About a month ago, Zimbabwean newspaper The Herald published Sekai Nzenza’s essay Behind the Names. It’s a fascinating look at how babies are named in Zimbabwe.
I can’t post the entire essay here, but I can give you a few quotes.
The author’s full first name is Sekesayi, which means “laugh/mock as much as you like” in Shona. Here’s why:
This was in reference to my mother’s inability to provide me with a proper baby blanket when I was born. I was child number six and all the hand-me-down baby clothes were worn out. She improvised by cutting pieces of cream cloths from her petticoat, mudhongi and sewed them together with sackcloth. People laughed. But my mother, said you can laugh as much as you like, sekesayi.
And here’s why Nzenza used a different name while attending school:
My name was linked to a period of poverty. How could such a name enter a civilised place like the Methodist mission? To avoid embarrassment, I was not going to tell that story to anyone at school. Already, I carried the stigma of having grown up in a big village compound while some of the girls at the school were daughters of business men, hospital orderlies and fathers who worked in Salisbury.
I was Christened Irene and that seemed to fit in well with others on this road to “civilisation”.
Some of the other Shona names mentioned in the essay include:
- Muchademba: “you shall regret”
- Chandisaita: “what did I not do for you?”
- Muchaneta: “you will tire of what you are doing”
- Tichapondwa: “we shall be murdered”
- Ndakaziva: “I wish I had known”
- Chaipachii: “what is the matter now?”
Baby names like these aren’t as common anymore, though.
Gone are the names with strong messages of spite or anger like Muchademba, Marwei, Muzvondiwa or Muchaneta. After independence, we captured the joy of freedom and named our children positive names like Tatenda meaning we are grateful, Tafadzwa, we are pleased and Mufaro, happiness. There are many like Tapiwa, Tarumbidzwa, Tanyaradzwa, Tadiwa, Mudiwa, Tasimba and others. We have also included the religious Shona names and added Rutendo, Grace and Blessing.
This tradition of having a name with a conspicuous meaning/message helps explain the attraction to English words as names:
Those who stayed in the village and did not go to war or boarding school, also wanted English names that meant something. Out came more names like Beauty, Happy, and Gladness, Clever, Tears, Polite and others.
I’ve left quite a bit out, so if you have a minute, go read the rest of Sekai Nzenza’s essay on baby names in Zimbabwe.