Whenever you’re doing research for an extended period of time on one subject or another, there are moments of doubt. There have been many days this year when I’ve been lucky enough to have conversations that confirm the significance of the work I’m doing, but maybe just as many days where I have to remind myself why I’m studying this and why I think it's important. I've come to realize, however, that regardless of how I'm feeling about my topic, I am consistently grateful for having a purpose. Instead of just traveling around and being a tourist in all of these different countries, studying names gives me a way of trying to understand what and who I’m surrounded by. It gives me a reason to talk to people. It gives me a way into a place.
I’m at the halfway point of my time in Zambia and I’ve been trying hard to figure out just what the significance of names is here. It’s clear that they are significant, but it’s been difficult to pinpoint specific motivations and trends surrounding them. There are so many different languages, tribes and traditions that it’s hard to make any kind of generalizations about how people in Zambia choose names. The one overarching thread that I have found, however, regardless of who I talk to, is that in Zambia, just as my own research can act as a way into a place, names can act as a way into a time.
When I shared Ndaniso’s story last week, I explained that in Zambia names often reflect the circumstances that the baby’s family finds themselves in. (As one Zambian man I talked to put it, “names are happenings.”) They become a kind of shared memory.
In the United States I think we tend to think of names as indicative of taste or style. Because of this, I’m often surprised when I hear a group of siblings’ names in Zambia; it would not be unusual to find a “Dalitso” (“blessing” in Chewa), a “Jonathan”, and a “Fatness” in the same family. Over the last few days in Lusaka, when I’ve asked people about larger trends surrounding names or how they were chosen, I’m often met with blank stares. “A name is a name”, more than one person has told me.
I think what this means is that names are decided on a very individual basis and these names, ironically, often have little to do with the child who is being named. In the Eastern Province, there are a lot of children called “Mabvuto” which means problems. There are some children called “Misozi” which means tears. There are some children called “Chikondi” which means love. It is sometimes hard not to feel sorry for the children named after the hardships of their times, to feel that somehow in carrying these names, they must be weighed down. I recently also learned that these names are often ridiculed at school. When I got back to Lusaka, I asked Levis Masunda, a man who’s been helping me with my research about this. I wanted to know why parents would deliberately give their child a name that could be made fun of later on.
He told me the name isn’t really about the child. He told me that through the child’s name, parents show they’re conscious of their own suffering. “The name shows when the baby was born,” he told me. “It’s like a calendar. It refers to when they came onto the earth. Whether or not the child will be ridiculed doesn’t matter.”
The idea that names are a way into a time does not specify just what time. I’m learning that names can also represent generations past. Levis told me about the Bemba name, “Bwalya”, for example. He told me it literally means “last born.” I asked him how parents could be sure, when they named a baby Bwalya, that he or she would be the last born. He explained that most Bwalyas often are not. The name Bwalya isn’t chosen because the baby is expected to be the last born in their family, but most likely the name Bwalya indicates that the baby’s mother or father was the last born in his or her family. In other words, as the youngest in my family, I could name my baby Bwalya, meaning “last born” in MY honor, even if I didn’t think Bwalya himself would be the last born in his own family.
What’s particularly interesting to me is that in most western societies, when a baby is born, everything is definitively All About the Baby (with capital letters). Parents agonize over choosing names that will fit this baby throughout his or her life. In Zambia, names are generally chosen to reflect the time the baby was born into, even if that time is one of problems or tears. The baby is born into something bigger than herself, something that is already going on that she needs to fit into.
Perhaps the best way of explaining this further is to share the names and stories of some of the people I met in the Eastern Province last week. Outside of Petauke I sat down with several of the students at the pastor training college, many of whom had quite large families. We talked about their own names, about their children’s names, about where my research might take me, about why I wasn’t married yet. (One man told me it was because I didn’t know how to make nshima. “A woman who can’t make nshima won’t get married. The man worries he will starve.”)
