Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Our Desire to Find Meaning in a Name
We have an interesting history when it comes to names in Zimbabwe and the death of American singer Prince last week will lead to many naming their sons Prince or evoke sadness to those who have already named their sons Prince

Dr Sekai Nzenza
April 27, 2016
Zimbabwe Herald

“PRINCE afa,” says our niece Shamiso, meaning, Prince is dead. She stands in front of the television set in the sitting room in Warren Park. Tears pour down her cheeks. Her husband Philemon (they are back together after almost a year of separation) walks in, holding six cans of beer for my cousins Piri and Reuben. Shamiso holds a smiling two-year-old baby Prince, named after Prince, the African American singer. We are visiting them in their new rented house.

“Baba va Prince, your hero Prince is dead,” Shamiso says again, this time dragging Philemon to the colour television screen. But the news about Prince has already passed. The lady news reader with a bright blue dress is talking about President Obama’s visit to the UK.

“I am sure they will repeat the news,” says Shamiso, sitting down. “I am so sad. Prince was handsome. He was as beautiful as a woman. Even his hair was nice.” We look at each other and burst out laughing. But Philemon and Shamiso look really upset. Shamiso says there is nothing funny about the death of a celebrity.

“I named my son after Prince,” says Philemon. He opens the can of beer and silently sips, waiting for the news to come back. “Ko, hanzi afa sei?” he asks us. How did he die?

“Hmmm, I did not listen to the news. But let me get my iPhone from the car and check the Internet. I will let you know in a moment,” says Reuben, leaving the room.

“Who is Prince? Your relative?” says Piri, with a tone of sarcasm in her voice. She starts laughing again. I stop looking at Philemon and Piri, maybe out of embarrassment or perhaps due to a sense of pity. Death of a celebrity or of anyone is always sad. My mind quickly races to Michael Jackson and how he died. His death was later followed by Whitney Houston’s. So much talent and such premature deaths.

“So why did you name your son after an American singer who looks as pretty as a woman?” asks Piri. She still wants to laugh. But we quickly realise that this is no laughing matter for Philemon. He pauses and begins to tell us a story about his late father from Bocha in Buhera and how he used to play records by Michael Jackson and Prince.

During Philemon’s first visit to Harare from the village in 2001, he found a big poster of Prince in his father’s one-roomed rented house in Glen Norah B.

At first, Philemon thought it was the photo of a skinny woman of mixed race who had been quite unfortunate not to have any breasts at all.

Philemon looked more closely at the photo and was not so sure if the photo was that of a man or a woman.

He recalled asking his father. “Kana uyu ari mukadzi, sei achigona kuridza gitare?” If this person is a woman, how come she can play the guitar? His father laughed and said no, that was not a woman. The photo belonged to Prince, one of the greatest African American singers in the whole world. Philemon’s father then pulled out more photos cut out of South African magazines. In the photos, Prince wore different colourful shirts and you could see the hair on his chest and also a moustache. In some photos, he paused with beautiful women, mostly European.

“When I came to Harare to look for work, I started collecting photos of Prince. He loved beautiful light skinned women. I bought many of Prince’s dubbed CD’s from the streets. That man was a real celebrity with talent,” says Philemon, looking sad and tearful. Shamiso nods. She gently caresses little Prince on the cheek and tells him that his namesake is gone.

Reuben comes back and tells us that Prince was found dead in a lift at his home in America. They do not know how he died. But police will do investigations later on.

“Shame,” says Philemon. “He would have been my father’s age.”

Piri says it would have been more meaningful to have named little Prince after Philemon’s father, instead of using the name of a foreign singer whose background they know little about.

“My father’s name was Tinofirei and the other one was Paget. So which one should I have used?” asks Philemon, indicating that he did not like any of his late father’s names at all. We agree that none of the names was any good. Tinofirei means, why we die. I tell them that Paget was probably a name borrowed from the former colonial Native Administrator.

“What about using the name of your grandfather?” asks Piri.

“It was Tichapondwa.” Then we all laugh again. Tichapondwa means we shall be murdered.

There was a time when our names used to convey a message to someone in the family, usually when there was a conflict in a polygamous marriage. Today, when you walk from one village to the other, recalling the names of the old people who have since passed on, you get to capture some of the events and the conflicts that took place in the past.

“We have an interesting history when it comes to names in Zimbabwe,” says Reuben. “I am lucky to get a Christian name. As for others, iiih, you can laugh, I tell you! Some names when translated are like this: Ticharwa (we shall fight). Muchaneta (you will get tired of whatever you are doing). Mandivenga (you hate me). Haruvandwi, (you cannot hide from death). Musafare (do not be happy). Muchadura (you shall confess). Muzvondwa (the hated one) and so on and so on!”

In order to get away from the negativity in names, Christianity introduced some English ones borrowed from the English language or from the Bible. Some surnames became first names even though in England they were surnames. There was Robinson, Lambert, Stevens, Butler, Anderson, Banderson, Brown and many ones. Sometimes, the desire to give meaning to a name led to direct translations from Shona into English. An intelligent looking child became Clever. A woman experiencing ongoing hardship called her child Norest. A beautiful girl was called Pretty or Beauty. Others were simply names that had a good common P. In one family there was Polite, Portia, Pride, Positive, Patience and Peace.

But the most interesting names came from the former white owned farms. When a farmer could not be bothered with the African name of his farm worker, he simply chose a name that was easier for him to pronounce. On one farm in Mazowe, the farmer called his cook Sixpence. Over the years, Sixpence had four sons and the farmer called them Fivepence, Fourpence, Threepence and Twopence.

Post-independence, we engaged in decolonising our names as well as the names of Zimbabwe’s national landscape and towns. New names with positive religious or spiritual meaning became common, especially those starting with a T. There was Tinashe, Takomborerwa, Tanyaradzwa, Tatenda, Tadiwa, Tafadzwa, Tapiwa, Tafara and Tarumbidzwa. Others like Munashe, Anashe, Naishe, Anesu, Rutendo, Ruvimbo, Rumbidzai and many others. Such names inspired a sense of cultural pride and identity.

Reuben says we seem to be running out of interesting Shona names because we have gone back to English names, especially those of American celebrities. “Prince is gone. Such is life. Next time when you guys have a baby girl, you can call her BeyoncĂ©.”

Shamiso looks at us. Smiling for the first time since she heard the news of the death of Prince’s namesake, she announces that she is expecting a baby girl. This time, she will choose the name. The baby will be called BeyoncĂ©. But we quickly say no, that is so American. But Shamiso is adamant. She says, “If my child gets a celebrity’s name, she might grow up to become one.”

Dr Sekai Nzenza is a writer and cultural critic.

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