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Categories: Northern Tales | Heather Chalcraft

Zambian Names

From Great North Road

By Heather Chalcraft.
April 22nd, 2003


Here are two articles which I have published (one in October 2001 and the other in January 2002) on names.


The Game of the Name
By David Simpson


"I was just passing through and wanted to contact a Zambian, any Zambian. Flipping through the phonebook, I came upon Sakala. I phoned the guy, only to find he was from the Middle East some place." This is a situation that Zambians abroad frequently experience. The phone book is full of names, but it is not always a reliable guide to the person behind the name. Similarly a Finnish visitor to Zambia a few years ago was astonished to find he had several namesakes here. His name was also Sakala. I am sure readers will be interested to learn that Kunda is the 50,907th most popular surname in the United States; its frequency is 0.000%, and its percentile is 86.069 [Source CBN].

But the Zambian abroad who phones Mr Kunda may well find he is actually from Slovakia, where it is also a popular name. There are many common Zambian names which crop up in other parts of the world, and many are the Zambians who have received bewildered responses to their phone calls.

In West Virginia (USA) a Zambian checking the phone book for hotels found a Holiday Inn that was managed by a Mr Robert Moonga. But he turned out to be an Indian.

Zambian names which have simple sequences of consonants and vowels are the ones which are most frequently found elsewhere.

For example Luo is Chinese, Chiti is an Italian surname and so are Zaza and Mutolo (which is Mozambican rather than Zambian, and is even less popular in the USA than Kunda). Sata is to be found in Hungary, and also Scandinavia and Japan, while Pule, which occurs in Malta and Cameroon, is also a South Pacific name found in Tonga and New Zealand.

People with the surname Chanda may be Zambians, or they may be among those whose origins have been traced to the Czech capital of Prague. Manda, Mando and Sandala are all Slovakian names, while Daka is to be found in Hungary. Miss Chona may actually come from the Philippines. On the other hand, some popular Zambian names may occur in West Africa. Chima is Nigerian and Mawere is Ghanaian.

Names which have more complex combinations of consonants are less likely to be found outside Africa. Such combinations as an initial "Mb-" or "Mw-" are typically Eastern or Southern African.

It may be amusing when UPND national chairman Henry Mtonga visits his home province in the East and is mistaken for a Tonga because of his surname. But it has serious implications too, since that party has sometimes been accused of being tribal.

There are other situations in which one's surname may cause one inconvenience. Travellers may find immigration officers making unjustified assumptions about your nationality on the basis of the name in your passport, if your appearance differs from their idea of what a person of that name should look like. In Zambia today there have been cases of people who have fallen under suspicion simply on the basis of their names. If you want to inconvenience or remove an opponent, it is sometimes all too easy to claim he or she is not a Zambian.

South African Human Rights Commission representative Jody Kollapen says the commission is handling many cases of unjustified discrimination. "An alarming number of people get arrested due to arbitrary criteria -- skin pigmentation, accent or surname," she says. "If your surname is Banda, police assume you are Malawian. That's problematic."

And a Lusaka Zambian whose name resembles an Indian surname complained on ZNBC TV recently that she had been denied a bursary because the authorities thought she was Indian. The same problem had affected her when she applied for a job. Another Zambian, the adopted daughter of another Zambian who is of English origin, recently had problems applying for a national registration card. The registration officer insisted on a Zambian name. The problem has been compounded by the fact that the girl now has a child whose father isunknown. All very well but the unofficial name could cause many problems later in life.

But the most alarming manifestation of this problem has been seen following the 11 September terrorist attack on the USA. People in the USA with Arabic-sounding names have been unjustly targeted for telephone abuse and even physical attacks. This is even though they may have been born in the USA and have been citizens of that country for many years. It reminds one of the Hitler years when people with Jewish names were singled out and attacked.

So examples abound. They may sometimes be amusing, and sometimes deadly serious, but the important lesson we have to learn from them is that we should not judge a person on the basis of external evidence alone. People are people, and names are merely convenient tags to help us distinguish one from another. We should do what we can to prevent them being taken in vain.




Names are Much More Than Identity Tags
By Flexon M. Mizinga


It was interesting to read David Simpson’s article "The Game of the Name" in the October issue of the Lowdown. I agree with him that some of the names we think are typically Zambian are also found elsewhere. Until recently I had always thought my name Mizinga, which means constant falls, was only found among the Tonga of southern Zambia. When I inquired why my father was given this name I was told that he constantly fell when he was learning to walk. There is a similar name, Cizinga, among the Chewa people of eastern Zambia, which means gun. Last November I visited Fort Jesus in Mombassa, Kenya where I learnt that Mizinga means guns. But in Tanzania the same name means beehive.

However, I do not agree "names are merely convenient tags to help us distinguish one from another." A critical investigation reveals that names are much more than tags to carry an individual’s identity. Some names given to pets, for instance are meant to guide human conduct in society. In my article "Communication through Dogs’ Names" which was published in the SADCAMM News, 2, 1, 1996 I argued that some of the names the Tonga of southern Zambia give to their dogs were intended to convey specific messages. There are names intended to correct an individual’s undesirable behaviour or to win people’s sympathy, or to register a complaint about somebody or something. I gave an example a name like Munzi wabunjaka (Home or village of quarrelsome people). The people in the village are always quarrelling even on trivial issues and the person naming the dog is complaining about the state of affairs. In Lozi you find dogs’ names like Sabalumenyo which means do not be deceived by one’s smile. In Bemba you find names like Kanonibo which refers to selfish people.

