Tuesday, June 15, 2021

The Influence Of Christianity And Colonialism On Personal Naming In Africa (Excerpt Of A 2003 Namibian Book)

Edited by Azizi Powell

This pancocojams post presents a brief excerpt of a 2003 book by Minna Saarelma-Maunumaa. That book is entitled Edhina Ekogidho – Names as Links: The Encounter between African and European Anthroponymic Systems among the Ambo People in Namibia.

Pancocojams visitors are encouraged to read this entire online book.  

The content of this post is presented for onomastic and cultural purposes.

All copyrights remain with their owners.

Thanks to Minna Saarelma-Maunumaa for this research on and writing about African names.
Minna Saarelma-Maunumaa wrote:
“Edhina ekogidho”, the title of this book, is a common saying among the Ambos in Namibia. The noun edhina means ‘name’ and ekogidho ‘joining, connecting permanently together’. Hence, this expression means that personal names serve as links between people; they connect people together.

This book on Ambo personal names, [...] is based on my Ph.D."...
The forward to this book also indicates that it is "
A digital edition of a printed book first published in 2003 by the Finnish Literature Society."


[Pancocojams' Editor's Note: The page number that is given at the end of each page refers to the content above that number.]

..."Chapter One: Personal Names And Cultural Change 


The Influence of Christianity and Colonialism on Personal Naming in Africa
European influence, and the influence of Christianity, started to change African cultures on a large scale when the colonisers and missionaries from various European countries settled in different parts of Africa in the 19th century.113 In little more than a hundred years, the number of  Christians in Africa increased to over 160 million, and this massive conversion corresponded with a rapid sociocultural change in African societies (Ikenga-Metuh 1987, p. 11). Beside Christianity, Islam also spread to Africa, particularly to the northern and western parts of the continent.114 It has been noted that religious movements tend to spread most quickly in times of rapid social change when people search for answers to new problems (Peil & Oyeneye 1998, p. 163–164), and this is how the “African conversion” has been explained too.115 Akinnaso (1983, p. 155) describes the sociocultural changes among the Yoruba people in Nigeria as follows:

Basic changes in kinship, economic, and political organization, in the modes of communication, in the diagnosis and treatment of diseases, and indeed in the entire social structure and “worldview” of the Yoruba are due largely to the spread of literacy, the concomitant diffusion of Western cultures and technologies, and the conversion of most Yoruba to Christianity or Islam. Though these processes began more than a century ago, their effects have never been so seriously felt as in the last three decades. Seriously affected are attitudes toward indigenous cultural traditions, especially toward traditional ritual performances.

When the Europeans came to the African continent, they were generally filled with the spirit of cultural and racial superiority, which encouraged them to condemn indigenous cultural practices. All over Africa, Christianity became identified with European culture, and conversion into this new religion typically meant abandoning the African identity. (Boahen 1990, p. 222, 336.) However, this did not lead to a total abandonment of traditional beliefs and practices. Among many other things, ancestor worship and polygyny continued to persist in many parts of Africa, even if they were usually opposed by the missionaries (Peil & Oyeneye 1998, p. 165). On the other hand, many African traditions were accepted by the missions (Hastings 1976, p. 38).

What happened to African personal naming in this process? Meeting with European naming systems and Christian name-giving practices led to exceptionally rapid and thoroughgoing changes in African naming systems. Together with many other African cultural practices, indigenous names were often condemned by the Europeans. To become a Christian usually meant that one had to be baptised and assume a new name (Boahen 2

[page 57] 

1990, p. 336). It has been pointed out that this was done not only because African names were regarded as “pagan”, but also because of the missionaries’ ignorance of indigenous names. As foreigners, they often had serious difficulties trying to pronounce African names.116 Hence, meaningful African names were replaced by European and biblical names such as George, Peter and Esther, which had no meaning to their bearers. (Mtuze 1994, p. 95.) It was also a new custom for many Africans to choose names from a limited stock, e.g. the Bible, and this struck at the core of traditional name-giving (Dickens 1985, p. 68). 

