I recently wrote about how names in Zambia are often a product of timing. Names are often chosen to express what is going on for a family at the time of the child’s birth but they can also be names that honor an ancestor from the past, or names that reflect a hope for the future. I recently learned about the Bemba name, Kalonde, which means “garden hoe”, for example. It is usually given to the first son in a family with the hope that, like a garden hoe, he will be able to help his family cultivate the land in future years.
I’m realizing that because names come to represent a specific time, be it past, present or future, it is not unusual for them to change throughout people’s lives. There is a lack of permanence and formality about names here; a baby may be called something and then as a child refuse the name and choose a new one. I find if I am taking notes and ask someone how their name is spelled, they often provide me with a few options. A name is a name.
I think the use of multiple names increased (or began) when Europeans arrived in Zambia in the mid 19th century. I’ve found in several of the countries I’ve been to this year that have histories of colonization, there is often a history of renaming.
Levis, my research assistant, recently spoke to me more about the introduction of English names in Zambia. He told me that for a long time, in village churches that were run by missionaries, they wouldn’t baptize babies with African names. He said it was because missionaries wanted names that they themselves could pronounce, and names that were from the bible.
For a long time, in many parts of Zambia, this meant that your child had to have an English name if you wanted them to be baptized. Levis told me that in many places, spiritual rationales aside, not being baptized had tangible consequences. He told me that when there wasn’t enough to go around, missionaries and aid workers would give materials and supplies to people in the villages who were connected to a church, and to the children who were baptized. Levis told me that if a child wasn’t baptized, it would be noticeable; he wouldn’t have the same clothes or supplies that the other children had, and as Levis put it, he would be the laughing stock of the village.
I asked Levis if this meant a certain generation only had English names and he told me that often people were given English names and names from their family’s tribe. He used the name Kalumba, which is Bemba for “lightning”, as an example. He told me that when Kalumba was baptized, his parents would need to pick an alternative name for him, like Andrew. This meant that Kalumba was baptized as Andrew, and most likely would be Andrew at school (especially because many of the first schools in Zambia were funded by English-speaking aid workers or missionaries), but he would be Kalumba at home. “He’ll be Andrew on paper,” Levis told me, “But he’ll also be Kalumba. Kalumba will be floating.”
Today Kalumba could be baptized as Kalumba, but having multiple names (particularly one “English name” and one “African name”) is very common. One thing I’m finding is that because the pressure to name babies after family members is so strong here, often English names are being passed on in families in honor of grandparents who lived at a time in Zambia when only English names were encouraged.
There are a lot of other reasons why many Zambians today go through life with multiple names. I’m learning there are often discrepancies about who in the family has the right to name the child, and often this problem is solved by giving the child more than one. I met a nine year-old in Ng’ombe last week who was Leah, Elena or Jocelyn, depending on who was talking to her. At school, she goes by Jocelyn and at home she’s mainly Leah. Her father had decided on Leah, but when his mother came to visit, she insisted the baby’s name should be Elena. When his wife’s mother came to visit, she argued for Leah.
[Side note: In case you’re curious after my earlier post about names and sibling groups, Leah/Elena/Jocelyn has three siblings: Mary (named after her grandmother), Boyd/Mapenze (Boyd from his father’s late brother and Mapenze, meaning “problems” in Tonga), and Limpo (meaning “gift” in Lozi. I spent most of my time with this family joking about the sibling rivalry that I believed was bound to enuse when you name one child “Problems” and another one “Gift.” ]
In some tribes, there are clear cut rules about who gets to name the baby. I’ve found that most often the father has the responsibility of naming the first baby, the mother the second baby, and if there are more children, the mother and father alternate or open it up to grandparents and friends to suggest names. For Tongas, it is very common to leave the name up to grandparents. In the Bemba tradition, the father takes on full responsibility for naming the children. As Levis, a proud Bemba man put it, “The father is responsible for the blood that runs through the veins of the children.” (Levis has also extended this rule to his wife, Mary, who he insists on calling Maria).
Sometimes these discrepancies are subtle; a child may be called an affectionate nickname by his mother while his father calls him by his more formal school name. One woman, Sahzi, told me that she’s heard of families where the parents separate and once the father is gone, the mother will rename all the children with names that she prefers.
I’ve learned that most of these name changes happen before age sixteen. Sixteen is the age when citizens of Zambia are issued a National Residency card. When babies are born, birth certificates aren’t given in the hospital. Instead, once the baby is a few months old, parents who want it can pay the appropriate authorities for a birth certificate. This means that a lot of Zambian babies and children don’t have formal documentation and the National Residency card at age sixteen carries a lot of weight.
Another popular time for name changes are when children start school (age seven in Zambia). The idea that there will suddenly be some kind of documentation of names causes a lot of people to think about what names they want for their children long-term. I met one man who was called Samson until he turned five and his Dad decided he should be Nelson instead. Leah/Jocelyn/Elena had to choose who to be at school, and this might be the moment when Kalumba becomes Andrew in his daily life.
Though these are the common times for name changes, they can happen at anytime. I met a man who changed his name because he met a football player he liked. I met one man who had an African name but changed his name to Joseph so he’d be taken seriously in his church. Some people in Zambia still believe that if a baby cries too much it is because he is rejecting his name.
Floating names are not only a Zambian thing. When I was in Bali, there were a lot of similarities with formal verses informal names, with traditional names and English names, and with name changes throughout one’s life. In the states, a woman who goes by Katherine in writing may be more commonly known by her floating name of Katie. What is interesting to me in Zambia about floating names, however, is that they are so imbued with politics and history and value.
Today Kalumba can be baptized as Kalumba. He can be Kalumba at school. But I think a lot of parents are still giving their children names like Andrew because there is a fear that Kalumba’s voice might not be heard; that in a place where writing counts more than oral history, where desks are often paid for by aid groups in the western world, where you sit and learn about colonization and slavery and oppression, they fear that people at school might listen to Andrew more than they listen to Kalumba.
I like to think they’re not right, but I think they might be.
Names may be created equal, but they are not perceived equally. That’s part of the reason I want to try to capture these floating names. A lot of people in Zambia are figuring out how to merge their family’s traditions with a Zambian landscape that is rapidly changing; asking if their grandmother’s herbal remedies have a place in a modern hospital; if witchcraft can live side by side with Christianity; if their chitenjes can be worn on top of their jeans.
Names fit these dichotomies but I think they can also merge the two. Andrew/Kalumba may have to choose who he wants to be in certain contexts, and he may be perceived differently depending on this choice, but what is remarkable to me is that he IS them both. He is an example of how these categories can merge. Having multiple names is not a contradiction in Zambia. Instead, the names you hold add up to who you are, they show the pieces you have within yourself--your grandmother’s insistence on the name Elena, your father’s Tonga heritage, your baptized ancestors, a moment in time—carrying these names in your person, and with them these histories, before they float away.