A. W. Chitauka in his book Uli Muzubonzi [What is your Clan?] tells us that among the Tonga there are clan names such as Muntanga, Muchindu, Muzyamba and so on. When you meet someone with a clan surname you immediately know that person’s paternal lineage clan. Most of the clan names are derived from animal clans. For example Mudenda is elephant clan among the people of southern Zambia; so is Nsofu in northern Zambia and Dhlovu (or Njovu) in the eastern part of Zambia. Chitauka also tells us that there are names unique to a particular lineage. These give family cohesion and identity. For example if I meet someone called Katulo I would want to know more about him/her because there are chances that we are related. The belief in the existence of protective ancestral spirits also influences the naming of children at birth. Names of the deceased family members are given to the newly born not only for protection and blessing from the spirit of their departed ancestors but to perpetuate the family name as well.

There are names that are given to denote an occurrence that coincided with the birth of that person. Names like Chikwikwi (locusts) in Tonga denote that that person was born during the locusts' invasion. Nalishebo in Lozi denotes that one was born in a year when there was famine while Sililo and Malilwe in Lozi and Tonga respectively mean that one’s birth coincided with a funeral in the family or within the locality. If the family had difficulty in conceiving and had to undergo treatment before conceiving, they may give the baby a name like Michelo among the Tonga and Sitali among the Lozi . Others denote the time or season when one was born. For example, Busiku in Tonga and Wamuwi in Lozi denote that one was born at night while Mainza and Miyoba in Tonga indicate that one was born during the rainy season. Among the people of southern Zambia a baby who gets the name Nchimunya which means "as before" denotes that baby’s sex is the same as the sex of the previous one while Mutinta denotes that the baby has broken the sex line of the previous births in that family. Among some ethic groups in northern Zambia such as Mambwe, Namwanga and Lungu there are names that have gender connotations. Names like Sinyangwe, Sikazwe, Simusamba and Mulengo are for men while female names are prefixed with na as Nanyangwe, Nakazwe, Namusamba and Nalengo.

There are also historical names. Some people name their children to remember a historical episode or epoch. In the 1950s and 1960s it was common for people to give names of Zambia renown nationalists like Kaunda, Chona, Nkumbula, Kapwepwe, Munukayumbwa,Kamanga and many others to identify themselves with the liberation struggle. In the 1940's names like Hitler and Mussolini were given to remember the impact of the Second World War.

British colonialism had a remarkable influence on names found in Zambia today. Some local names were distorted. For example, when the railway line passed through a place then known as Munakalomo the name was shortened as Kalomo. Choma was originally Munzi wa kudima cooma derived from drumming because there were regular celebrations in that village. What is today Muzoka was originally Nabuzoka. Moonze lost one vowel and became Monze. The name Jembo Mission was derived from the original name jembe (big axe). The name Kariba was derived from the original name Kaliba which means trap in reference to the death of people when the bridge collapsed during the construction of the hydro electrical power at the Kariba Bridge in 1957. Kariba Bridge was now viewed by the local people as a trap.

Christianity insisted on names of those believed to be saints before baptism. This sometimes symbolised acceptance of Jesus as personal saviour for one being baptised or one interceding for one being baptised. Some people gave forenames from the west to combine with local surnames as in Simon Mwelwa, Mary Samuhata, Richard Gondwe, Charles Mubita and so on. Some nice sounding English words were given as forenames as in Merit Mwanza, Memory Moonga, Pardon Chansa. There are those names given to denote emotional appreciation of the birth of a baby as in Precious Kakusa, Given Mbewe, Luck Mweene. Some western names were distorted by Africans. Names like Margaret, Paul, Catherine, Andrew were mispronounced as Mangalita, Paulu, Katalina, Andulo respectively.

In conclusion one can argue that in Zambia names are given to denote many cultural issues including the following: guiding human conduct; manifestation of family experience especially tragic occurrences; belief in the power of ancestral spirits; acceptance of Christianity; tracing one’s lineage; perpetuation of family names. There is a lot that we can learn from the names Zambians give to their children and pets.


Flexon M. Mizinga is the Director of Moto Moto Museum, Mbala.

About the mission at Katete - one of my father's 'cousins' was a missionary at Katete, having arrived there in the early 20's or 30's. At the time, they walked from Broken Hill to Katete. She left in about 1967, returned to South Africa and died shortly after that. Her name was Lettie Swanepoel. The only time I met her was when she passed through Lusaka on her way back to South Africa, but she told us some interesting stories. But being on seven at the time, I don't remember any of them, just remember being absolutely spellbound by what she was telling us.

I have just pulled out the book 'Loanwords in Silozi, Cinyanja and Citonga' which is about words that have been taken from English (and a few other languages) and now form part of those languages. I used it for one of the April Fools article in the Lowdown. Epulelu is the word for April and Blulaifulu is bloody fool. But this book gives a number of names which have been adopted and adapted. In Lozi we have (amongst others) Filipi for Philip, Jemusi for James and Pitolosi for Peter. In Cinyanja, Kolina for Caroline, Chalesi for Charles and Joji for George. I shall have to type up a list of some of the words.

Retrieved from "http://www.greatnorthroad.org/boma/Zambian_Names"

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