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Names That Tell a Story

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What’s in a name? In Zimbabwe, almost everything. There are names in the majority Shona language that may have a negative ring to them, but are quite common. This is because they tell a story—a story often of pain and endurance on the part of the giver, usually a woman. She may be unable to speak out or defend herself openly, when she’s treated badly by family or community members. So she indirectly puts her point across through the names she gives her children. This way she’s not breaking any taboos and according to Pedsisayi Mashiri, senior lecturer in African languages and Literature at the University of Zimbabwe, “she’s also avoiding altercation and open disunity.” However the names, which are mainly unisex in nature, must be looked at within their particular context or they won’t make much sense.

The Names and their Meanings

While for most recipients, these names are their first names, mine, Hazvineyi, is my second name and it means “it doesn’t matter,” or simply “Nomatter” in the shortened English version of the name. At the time of my birth, my mother was having a torrid time with her female in-laws—her mother-in-law in particular—and was receiving little support from my father. Her natal family was equally indifferent. Thus the name, Hazvineyi. And this name, together with others like Mandivenga (You hate me) are prevalent among children of women who have felt similarly disempowered at one time or another. Also popular is the name, Muchaneta where the giver is telling her tormentors (and probably reassuring herself in the process) that they will have to tire of the abuse at some stage. Interestingly too, a woman who conceives after years of being sniggered at for her infertility, may name her child Manyara, thereby telling her tormentors that they ought to be ashamed of themselves and that the joke is on them now. 

A Woman’s Story

Many of these names would seem to indicate a phase in the name-giver’s life, a phase that is possibly more prolonged if she names her child Nhamo, which implies endless suffering. Or if every child she gives birth to has a morbid-sounding name—as in the case of Rudo (Love) Phiri. She recounted to me a married life of protracted domestic violence which was so unlike what went before. As an unmarried girl, Rudo came from a secure and loving rural background; her father was a teacher at the local school. But trouble began when she married Tariro (Hope), a local lay about, much to her parents’ displeasure. The resulting friction between father and husband led to Rudo’s first child, a girl, being named Mangenge, meaning battleground.

From the outset, Tariro physically abused Rudo, so she named her second daughter, Rikitai, to indicate the terrible beatings she was enduring and her powerlessness to retaliate. But a few years later, when her son was born, she decided to make a stand. By naming him Majaira, she silently communicated that she’d had enough. The beatings had to stop or there would be trouble. The beatings did stop, she remembers but she remained bitter and disillusioned, so she named her last child (another girl), Rangirirai, “as a silent plea to my husband to reflect deeply on how he had ruined my life.”

It’s about Gaining Relief

For Rudo, at least, her naming strategy did seem to bring about some kind of behavioral change because the beatings did stop. But in many cases, those targeted by the names appear quite unaffected by them. They scoff at them, even and continue merrily on their way. But the name givers don’t really mind so long as they’ve tactfully communicated their feelings and obtained some sort of relief in the process. Mashiri, the languages lecturer, says “It’s more about getting the message across in an indirect and inoffensive way than realizing any tangible results.”

Meanings are Lost in Translation

However, the messaging in the names can be weakened when parents give their children what they believe to be the English versions of the names. For instance, when Mandivenga (You hate me or You are contemptuous of me) becomes “Hatred” or “Jealous,” or when Hazvineyi (It doesn’t matter ) becomes “Nomatter” and when the next newborn—maybe within the same family—is named the opposite, “Doesmatter.” Meaningful names can seldom be explained in one or two English words. Usually an entire sentence is needed and this would make for an unacceptably long name. At a school I once taught at, there was this child named “Had I know,” a half-sentence name and grammatically wrong, for that matter. So it’s clear that in translation, the full meaning of the name is not captured and the intended message is lost.

Are the Name-bearers Affected?

Churches, worried about the potential effects of these negative sounding names on the bearers, tend to discourage them. But while some of the bearers may indeed live out the lives implied by their names, there are many others whose lives are not extraordinarily hateful or jealousy-ridden. The name Nhamo, which implies endless suffering, has been well-represented in the armed forces, teaching and law professions. Similarly, when a child is given a name with a happier connotation, like Sekai (Be humorous) it doesn’t mean her life turns out to be one of endless joy. So it has to be assumed that these negative sounding names are of some significance only to the name-giver and only within a particular context, but once that context diminishes, the depth of the meaning also disappears.

Other Names are Popular
I might point out at this stage that while Zimbabwe has many of these meaningful Shona traditional names, there are also many people with the more lighthearted traditional names, as well as Christian and Western names. And the practice of messaging through names is also followed by men who do not want to speak out or sound offensive.

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