The adoption of European culture, including European names, was regarded as “an outward sign of the inward transformation from the ‘pagan’ to the Christian state” (Ayandele 1979, p. 243). Gradually, European and biblical names also became fashionable, and often non-Christians adopted them as well (Beidelman 1974, p. 291; Ndoma 1977, p. 90). As Moyo (1996, p. 13) puts it, “it was considered old-fashioned and educationally unprogressive to have an African name only”. Altogether, it seems that foreign names were adopted eagerly by many colonised Africans in the late 19th and early 20th centuries: To have a new and foreign name ... was a sign of changes from primitive to modern world. And the new and foreign name signified this process. This attitude was implanted into people’s mind to the extent that even the people (Africans) themselves were not willing to be baptized into the new religions without having new and foreign names accompanied by the act of conversion. (Omari 1970, p. 68–69.)117

In general, the Protestants in Africa favoured biblical names, whereas the Catholics named their children after saints.118 Specifically Catholic names are for example Cosmos, Ignatius and Pius for men, and Agnes, Francisca and Monica for women (Dickens 1985, p. 63; Ekpo 1978, p. 280).119 The popularity of biblical names among African Christians is not surprising, considering that the Bible is the most widely translated and read book in tropical Africa (Mugambi 1995, p. 142). The vogue for naming children after biblical characters may also be due to the traditional belief that children will adopt the good qualities of the persons they are named after (Mohome 1972, p. 173).

Many Africans were also named after European missionaries and immigrants. This led to the adoption of ordinary European names such as Albert or Alice. Many names adopted by the Africans during the colonial period also referred to various aspects of Western civilisation, e.g. Businessman, Caesar, Doctor, Napoleon, Philadelphia and Shakespeare. (Dickens 1985, p. 71–75, 87–89, 92.)120 European influence was notable in indigenous names as well, as these examples from Rwanda show: MubirigiBelgian’, Ngomanzungu ‘European government’, and Kadage ‘little German’ (Kimenyi 1989, p. 45). Sometimes African names were made to resemble European ones in spelling too. For example, the Ibibio name ´Ndi ‘I am coming’ has been anglicised as Andy, Àmá has become Amah and Àkàn Akanson. (Essien 1986, p. 75–76.)

[page 58]

In Africa, European and biblical names also have domesticated forms, as they were adapted phonologically to the local languages. Among the Kaguru people, Moses has thus become Musa, Noah Nuhu and Pius Pusi (Beidelman 1974, p. 291), and the Zulus have made Albert Alibheti and Alfred Alufuledi (Dickens 1985, p. 75). A Naro child named after Dr. Guenther in Botswana became Ganda (Visser & Visser 1998, p. 230). Sometimes the original name is very difficult to trace. Among the Bakongo people, the Portuguese name Dom Fransisco has become Ndofula, Dom Sebastiao Ndombasi and Eduardo Ndualu (Ndoma 1977, p. 93–94). In Rwanda, Père Blanc ‘white father’, which refers to the early missionaries of that area, became Terebura and Père Busch ‘father Busch’ Terebushi (Kimenyi 1989, p. 44). Even if foreign names usually have Africanised forms, the foreign form of the name was often retained when the person wanted to stress his or her religious affiliation (Ryan 1981, p. 162) or impress outsiders with a sophisticated name (Beidelman 1974, p. 291). Educated Africans have thus favoured names such as Joseph Pythagoras (Ayandele 1979, p. 257).

Some Christian missions, however, encouraged the use of indigenous African names with Christian meanings since the very beginning of their missionary activities in Africa (Omari 1970, p. 69). This is the case with the Leipzig Mission (die Leipziger Mission), for example, which started to work among the Chagga people in Tanzania in 1893. African names became popular in that region. Of the 4,070 people baptised in the Mamba congregation during the years 1898–1929, more than half (2,402) received African names, the first one of them being bestowed in 1899. These names were typically new formations which reflected Christian beliefs, e.g. Ndeamtso ‘I am awaken’ or Ndeenengomoo ‘I was given life’. (Fritze 1930, p. 3, 23, 26, 42–43.)121 In traditional African societies, names including the element ‘God’ were quite common in pre-colonial times, but after the advent of Christianity they became even more popular in many places (Mbiti 1991, p. 94). For example, names such as Nsengimana ‘I pray to God’ and Nduwimana ‘I belong to God’ became common in Rwanda and Burundi when people embraced Christianity, together with clearly Christian names such as Mujawayezu ‘the servant of Jesus’ (Kimenyi 1989, p. 47–48). 