Nelson was the chef at the college and I got to meet his six kids: Daines, Precious, Isaac, Eunice, Nelson and Moses. It was he who may have spelled things out the most comprehensively. He explained to me that most of the names of his children were names from his family. When missionaries first arrived in Zambia, they encouraged people to use English (and biblical) names. Because of this, English names have been passed down through his family for years. I asked him why he wanted to carry on the tradition of English names and he explained it to me like this, “If a person has died, you don’t want to lose the name. You need to remember them. Where you live,” he said, pointing at me, “You take some pictures. We can’t do that here. So we use names.”
One visiting lecturer named Cyrus told me about the names of his four kids: Isaac, Natasha, Chikondi and Irene. He told me Natasha was not taken from the popular European name but it actually translates to “I am thankful” in Bemba. Chikondi means “love” in Chewa.
It would probably be easier for me to study names in Zambia if there was less variation of names, even within the same families. But it would be far less interesting. I love that there are siblings named Chikondi and Irene, and there are no questions asked. In Nelson’s children’s names, multiple tribal groups are represented, multiple languages, multiple histories.
A man named Greenford told me that his father chose his name as a memory of his time in South Africa. His father had gotten a scholarship to go to university there and was amazed by the amount of green he saw around him. He was a city boy and delighted in seeing parks and trees and plants. It made such an impact on him that when his son was born, he wanted to name him something that reminded him of all the Green. Greenford himself has three kids with names that all come from his relatives: Jonathan, Samuel and Haswell.
Boatman, who helps Nelson in the kitchen, explained to me that he got his name because his father had been working in South Africa for a white man with the last name Boatman. His father liked his boss a lot and decided to name his son after him. Boatman himself has ten children: Philamon, Naomi, Eunice, Rebecca, Vasti, Yorodia, Paul, Malita, Judith and Gideon.
I rode through town with a pastor named Lovemore Banda, who informed me that his name is very common in Zimbabwe. (He was named in honor of his uncle, “Love”). He has six kids: Eunice, Vasti, Jackson, Joseph, Richard and Evelina. I had dinner with a man named Jethro who is father to Priscilla, Jethro, Zion, Elias, Martin, Dorica, Joshua and Eva. I talked to Wallace who has a David, Jennifer, Leah, Wallace and Elijah at home. Fastem, father to Dina, Monira, Fastem Jr., Moses, Francis, Friday, Isaac, Elias and Shadrick was also eager to talk. Fastem told me that he named his son “Friday” because Friday is the first day of a weekend of rest.
I love typing these names; I love the variety within each family and the stories behind them. I love that these long lists seem impossible to make sense of. At some point I have to just shrug and agree: a name is a name.
The other current Swarthmore Watson Fellow and friend of mine, Deivid, recently sent me a quote from Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children. Ironically, I remembered reading this specific quote in my global literature seminar in Fall 2010 when I was just applying for the Watson Fellowship. Rushdie writes about India: “Our names contain our fates; living as we do in a place where names have not acquired the meaninglessness of the West, and are still more than mere sounds. We are also the victims of our titles.”
This quote might have been more appropriate to draw on when I was in India, but I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately here. While I disagree with Rushdie that names in the west are meaningless and can be reduced to “mere sounds”, I understand what he means by referring to names outside the west as “titles.” Babies named Bwalya come to represent their parents’ places within their own families, babies named Mabvuto come to represent their family’s struggles. These babies are bearing titles of hardship or of joy. Their names reflect the time they were born into.
I recently asked Levis about the influence of colonization on names in Zambia and he told me that English names started popping up here long before colonization, when the first missionaries arrived. He told me that many babies were born at mission hospitals and then named after the white doctors and nurses who delivered them. When I initially heard this, I saw it as a loss of tradition. I thought it was wrong that English names were now infiltrating the mix and beginning to replace these traditional titles.
These English names were, undoubtedly, a blow to the wide variety of Zambian cultures. But at the same time, I think the practice of naming after happenings was far from lost. The names of these mission doctors and nurses became a part of the story of this child coming into the world, and while these names may not be traditionally Zambian, they are a part of Zambia’s story. Names like John and Mary became titles for these Zambian babies, just as Mabvuto and Dalitso are. The babies became, as Rushdie put it, victims of their titles. This time they were victims of the continuing trend of globalization. They were born into something bigger than themselves. They were born into a happening.