Saturday, August 15, 2009

Does a Rose by a more African name still sound as sweet?

“The last time I was here,” mused Leslie in her mellifluous Canadian accent, they gave me an African name – Sibongile” We were at the Swazi border, and she was having a nostalgic moment, musing on her carefree days as a backpacker.
I backpacked with the best of them, and I was every bit the young idealist too, so imagine my surprise when I found myself blurting out that I was deeply suspicious of anyone who gave me an African name. The reason for this is that the last person to give me an African name was continuously hitting me up for loans and donations that were never repaid.
The African name issue came up again during our stay in Swaziland, when other non-Africans began pestering Bonang to give them African names. “I have to think about it,” she said.
By now I’d been painted as the contrarian non-Africanist, so I just blundered on. “If a oke’s name is Thembinkosi, and you decide to call him Jacob, is that cool?”
What about those unreconstructed old-school colonialists who, when introduced to a Mogadi, a Manqoba or – god forbid – a Mfanufikile, sniff, “I’ll just call you Manny”.
Surely we’re agreed that it’s not cool for Anglo-Saxons to impose an English name on an African person? So why should it be acceptable the other way around?
As a white person, even if one’s forefathers may not have been angels, you still stem from an ancient cultural lineage, and your name is proof of that. The most basic respect someone of another culture can pay you, should be to respect your name, for that is the mark of your ancestors.
I tried stirring up this debate with Baby, my marvelous black wife, but she wasn’t having it. “It’s not the same, and you know it,” she said. For her, the bestowing of an African name on a non-African is a compliment, a sign that this person is one of us, they think the way we do.
And besides, she went on, even Africans are constantly being given new names, a new one every time they enter a new stage of life.
So I’ve had a good think about it, and perhaps she’s right. Perhaps being given an African name is not a rejection of one’s heritage in the same way as a Western name sometimes is.
But what if I took that thing seriously? What if I decided that being named Thandisizwe actually suited me rather well and began using that in my tender applications. Would Thando Engler get more business than he deserves? Would that be a form of fronting?
Either way, I do know that I am an African, born and raised and deeply proud of the land of my birth. As proud as I am of my European ancestry. So naming conventions shouldn’t be a cause for cultural warfare.
Perhaps we can accommodate each other’s cultures. On page one of my ID book. How does Hagen Rolf Thandisizwe Engler sound to you?

No comments: