Such Peculiar Names - the Significance of Naming in Zambia

By Tembo, Mwizenge S. | The World and I, May 2002 | Go to article overview

Such Peculiar Names - the Significance of Naming in Zambia


Tembo, Mwizenge S., The World and I


What if you heard about or actually knew someone whose real first name was Because, Clever, Shame, Financial, or Trouble? You would probably conclude that these are nicknames, imposed somehow on unwilling individuals. Or perhaps the names were chosen by people who did not know English and were therefore ignorant of the words' true meanings. You might even be tempted to think that they were imposed by callous parents who wanted their children to be easy targets for teasing on school playgrounds. All these assumptions would be wrong.

Such unusual, strange, or outright funny first names are willingly chosen, cherished, and celebrated among most people of the southern African country of Zambia. Why do Zambians accept these names? This is one of the many consequences of social change both in Zambia and Africa as a whole.

I was first inspired to research this issue some twenty years ago. At the time I lived in Lusaka, the capital of my native Zambia. I was reading the Sunday Times when my wife drew my attention to the fact that some of the names in the paper were interesting, absurd, or downright hilarious. These were names of ordinary citizens but also those of magistrates and national leaders.

Zambians often joked about some of these names and speculated about their origins. One prominent leader at the time was known as Bwembya Lukutati. The speculation was that this man's surname may have meant he had been "looked at" a lot when he was growing up. One cabinet minister was named Steak Mwale, which was spelled "Siteke" Mwale. Such names as Fork and Cabbage (pronounced as "foloko" and "kabici," respectively) were common among the Lamba people working in the urban areas of Zambia's Copperbelt.

Other people are named for cities or famous ancestors. For example, Fines Bulawayo was a member of the ruling Central Committee of the then United National Independence Party (UNIP). Bulawayo is a city in the neighboring country of Zimbabwe. Paul Lusaka, another Zambian national leader, was a descendant of the original Chief Lusakas. He gave his name to a Zambian village that was located at the site of the present national capital in the early 1920s, during the British colonial period in Zambia.

One story has it that a Western diplomat was calling UNIP headquarters in Lusaka from New York. The phone rang a couple of times, and Paul Lusaka picked it up. The conversation is reported to have gone like this:

"Hello!" said Lusaka. "Who is calling, please?"

"I am calling from New York. May I speak to Bulawayo, please?" asked the caller.

"This is Lusaka," replied Lusaka. "I am sorry. Bulawayo is in Zimbabwe."

I have often wondered whether other groups have similar naming traditions. More important, what motivates Zambians to choose such peculiar names?

Choice of names

Zambians generally have wide latitude and freedom in selecting their first names. Although the majority of ethnic or language groups have relatively permanent and distinctive last, family, or clan names, the first names can be chosen in any way and at any time. There are some patterns, however, as to when they can be chosen or changed. I investigated these customs when I conducted field research among the Tumbuka, Chewa, Ngoni, Nsenga, and Tonga peoples of Zambia's Eastern and Southern Provinces.

When a baby is born, the mother stays in seclusion with it for about a week. On the designated day, after the umbilical cord has fallen off, the mother and baby emerge from the house. The name given to the child at this time is known as zina la pamdotho among the Tumbuka and zina la bamkombo among the Chewa, Nsenga, and Ngoni peoples. These phrases mean "name of the umbilical cord," and this name is especially significant as a symbol of intimacy within families.

The person who is to name the baby must first offer a chicken to the mother. …

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