Behind many an African name is a riveting story

Just how mean can a parent be? How could a mother name his son Kiura (frog) well aware that the father’s name is Ngiri (Warthog)? The thought of a cross between an amphibian and a mammal is itself quite disturbing but this Kiura was a man of amiable ways who would happily offer my boyhood peers and I occasional rides on his UK-made Birmingham Small Arms (BSA) motorbike.

Well, a closer look at child naming in Africa reveals the existence of an elaborate—but now dying—science (or is it art?) of generating names. On the overall, it may seem that every name in Africa had some meaning tied to it.

Since Africa is a vast territory teeming with plentiful cultures, the better way of getting a good grip on the rationale behind the coinage of peoples’ names is to sample a few from the stable of prominent historical figures from around the continent.

Let’s start with South Africa’s iconic Nelson Mandela. His middle name, a tongue-twister to many, is Rolihlahla. In Xhosa, this name means ‘breaking of the branch’ and loosely, from a colloquial point of view, ‘troublemaker’. As for the Nelson bit, Mandela himself is on record confessing that he, in line with common practice back in the day, was assigned the name arbitrarily by his teacher Miss Mdingane on his first day at school.

The name Nelson stuck but it clearly did not erase the prophesied ‘trouble-making’ signature that got him incarcerated for 27 years for agitating for his motherlands’s right to self determination. The same spirit, in a twist of fortunes, paid off when it later catapulted Mandela to the first-ever black presidency of a free South Africa. So much for trouble-making!

Second, the late Haile Selassie of Ethiopia. Born Tafari Makonnen Woldemikael, this long-reigning Ethiopian Emperor is believed to be a royal dynasty in the order of the Biblical King Solomon and Queen Makeda. That link is via King Menelik II, a prominent progenitor in Haile Selassie’s acclaimed lineage. In his childhood, Haile Selassie was known as Lij Tafari Makonnen. Lij, in Amharic, denotes two stations. One, that of childhood and, two, that of blueblood status. As if that is not loaded enough, Tafari means ‘the feared one’ while Makonnen is a ‘harmless’ family name.

As for Haile Selassie, the hallowed meaning roughly translates as ‘the power of the trinity’ in tune with Ethiopia’s well known Christian Orthodoxy leanings. Haile Selassie passed on in 1975 while under house arrest but his remains were decently buried in Addis Ababa’s Trinity Cathedral a whole quarter of a decade later in the year 2000.

Third, is Congo’s late independence crusader and first but short-lived premier, Patrice Émery Lumumba. He was born Élias Okit’Asombo, which means ‘heir of the cursed’ in his Teleta mother tongue. Among the Asombo who share their domicile with the Teleta, Lumumba’s original name means ‘cursed or bewitched people who will die quickly’. A firebrand whose haranguing alarmed the Congo’s former colonist and beyond, Lumumba’s premiership was cut short through an assassination arranged by young man Joseph Désiré Mobutu, then chief of staff of the army and a former NCO in the old colonial Force Publique. Upon taking over power, Mobutu gradually attained the infamy of one of Africa’s most ruthless totalitarians.

Befitting Mobutu’s ignoble status and in the drunken stupor leaders like him get swallowed into, the man pasted upon himself the name, Mobutu Sese Seko Kuku Ngbendu wa Za Banga. This name means, ‘the all powerful warrior who because of endurance and will to win, will go from conquest to conquest, leaving fire in his wake.’ The name also loosely means the ‘head rooster with access to all the hens in the hen-house’ and to some locals, ‘the cock who jumps (on) all the chicks in the farmyard.’ The trail of plunder of public coffers and a host of other serial messes left behind by this inimitable cock of Congo is yet to be overcome two epochs on and almost one-and-a-half-decades after his death in exile back in 1997.

Fourth, is Ghana’s late Kwame Nkurumah, a founder member of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU—now African Union (AU)—and a leading pan-Africanist following in the footsteps of the 20th Century African-American civil rights luminary, W.E.B. Du Bois. In some quarters, Nkurumah was referred to as Osagyefo which means redeemer in Twi language. Traditionally, Kwame is both a Twi and Akan name assigned to a boy born on a Saturday. Meanwhile, the name Nkurumah which in 2011 was among top 1,000 boy names in the US denotes nine, meaning ninth-born.

This towering African redeemer-cum-ideologue seems to have taken intellectual pursuits a little beyond the fence. He reclined—Saturday-style—quite early in his rein apparently failing to sew a stitch in time to save the nine that eventually led to the overthrowing of his government in a military coup led by Emmanuel Kwasi Kotoka on Thursday 24 February 1966. In Asantehene, Kwasi means Sunday-born while Kotoka means porcupine.

Fifth and last for now, our very own Jomo Kenyatta, Kenya’s late founding father. A versatile man of several firsts, Jomo Kenyatta, initially known as Kamau wa Ngengi, seemed restless with his name at every significant turn in his life. To begin with, in terms of drabness, Kamau among the Agikuyu, is comparable to John in English. But Kenyatta seemed to sense early enough that he was cut for greater things in life just than carpentry and meter-reading. And so he transited from John Peter Kamau upon encountering enlightenment and Christianity for the first time.

Later, John Peter melted into Johnstone. And not too long afterwards, Johnstone was also overtaken by events to give way to Jomo Kenyatta, itself a nebulous-sounding name that nonetheless captures the station of African knighthood in both phonology and orthography. The Kenyatta tag, now synonymous to Kenya’s Independence, the story goes, derives from the beaded Maasai belt that Jomo loved wearing.

So, what’s the story behind your name?