Also in South Africa, Bishop Colenso suggested African names for Zulu converts in the mid-19th century (Dickens 1985, p. 69), and many more examples can be found. Usually these early missionaries were willing to accept indigenous names provided that they had no heathenish connotations (Ayandele 1979, p. 244; Lehmann 1969, p. 180). However, as European names were generally considered modern and fashionable by the colonised Africans, the idea of African baptismal names did not usually appeal to the converts. A good example of this can be found in Nigeria, where the decision of the Anglican Mission (Church Missionary Society) in 1883 to favour African names for converts created a sensation. Some families left the Anglican community when the local pastor refused to baptise children with other than African names, and many threw off these African names immediately after the baptism. 

[page 59]

Some Nigerian Christians also worried that African baptismal names would make them lose their new-won prestige among the “pagans”. The missionaries also had different opinions on the matter. Some of them defended foreign names because they could protect the converts from being enslaved, and because they created national unity among Christians coming from different tribes. (Ayandele 1979, p. 244.) The general idea among the missionaries seems to have been that an African could not be a Christian without a European “Christian” name. Therefore, the priests typically insisted on the use of biblical or saints’ names at baptism. (Dickens 1985, p. 69, 120.) 

Many Africans who did not convert to Christianity received European names at school or from their employers. Often the name was chosen without any consultation with the person in question. (Herbert 1996, p. 1224.) Thus, Africans were given names such as Jim, Joe, Brandy Bottle, September, Tin-can and Jackets – almost any name coming to mind seems to have been suitable (Kidd 1906, p. 36).122

All over Africa, the adoption of European names has led to the use of indigenous names at home and in traditional contexts, and European names in official contexts such as school, church, the workplace, government offices and mission hospitals. The distinction between European and African names thus reflects the distinction between the public and private sectors in the individual’s life. (Herbert 1999a, p. 223; Moyo 1996, p. 13; Neethling 1995, p. 958.) Amin (1993, p. 38) describes this phenomenon in Ghana:

Thus here we have a pupil who was obviously given a “Christian” name by the church, and his father’s name was added on as a surname to fit the school requirements. He then bore the combined names of “Patrick Owusu Benefo” only one of which was recognized in his home environment! The other are school or church imposed names, which made him lose his own identity in the bizarre environment of the school and the church. At the western dominated school and church he had one set of names, while in his own cultural and traditional setting, he had a completely different set of names.

Many urbanised and educated Africans also chose to give exclusively European names to their children.123 This practice was common after the Second World War and before the advent of the African nationalist movements in the late 1950s. (Herbert 1999a, p. 223–224; Kimenyi 1989, p. 48.)

All in all, it seems that there are big differences in Africa with regard to the depth of the influence of Christianity and Europeanisation on personal naming. Okere (1996a, p. 141) has characterised the influence of Christianity on Igbo personal names as follows:

In fact, the only noticeable impact of Christianity on names is the systematic imposition of the names of foreign saints at baptism. But the baptismal name was always an additional name, coming some time later, at times years after the naming ceremony. Moreover, this ceremony was an out-of-church affair of the extended family, well beyond the influence of the missionary church. 

[page 60]

The Revival of African Names and the Adoption of Surnames

The revival of African names is a trend which has characterised personal naming all over Africa especially since the 1960s, following the advent of African nationalist movements. In this process, European names have increasingly lost favour, and churches have come to accept African baptismal names as well.124 (Herbert 1999a, p. 224.) However, there are also much earlier examples of this phenomenon in Africa. In Nigeria, the cultural nationalists achieved their first successes at the end of the 19th century, and some educated Africans assumed African names at that time.

