Zimbabwean names still haunted by the ghosts of colonialism

Naming trends in Zimbabwe are a creative refashioning of imperial debris that helps keep traditional knowledge alive, says the author. Stock image. Image: 123RF/Noriko Cooper

In African cultures, the names given to children are important because they are often laden with meanings.

As a team of professors of literature, linguistics and onomastics (the scientific study of names and naming practices), we have shown in our research that the names parents give their children at birth can help us make sense of many things, including a family’s heritage and events in history.

Our most recent research paper analyses naming practices in Zimbabwe. It shows Zimbabweans in the former British colony still often choose English names like Robert or Oliver over traditional ones like Vulindlela or Ntombenhle.

Names make it possible to understand the effects of colonialism and, in more recent years, the importance placed on restoring tradition. Embracing traditional practices matters as a way of keeping culture alive so people can benefit from its knowledge.

Relics of colonialism

English-language names are abundant in Zimbabwe. This could be one of the effects of the introduction of colonial languages and the displacement of their indigenous counterparts. It demonstrates the difficulty of erasing the mentalities acquired in the colonial era.

We argue that British missionaries and colonisers “invaded” the “mental” space of the colonised and significantly changed the way Zimbabwean people use English and indigenous languages to name children.

“Typical” English names maintain a connection to a time when schoolchildren would often be given new, English names to mould them into British-like subjects.

Names in literature

Literary works can help us better understand names and naming patterns. Celebrated Zimbabwean author Yvonne Vera’s novel, Butterfly Burning, for example, shows how names in Zimbabwe’s Ndebele language were progressively abandoned for English ones.

This change saw the use of abstract English names such as Gilbert instead of meaningful indigenous ones like Vulindlela, a boy’s name meaning “open the way” that expresses the parents’ hope that the child will bring good fortune to the family.

This cultural shift can be considered a form of erasure of a significant component of indigenous cultures. Such erasure is part of the larger-scale losses suffered through colonisation. This cultural loss was never fully recovered, even in the decades after independence in Zimbabwe in 1980.

Naming practices in Zimbabwe today

There’s evidence that, in the past couple of decades, parents in Zimbabwe use English and indigenous languages to name their children. Naming practices from colonial times live on.

In Zimbabwe, these English names fall into different categories. There are typical English names like Ashley and Jean. There are also biblical names like Isaac and Peter. We also find Africanised biblical names such as Jowero (Joel) and Mateu (Matthew). – Live Times

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