Euro-Western thought generally divorces individual personalities from their names (Name: origin: Old English nama, noma (noun), (ge)namian (verb), of Germanic origin; related to Dutch naam and German Name, from a root shared by Latin nomen and Greek onoma. This Euro-western view alluded to by Koopman (2001) is similar to that of semanticists whose perception of a name is more functional, perceiving a name as connected to the verb ‘call’ therefore not surprising that the verb phrase ‘to name’ is interpreted to mean ‘to call’, in the Setswana language go bitsa. In this way, names would be seen to be replacing gestures to make direct reference to an object. Koopman is therefore right that westerners consider the name as a tag and a label, basically as a tool of reference. This western perspective of names though it is true to Setswana names, and perhaps to African names in general, it forms only part of the function of personal names not only in Setswana but common to many African cultures. Another valuable approach to names is a semantic and socio-linguistic perspective that attempts to account for their meaning as cultural products. Such a view would answer at least two questions: 1. What do the names mean? and 2. Why were certain personal names given?
Mathangwane and Gadner (2000) address these two questions in their introduction to their paper by situating the meaning of names within the reasons for which such names were given. These reasons include expressing a wish, giving thanks to God for the baby, and relating one’s fears. The Zulu cultural practices of name giving suggested by Koopman (2002) are very similar to those of the Batswana suggested by Mathangwane and Gadner. These include names that refer to the structure of the family (Waboraro ‘the third one’, Babedi ‘they are two’), perceived role of God in the birth (Onthusitse ‘he has helped me’), state of mind of the parents, circumstance of birth (Khutsafalo ‘melancholy’) and miscellaneous reasons of naming. Pongweni (1983) in his study of Shona names lists at least six reasons subsumed under a broader category of ‘circumstances prevailing in the family or clan at the time of one’s birth’. These include names given at the excitement of the moment, a lineage or titular name, a nickname, names that mark an important event and names given to replace an embarrassing name. All these mark a similarity between the meanings of and reasons for Setswana naming practices as similar to those of other cultures within the southern African region although studies of Setswana names given to replace embarrassing ones have not been attempted so far. There are however cases of people giving themselves names or nicknames to shade embarrassing names in Setswana or to give their names a much more fashionable anglicised flavour. But it is difficult to blame a young beautiful lady called Mmamaswe “MissUgly” when she calls herself Mmamercy amongst a circle of friends, or when Maburunyane “a little Boer” calls himself Brooks; or when Rasepatela “Mr Hospital or the man of the hospital” calls himself Russ. Whatever personal motivation exists, there is a detectable consistent English influence in the shortening of these Setswana names.
Setswana names are therefore not sterile linguistic structures of reference with no cultural background. However they are a product of a dynamic culture characterised by political and tribal wrangling, socio-economic struggles, beliefs, rituals, fears, local gossips, peculiar weather conditions and topographies, wild beasts and domesticated animals, rivers, gorges and hills, societal ideals and many other motivating factors that influence human perception on life. Setswana names are frozen stories lest we forget – they are repositories of human experiences: their joys and melancholies. They are not just tools of reference but a society’s way of documenting its tidal rhythms both at a personal level and at broader level of the society. One such complexity is captured in the Setswana kgotla system which represents the heart of the village and clan.
The kgotla is one of the central elements of Setswana culture – the heart of the administration of tribal life. Justice (or otherwise) is meted out at the kgotla. It is a tribal court where disputes are settled and where matters of tribal and or village concern are debated extensively. In the past it used to be an exclusively male domain, but it has developed to be a place where women are also welcomed to debate issues. It stands out as an embodiment of tribal leadership: the very element that gives the tribe a sense of direction and existence. It symbolises chieftaincy and leadership. The politics of kgotla wrangling and processes therefore find expression in the Setswana names to capture and reflect the status quo or the preferred state. But one must be cautious to draw a distinction between the ‘main’ kgotla where the tribal chief presides over matters and ‘small kgotlas’ or wards ‘Makgotla’ where headmen or ‘boRalekgotla’ will power. The tribal chief devolves power and authority to the headmen to establish a decentralised control of the village or tribe. All of these are called kgotla. Just as there is a kgotla in a ward, usually every household or a group of very close families in a ward have their kgotla too. This is where men sit around the fire during funerals and weddings. A kgotla is therefore central to the Tswana life. Therefore while people identify themselves with the main, central kgotla, they also have strong allegiances to their wards. These allegiances are based on the fact that relatives usually constitute wards. Therefore names that are given to children in the Tswana culture not only express matters relating to the main kgotla but also village wards. It must be stated however that there is still a strong link between men and kgotla to the extent that all Setswana names with ‘kgotla’ are male names. Let us illustrate: Kgotla/Lekgotla A tribal meeting place; Kgotlayame My meeting place; Tsakgotla Of the meeting place; Kgotlayarona/Kgotlaetsho Our tribal meeting place; Kgotlaetsile The traditional meeting place has come; Kgotlafela Only the traditional meeting place; Makgotla Wards; Modiakgotla One who delays the tribal meeting place or the root of the tribal meeting place; Monnakgotla One who sits at the tribal meeting place or One who becomes the traditional meeting place; Molelowakgotla The fire of the tribal meeting place; Kebonyekgotla I have found/seen a tribal meeting place; Modisakgotla One who guards the tribal meeting place Wakgotla Of the tribal meeting place; Kgotlaesele A different tribal meeting place; Kgotlayabeng The tribal meeting place of its owners.
In the above data, names like Kgotla, Kebonyekgotla, Kgotlayarona, Kgotlaetsho, Kgotlayame, and Kgotlaetsile equate the arrival of the male child to the establishment of the kgotla for that household. Such names are usually given to the first male child in the home since males are the ones who have traditionally dominated chieftaincy. This may also be a result of the fact that it is the men who usually keep the family name since traditionally wives get the surnames of the men to whom they are married. The fact that males receive names that associate the male child with the decision-making and debating place, the kgotla, is therefore consistent with the patriarchal system of the Setswana traditional society. The names therefore reveal tribal pride on the kgotla and what it represents. Other names like Kgotlayabeng, Kgotlaesele, shed light into the origins of the father, perhaps he is from another kgotla, and the child is named Kgotlaesele. Kgotlayabeng appears to be an expression of disassociation of the name-giver from a certain kgotla. It is his personal recognition that the kgotla has its owners suggesting that he is not a member. Names like Molelowakgotla are figurative, since the fire at the kgotla expresses the presence of life. A kgotla that has been abandoned is recognised by cold ashes that stand out as metaphors of death and emptiness, while a vibrant kgotla finds expression through a burning fire that communicates life, order, and authority. The name Molelowakgotla therefore expresses the hope of survival of members of the kgotla and that of the family in general. Sadly this traditional wealthy is washing away under the pressure of the so called modernization.