One of the leading figures in the nationalist movement, for example, changed his name Joseph Pythagoras Haastrup to Ademuyiwa Haastrup. (Ayandele 1979, p. 256–258.) Ayandele (1979, p. 258) has noted some of the reasons behind this phenomenon:

Most of those who cast off alien names did so because these names reminded them of the days of slavery when their fathers were given the names, a history they wanted to forget. Others did so because alien names separated them in feeling from their own countrymen, encouraging to make them ‘strangers in our own country’. The most important factor that made them decide to assume African names was that they saw themselves bearing meaningless names in a society that attached a great deal of importance to names.

Despite these early name changes, European names became increasingly popular in Nigeria at the beginning of the 20th century, and it was only in the 1940s that there was a tendency to use African names again (Wieschhoff 1941, p. 221–222). In Tanzania, where the cultural renaissance took place much later, mainly in the 1960s and 1970s, the reasons for name changes seem to have been more or less similar. African names were adopted to get rid of “one aspect of colonial mentality and heritage” and to show other people that the name-bearers were true Tanzanians or Africans. (Omari 1970, p. 69.) It has also been pointed out that African names could become popular again because they were no longer attached to traditional beliefs (Koopman 1987b, p. 156).

In some newly independent African countries, indigenous names were even made compulsory by their African leaders. Probably the most striking example comes from Zaïre, where President Mobutu Sese Seko insisted on the Africanisation of personal names and threatened to prosecute Catholic priests who refused to baptise people with African names in 1972. As a result, millions of Africans in Zaïre abandoned their baptismal names.125 (Gregersen 1977, p. 163; Hastings 1976, p. 37.)

Even if African names were adopted eagerly in many places, this did not mean that people necessarily returned completely to their traditional naming patterns. Many European elements were retained and new ones adopted into African naming systems. In particular, European-type surnames became common all over Africa.126 Just as in Medieval Europe, the adoption of surnames in African societies was due to the demands of

[page 61]

administration, i.e. colonial bureaucracy (De Klerk & Bosch 1995, p. 71; Herbert 1997, p. 4). In different parts of Africa, different kinds of traditional names were used for this purpose. Sometimes customs vary within one ethnic group as well. Of the Kaguru people, for example, some use their father’s personal name as a surname, some use their welekwa (paternal kin) name, some have their African personal name as a surname and a European name as a first name (Beidelman 1974, p. 291–292).127 Many groups in Africa also use clan names as surnames.  This is the case with the Zulus, for example (Koopman 1986, p. 54–55). Xhosa surnames, on the other hand, seem to have four main sources: ancestors’ names, names referring to places, names referring to occupations, and nicknames. (Neethling 1996, p. 33–36). Herbert (1997, p. 5) lists clan names, praise names, patronyms, eponyms, place names and colonial surnames as possible sources for the surnames of Africans.128 Elsewhere he also makes a distinction between cases in which the surname system was based on an indigenous system of “second names” and those in which it was created ex nihilo (Herbert 1996, p. 1223).

Among the Hereros, the name of the father or an illustrious ancestor serves as a surname (Otto 1985, p. 126, 131). This is a general practice in many other African cultures as well (Madubuike 1976, p. 16). In Nigeria, the father’s name was adopted as a surname, even if traditionally the name of the father was held so sacred that younger people could not mention it, not even after his death (Ayandele 1979, p. 259). Women in Nigeria also started to abandon their maiden names and adopt the husband’s name after marriage, which is contrary to the local traditions (Essien 1986, p. 83). The same has happened in many other countries. 

The surname system has often been considered alien to African cultures, and it has also been criticised strongly (e.g. Kimenyi 1989, p. 48). On the other hand, surnames, and especially those based on ancestors’ names, have preserved many traditional African names for coming generations (Hallgren 1988, p. 159). Ayandele argues that the people who adopted the surname system in Nigeria actually made a cultural synthesis which includes both African and European elements. His analysis could well be applied to other peoples in Africa:

They retained parts of indigenous culture that were deemed valuable and borrowed judiciously from the European civilization they so much execrated. Realizing that complete cultural independence was impossible, they evolved a new synthesis which was neither reactionary traditionalism nor European imitative but sufficiently African in appearance to satisfy their race-pride and sentiment. Moreover their new synthesis was a product of their own interest. Adoption of surnames was compatible with British law of property and inheritance in the Lagos colony which they had accepted without questioning. It fitted in well with the individualism towards which each Christian family was groping – the idea of a man, his wife and children in place of the extended family. (Ayandele 1979, p. 259.)

