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Real deal: Shona English names that the English never use

We adopted their language and their religion, as well as their names, foods, clothing and sporting, to mention but a few examples.


The Shona people of Zimbabwe are somewhat peculiar, especially when it comes to their adoption of English words, which are not names, for use as names.

When the British colonised our part of the African continent they bequeathed on us several of their cultural practices.

We adopted their language and their religion, as well as their names, foods, clothing and sporting, to mention but a few examples.

In our rush to be fully Anglicised we hastily abandoned our own traditional norms, names, for instance.

Out went our beautiful Shona names, such as Chipo (Gift), Rudo (Love), Tatenda (We are grateful), Tafara (We are delighted), Chiedza (Light), Rufaro (Happiness), Tanaka (We are fine), Dambudzo (Challenge), Takudzwa (We have been praised/honoured), Munyaradzai (The pacifier), Zvikomborero (Blessings), Tafadzwa (We are pleased).

A host of other wonderful names that our ancestors routinely gave to their children at the time when Cecil John Rhodes arrived at Fort Harare with his Pioneer Column, and missionaries before them, fell out of favour.

A common feature of our Shona names was that many had meaning.

In some cases the names were associated with the significant events of the time.

As the indigenous population were converted to Christianity there was a scramble to adopt English or Christian names, a process which had started earlier on with the arrival of the missionaries, such as Robert Moffat and Knight Bruce.

Over the next century there was a tendency towards gradual abandonment of indigenous names in favour of English names.

In due course , virtually every Shona person became John, Jane, James. Bernard, David, Susan, Catherine, along with hundreds of such other names.

So popular did English names become that overzealous parents, were not content with allocating their offspring with just one name.

Many laboured under double names such as Mary Jane, Kerry Anne, Robert Gabriel, Morgan Richard, and others.

By the 1960s and 1970s English names now badly outnumbered their own Shona names among the indigenous people.

This was an era of strange nomenclature.

The Shona went on an all-out campaign to outdo the English.

Not only did they give English names to their children; but they also randomly picked on English words, simple or verbose, and transformed them into appropriate names for themselves and their children.

Thousands of Shona people are now the proud owners of such names, some of them quite strange, hilarious or even outlandish.

Such English names have become exclusively Shona.

The English are taken by complete surprise or are reduced to fits of laughter on hearing of them.

In his first published title, When Freedom Came, NAMA award-winning author, Benjamin Sibangani Sibanda, calls his leading character Godknows Kuzvida.

This first name is, of course, a cause of much amusement, if not confusion and consternation among the English when he relocates to their country in quest of a higher education in the years before independence.

For instance, a London Bobby is hardly amused when Godknows insists that his name is, of course, Godknows.

It is now common cause that parents will give such English names to their children as an expression of their own personal aspirations or expectations about the future of their offspring.

In that category are names such as Blessing, Clever, Progress, Capable, Goodson (for good son, no doubt), Moreblessings, Advocate, Psychology and Warship.

Some names have religious connotations, Praise, Worship, Prayer, Passion and Ebenezer being good examples.

I spent  three of my years in primary school with one particularly jovial fellow.

While his parents optimistically named him Clever, he consistently and defiantly lingered somewhere at the bottom of the class in the end-of-term examinations.

Meanwhile, we had in the same class a certain Bright who was exceedingly brilliant, no doubt to the delight of his prophetic parents.

Bonus and Christmas are popular and exultant names usually given to children born around the months of November and December, respectively.

I would recommend the names Unite or Unity for the offspring born all year round to members of the MDC-T or the MDCA for the benefit of the opposition community.

But it appears that these two are genuine English names used by English people themselves.

Unite is said to be an uncommon name given to females.

It is a girls’ name of Middle English origin. Unite means “oneness” and is an alternate spelling of Unity.

The more reason why I will recommend these two names for use by all MDCs.

Quite often, just as is the practice in general with Shona names, some of the weird English names are intended as comment on events, particularly those pertaining to the circumstances of relatives, fellow villagers or even family members, especially spouses or in-laws.

A fine example is the name Oneday.

While this is a name of limited usage or application, it is intended as a warning issued to a relative that scores will be settled some day.

Jealousy is a common name. It appears to be used even without negative inference.

Other names that are intended as comment on passing events are Accused, Hardlife, Tragedy, Happy and Shame.

Talking of reward brings to mind the name of Reward Kangai, former boss of NetOne. He shares his name with many other Zimbabweans, including journalist Reward Mushayabasa.

I assume that their arrival in the world was regarded as a reward by the delighted parents.

Some of the strangest of English names given to the offspring of the Shona which the English themselves will never dream of using, include names such as Takemore, Trymore, Moregood, Evermore, Passmore or Talkmore,

While the intended meaning of some of the exclusively Shona English names is quite easy to figure out, there are a number which defied my intelligence.

For example, I failed dismally to fathom the intended meaning of the name Takesure, especially as one word.

Our former Chronicle Midlands bureau chief was the now late Takesure Matarise.

Then there was Moregood, which was the name of my late cousin.

My uncle and aunt, both of them now also deceased, never explained exactly what they had in mind or what prompted their decision to call their only child Moregood.

While it is not too common a name, Learnmore is clearly an understandable exhortation to a child going to school.

One outstanding case was that of Learnmore Jongwe, the eloquent spokesman of the party at the time when the MDC was still one happy entity. I have never encountered this name again ever since Jongwe allegedly committed suicide while in prison.

The independence of Zimbabwe was attained on 18 April 1980.

I wonder how many 41-year old Zimbabweans have laboured under such significant tag since then.

While I have never come across an English person of that name, Gift, a popular and common name among the Shona, is a gender-neutral name of English origin.

As a result I have tended to associate the name with the Shona, just like its Shona counterpart, Chipo, also gender-neutral.

Both Gift and Chipo are among the most popular of our Shona names.

I once remonstrated with a female relative who gave the name Finance to her daughter.

I suggested to her that I could be of valuable assistance in finding a more user-friendly alternative.

“Not until your cousin approaches the issue of fending for his family with a greater sense of responsibility,” she said, while effectively silencing me.

Incidentally, in a category of names that were quite common, especially back in the Rhodesian era, were Teaspoon, Teapot, Tickey and Sixpence.

Strangely these names were never adopted by the indigenous Shona inhabitants themselves, being common on the farms among immigrants of Malawian origin.

The tickey and the sixpence were English coins at a time when Rhodesia used the currency of its colonial masters.

I find the logic behind some names mystifying or illogical.

They include Corridor. But perhaps there were early visions of the child walking along the corridors of power in his adulthood.

Then there is the very romantic Lovejoy – perhaps a compression of love and joy in the early stages of a marriage.

Other such names include Accident, Accused, Success, Handsome, Medicine, Danger, Major, Answer, Kingdom, Champion, Pension and, you have to believe this, Loveletter.

And, just when you think you have heard them all, along comes Killer.

Persistence is not quite that common but in the few cases applying it could perhaps be subtle comment on the persistence of the effort on the part of one spouse to win the hand of the other.

What I fail to understand is why the English people don’t borrow such wonderful names back from the Shona for adoption in their own similar matrimonial circumstances.

Could the name Privilege be a cunning suggestion that the mother is privileged to have a baby of such paternity?

With regard to the influence that the name of a child is likely to have on his future, I listened with interest as a retired headmaster confessed during a public address early this week.

“In my many years as school head,” he said, “I never enrolled any boy with the name Doubt.

If the parents didn’t have faith or hope in their own child, why should I?”

  • Geoffrey Nyarota is the winner of the Golden Pen of Freedom, (World Association of Newspapers, 2002), The Guillermo Cano Press Freedom Award, (Unesco, 2002) the Percy Qoboza Foreign Journalist Award, (National Association of Black Journalists, Atlanta, 1990 and 2003) and five other international journalism awards.)

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