WHEN I went for a rare dinner outing last weekend it was by a stroke of luck that I bumped into an old friend called Peace Mathews. I suspected that his parents might have wanted to name him Amani when he was born but for some reason opted for the English version of his name. It had been quite a while since Peace and I had last met. From the look of things he was doing pretty well.
It was while we were catching up on old times that I noticed another old friend of mine, Violence Demon, seated two tables away from where we were. Although his name sounds fictitious, it is for real! I can bet my last breath that his parents might have intended to name him Valence, a common name around some parts of the lake region, but for some reasons ended up with that taboo of a name. As for his second name, I can only pray to God that they meant it to be Damon rather than its evil creepy version.
Seated opposite Violence was a pretty lady I presumed was his girlfriend. Just as I was attempting to avoid being caught staring at this pretty companion of his our eyes met. I smiled and waved him over. He moved to our table, bringing the lady along. I rose from my seat and gave him a big hug. It had been some time since we last met, I said. “Yeah, indeed it has been long,” he replied.
Then he introduced his girlfriend Witness whom he referred to as the future mother of his children. Knowing his philandering tendencies, I took this reference as a joke and doubted this Witness was up to the task. In his neighbourhood alone, I estimated that he must have fathered not less than twenty Demonlets. But I assumed he meant Witness would be the future mother of her own kids and not the whole clan of bastards.
I noticed that we had abandoned Peace completely and hastened to introduce him. “Peace,” I said, “meet Violence.” “Violence, meet Peace,” I added as the two shook hands. I savoured the comic moment with a smile and shook my head in disbelief as the two said their ‘hellos’ before Witness and I who looked every bit like witnesses. As the moment unraveled, I could not help but feel out of place. I should have been named Camera to capture the moment better, I mumbled to myself.
However, even then, it was not lost on me that we are getting out of control with the choice of names for our kids. I remembered that a few months ago, one of our Diaspora friends warned that Tanzania’s present and future generations may find it hard reconnecting with their tribal identity. The reason he gave for this rather disconcerting diagnosis is that very few Tanzanians are ready to identify themselves with their tribes.
Kids born in urban areas, he noted, are denied the opportunity to learn their tribal languages (what some people call mother tongue) because their parents are more likely to be from two different tribes and thereby opt for Kiswahili as a neutral language for domestic use. He added that the language that is spoken around such kids, as they grow up, is predominantly Kiswahili.
Although a part of me saw some truth in such findings, I accepted them with a pinch of salt and largely considered them as nothing more than observations inspired by donor money. As we all know, we have many loonies out there doing the bidding of NGOs whose ‘causes’ include ‘cultural preservation.’ I hoped this brother was not one of them.
So until my eventful meeting with Peace, Violence and Witness, I considered any argument supporting the use of indigenous (tribal) languages as unadulterated trash. As it were, I am reminded everyday of the dangers of embracing tribalism. It is during my dinner outing that I discovered how far we are willing to go in our attempt to shed our African identity. Not only are we shunning our tribal languages, but we have also distorted our traditional naming system to new lows. In fact, when it comes to naming, we have outdone the West.
After experimenting with as ludicrous names as Wilfred Edward, John Joseph, Kelvin William, Margareth Anthony, Mary Ernest and so on, for decades, we turned into other names that equally abandon sense. We are now pouncing on every English word available and converting it into a name as if it will bolt away the next second. The speed with which we are moving is such that we have not had time to enjoy absurd names such as Hapiness, Angel, Witness, Queen, Justice, e.t.c, that at least explain our personal inclinations. We are already scrambling for idiotic names such as Politeness, Sadness, Laughter, Silliness, Loneliness, Ambition, Generous and whatever crap that crosses our minds.
While we accept that it is the right of every parent to name their child anything from Nakedness to Witchcraft, isn’t it at least sensible to retain the family name? Why are we killing our African surnames? How will our grand children learn about their forefathers if no one among them bears a family name? Why would any sane African parent name their child Witness Genesis or even Witness Joseph? Who is this Joseph? Would a child be a complete outcast if we named her Robi Werrema or Zawadi Mfaume? Does naming a boy Itika Mwabaleke, for example, make him less of a boy than one named Flavian Desdetus?
As history has shown, in most African traditions naming was based on events, seasons, time, mood, e.t.c . It was common for example, to name a child after famine, drought, rain, harvest, epidemics, plagues and other disasters. Just as it was very normal to be named after the time of day or night your birth took place. It kept the memory of the event burning for a lifetime. These names were as varied as the number of events, moods, seasons, disasters, e.t.c, that one’s memory can accommodate.
However, one name that showed consistency was the surname. This important family name was kept alive by naming children after their dead relatives such as grandparents and so on. It ensured that the name transcended generations and in that way family lineage was kept alive. The place of a surname in the family has been such that it is irreplaceable.
Even the West whose culture we loathe and adore in equal measure has managed to keep this important human rule alive despite accusations of moral and cultural erosion. If there was a Williamson a thousand years ago, you can bet your life on the fact that there is still one walking our streets today. If we bar any natural disasters such as death, every male descendant of the original Williamson has gladly accepted the name through generations.
During my slow approach to adulthood, I have noted that Tanzanians have a general tendency of hiding their surnames. Most of those who do this want to appear modern and cosmopolitan. In a typical Tanzanian class, a pupil will work hard to avoid being known as a Masanja even though he is one. Instead he would direct all his energies towards publicizing himself as Liberty (if that is what he was named during birth) or other more nonsensical names because they make him look 'cool' among his peers.
Do 'modern' parents think their kids are better human beings than the likes of Jakaya Kikwete, Mizengo Pinda, Zitto Kabwe, Chacha Wangwe, Kwame Nkrumah, Wangari Maathai, Koffi Annan, Wole Soyinka, Chinua Achebe, Ngugi wa Thiong’o or even Barrack Obama, who proudly adorn themselves with African names? Seriously, are there more beautiful names than these?