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Contemporary Trends in African Name-Giving

As we have seen, some traditional naming customs have survived in Africa, some have disappeared, and some have new forms.129 All over Africa, the contact between European and African naming systems has resulted in a dynamic synthesis, and this process is still going on and creating new forms. Let us look at this development from a systematic viewpoint.

Dickens (1985, p. 4; see also Herbert 1996, p. 1224) has divided the development of the Zulu anthroponymic system into four stages, which may well be applied to other African naming systems, even if the dates given below obviously differ in different systems. Roughly speaking, the first stage is characterised by traditional naming and name uniqueness, the second by the popularity of biblical names, the third by the increased use of other European names, and the fourth by the revival of African names:

1. The period before the arrival of the White man (pre-1840)

2. The period of intensive missionary activity (1840–1899)

3. The period of increased Westernization (influence of education,
    industrialization, urbanization, etc.) (1900–1949)

4. The period of “Black Consciousness” (1950–1982)

As Dickens wrote her thesis in 1985, her presentation naturally ends in the 1980s. Because of this, a fifth stage needs to be added to her list: the post-apartheid period in South Africa, which started in 1994. Herbert (1999a, p. 223–224) looks at the same development from a structural viewpoint. According to him, the development from a system of a single name to that of two given names in anglophone southern Africa, i.e. in Botswana, Lesotho, South Africa, Swaziland and Zimbabwe, has gone through four stages:

1. AN African name (often unique)

2. AN + EN African name + English name

3. (EN + EN)130 English name + English name

4. AN + AN African name + African name

In southern Africa, the rejection of English names has been stronger among urban residents in recent years, whereas the rural population more typically maintains the pattern of bearing both African and English names. Herbert (1999a, p. 224) also rightly points out that the last stage (4.) does not mean returning to the traditional naming pattern, even if its elements are completely African. Even if colonial names are today rejected, the Western pattern of two given names and a surname is retained.

South African onomasticians have also found other interesting trends in urban name-giving. Firstly, there is a clear shift from negative to positive naming in indigenous names, which means that traditional names which include negative social comments are disappearing, whereas names

[page 63]

reflecting positive emotions have become more popular.131 Secondly, there is a decrease in name uniqueness, as names are more often chosen from a repertoire of fashionable African names.132 Many popular names are also related to Christian beliefs. Hence, names such as uBongani ‘thanks’, uLindiwe ‘awaited’, uSibusiswe ‘blessed’, uSipho ‘gift’ and uThembani ‘hope’ have become common among urban Zulus. These changes have been explained by the nuclearisation of the family in the urban context and the important role of the church in the social life of many people. (Suzman 1994, p. 266–268, 270.) In a study of six ethnic groups in southern Africa (Northern Sotho, Swati, Tsonga, Tswana, Venda, Zulu) it was noted that the dominant name type in urban centres was that type which was linked to Christianity by a praise, thanks or some other message (Herbert 1996, p. 1226).

There are also signs of the weakening of ethnic boundaries in personal naming: a Zulu child may receive a Sotho name, for example (Suzman 1994, p. 270). It seems that more and more people also choose names which they find pleasant-sounding, which is a new phenomenon in African personal naming (De Klerk & Bosch 1995, p. 79; 1996, p. 185). Clearly, the changes in South African name-giving are rapid, and Suzman (1994, p. 271) states that in a generation, traditional naming practices among different cultural groups may even become insignificant. It is reasonable to suggest that similar developments do and will characterise name-giving in other African societies, which are experiencing rapid urbanisation as well, even if they have not been researched as systematically as those in the South(ern) African context. 

All in all, it seems that African personal naming has come to resemble modern European naming in many respects, despite the fact that the names themselves are increasingly African. On the other hand, the criterion of name meaningfulness continues to distinguish these two systems (Herbert & Bogatsu 1990, p. 14), even if there are also signs that the importance attached to the lexical meaning of the name is decreasing. "...
This is the e
nd of Chapter 1, except for Notes]

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