Two weeks ago I attended a baby shower, and last week, the beautiful girl was born. This is not a rare occurrence in Swaziland, in fact childbirth seems to be a very popular activity here. However, I was very excited about this baby as Xolile, the child’s mother and my friend, planned to name it Isabella. When it came to signing the birth certificate, however, each of the three grandmothers were adamant that their preferred name be included. So it has now become that I am a pseudo-Aunty* to Kaitlyn Rhianna Melokuhle Rosatela, nicknamed Isabella by her mother, and Naomi by her Aunty. I fear the child will grow up very confused.
This story, however, really got me thinking about nuances of naming. Given the struggles that whiteys have with the siSwati language, generally, it is no surprise that siSwati names are often the struggle of volunteers and tourists countrywide.
Fortunately, a number of the locals have adopted beautiful, wholesome, and slightly humorous Christian names, like “Goodness”, “Happiness”, “Rejoice”, “Welcome”, “Sympathy” and “Eucharist”. Then you have the common siSwati equivalents: Jabula (Happiness), Zinhle (Beautiful), Sipho (Gift), and Bongani (Thankful).
However, there is also a very large proportion of the population that seems to have been named using a logical, but somewhat unfortunate, system. Take for instance, “Nomvula”, which means rain because the Nomvula I know was born when it was raining. Then there’s “Sogue”, which I was told means grasshoppers, because there was a plague at the hospital when the Sogue I know was born. Imagine the bullying little Grasshopper would have got at school. Finally, there’s my favourite “Tanele”, which means enough, as she was the fifth girl and her father had had enough (but then went on to have another daughter). Way to make a girl feel wanted.
At least the comical value in these names makes them easy to remember. When I get introduced to a room full of people called Xolile, Cebile, Welile, Fikile, Phelile, and Phindile, my head physically hurts. There are also a plethora of tongue twisters like “Nhlanhla”, meaning luck, which uses an impossible mix of consonants sandwiched together, and last week I met an extremely lovely lady called Sphiliswayinkhosi. Try saying that 10 times fast.
The fantastic naming doesn’t just end with people, though. “Mahlanya”, the suburb down the road from my work, literally means the place of the crazy people. I can’t help but get philosophical at the prospect of God offering redemption to the chickens on death row at “The Power of Prayer Butchery”. As I drive around Lobamba, I am sure to give plenty of room to the learners at “Mercy of God Driving School”. Finally, as I wait for my bus in the crowded, hot and dusty Manzini Bus Rank, I become quickly appreciative of the “Siyabonga (We are thankful) Bottle Store”.
Yet, as I continue on my hopeless path of siSwati learning, there are the occasional lightbulbs that give sense to the names around me. I recently learnt that the name for chicken, inkhukhu, is based on the noise the chicken makes. Similarly, inkhomo, replicates the noise of the cow hooves and their mooing.
I guess, when it boils down to it, names are nothing more than a bunch of letters. As the saying goes, from our ancestors come our names, but from our virtues our honours. As a good Aunty, I’ll be sure to explain that to Kaitlyn Rhianna Melokuhle (Isabella Naomi) Rosatela on her first day at school.
*On a very happy note, I have also recently become a real Aunty to Mr Charley Harlem Bailey, born on 5 June to my sister Rachel and her partner, Peter. Yay!