfortunate to say the least, what about a child who is born in an African country; who may grow, live and work in that country, as hundreds of millions do, in an environment whereby the majority of employers are African? Will being called Frank instead of Babatunde still enhance your chances of landing employment?
I’m not so sure.
Further, shouldn’t we all be fighting the discrimination that produces such outcomes in the first place, instead of validating or circumventing the issue (thereby perpetuating it) by going for the easy way out?
Then there are also those parents who claim that the names they give their children are Biblical and reflect their Christian Faith. Well, here again, I take issue with this explanation; In Malawi, Yesaya is the Chichewa language equivalent of Isaiah; Mateyu is Mathew, and John is spelled as Yohane. Yet most of the times Malawians who go by names such as these which have an english equivalent, prefer the english name over their African name??
In contrast, I’ve met some German people and they went by their German names, even when there is an English equivalent. For example many years ago, I knew a guy named Cédric whose name was spelled with an e-acute (instead of an ordinary e). When I asked him why this was so, he told me that’s how they spelt it in German, and he considered his name German, not English. Similarly, an Austrian I went to school with was named Mathias (and went by that name and not Mathew / Matt – the english variant). Then there was the Cypriot flatmate who preferred Christarkis to ‘Chris’. Further, I know quite a few Polish people, and all of them have distinctly Polish names (Łukasz, Karol, Ilona)…. there was the lady who worked for the bank I banked with several years ago (who I got to know), and another lady who was a manager of an incubation centre, who also became a friend. Both had at the time lived in Britain for over 10 years, but went by their Polish names.
There is another explanation I’ve encountered which says that culturally, an English sounding name will help a child from an ethnic minority family integrate better into the culture of their adopted country, and may protect the child from bullying at school. While I’m sympathetic towards this claim, it’s not entirely convincing because being named Catherine instead of Nandi doesn’t automatically mean that I am in tune with the culture of the country I live in. Also, I think if there are bullies in a school, they will pick on anything that’s different on brown Catherine regardless of the name. So if a child is called Pat instead of Oga, the name won’t protect them from being picked on over their hair, stature or facial features. Clearly it is the bully who is at fault, and my decision to give my child a strong African name that links them to my tribe and culture as an African should not be in the slightest influenced by some kid I do not know – and who is likely to bully my child. I simply don’t accept that.
Speaking to some people over the weekend, it seems to be the case that many parents in Malawi like the idea of their children having an English name. It’s almost as if it’s more fashionable to give your child an English name over a name that is distinct to your tribe or language, although I’m not entirely sure why this is so.
But the reason I am opposed to this trend is because it comes across as though the parents are not proud of their African culture. It’s as if they don’t identify themselves strongly with their roots, and have lost touch with tradition. It may come across as though they do not value their culture and their history, and do not want their children to be associated with it. I mean, are we saying our traditional African names are inferior and not good enough? Is that what we are saying?
If Europeans or Americans do not give their children African names (or when the majority of Chinese people do not give their children English names), why should Africans have to name their children English names? What message does that send?
English may be the dominant language of communication in the world today, but should it also steal or neutralise individual cultures to the point some people are embarrassed with their own traditional and distinctly African names?
100 years ago, you would have walked into an African village and everyone would have had an African name. Similarly, 100 years ago, you would have walked into a Chinese Village, or German City or even an Indian Town, and most of the people you met would have held traditional names that were linked to their cultures, families or clans. Today the chances are while the names themselves may have changed, this picture hasn’t shifted as much in India, Germany or China as it has shifted in some parts of Africa.
How so? Because there are too many African kids with English names.
The notion that you should change your name after becoming Christian or being Baptised is more doctrinal in my view than Biblical. At least if you consider the new testament, this seems to be the case because there is no verse in which Christians are explicitly charged to change their names in the Bible, even after Baptism. In any case, does having a non-Christian name make you less of a Christian than someone who has a Christian name?
It is likely that the whole name change thing may have arisen during the colonial period, to the benefit of no other than colonial officials – who struggled to pronounce the African names, and needed the colonised population to carry names they could more easily pronounce.
Maybe I’m missing something here, but to me this alone is enough reason for Africans to stick with African names.
- How Much Does Your Name Matter? A New Freakonomics Radio Podcast (freakonomics.com)