I would attempt in this short piece to show that the Batswana give their children meaningful names according to a systematic pattern influenced by the multiplicity of factors ranging from the complex societal roles to the effects of nature to their immediate environment. And perhaps the observations I make from the stories told by personal names may be cautiously stretched to many similar cultures both in Africa and beyond. To simplify my task it is perhaps significant to start off by outlining certain important societal characteristics which have a strong bearing on the subject of my discourse and its development.
For a long time child bearing amongst the Tswana has been a very important phenomenon, and still is in the present Botswana, for the society perceives the child as the one who carries the family name forward, and stands as the final hope of societal regeneration and sometimes as a perfect reflection of the past; for in the child the society believes, is the reincarnation of ancestors. This must be seen within the strong patriarchal system, which glorifies masculinity while at the same time celebrates femininity. This observation is significant from the onset for it influences the sex role divisions which affect the different names given to the two sexes. We must understand that in general the Tswana society still values the male child more than the female one. This correlates with the role division of the family in which many males are the sole breadwinners. Male supremacy is perhaps considered within the context of regeneration and the reincarnation of ancestors; that is, within an understanding that the male child never loses the family name while the female does so upon marriage.
It is within this patriarchal setup that the Batswana give their children names to reflect their complex values, traditions, beliefs and the totality of their culture. Unlike other cultures, personal names are not given as things of beauty, or merely as linguistic symbols of identity, but they weave a complex tale of individuals’ lives. For example, some reflect and capture the emotions of the mother at the time of giving birth; while some are an expression of the family expectations concerning the newly-born baby. In some names are buried thanks-givings to God or to the gods while some stand as a repository of ancestral history through the crystallisation of their names in the memory of the surviving members of the family. Some names might be given because they reflect the way the baby looks at birth while some might capture socio-political matters prevailing at the time.
One dominant factor that influences the nature of Setswana names as mentioned before is the traditional roles. Amongst the Tswana, while things are changing rapidly, the place of the woman is still the home while that of the male is the more challenging competitive world. Although there is an increasing number of women who get into many professional jobs with their spouses, cooking, cleaning are still seen as female roles while males’ roles require physical power and courageous undertakings. These would include things like building the house, cutting firewood or any heavy responsibility in the family and in some tribes, hunting. These familial roles have a lot of influence on the nature of jobs and career choices in Botswana. This provides explanation why for instance there are more female nurses than male ones in Botswana, for the role of a nurse fits within the female role of one who nurtures, while there are more male doctors than female ones, since this is in order with the societal establishments which has predominantly male traditional doctors. The construction companies, since they require hard labour, are almost 100% male, while cleaners in private companies and government departments are almost all female, for that is seen as a traditional female role. Still a similar pattern exists in engineering profession with more male engineers than female ones while there are more female cooks than male ones since these fit the female traditional roles. This brief observation is not trivial to the naming process amongst the Botswana culture, since personal names may be patterned according to the sex roles as perceived and understood by the society. For example, names like Selwana (utensil); Mosegi (one who sews); Mothugi (one who stamps millie meal or sorghum); Nurse (nurse), Segametsi (that which draws water) all for girls, reflecting the familial roles associated with females in the society; while names like Moagi (one who builds); Mogakolodi (one who advises); Moatlhodi (one who judges); Kgosi (chief) and Motsumi (one who hunts) are male names and reflect male roles. One cannot name a male child Segametsi (that which draws water) nor can one name a daughter Kgosi (chief) for that will clash with the sex roles.
Not only are names given according to the traditional societal roles, but the names also reflect the gender expectations. The patriarchal society believes it is a thing of virtue for women to be beautiful, gentle, kind, soft and tender while men are to be strong, brave and tough. Names therefore reflect these expectations. Women are therefore given names like Bontle (beauty), Lorato (love), Montlenyane (the beautiful one), Tshegofatso (blessing), Boitshepo (holiness), Bontlebotsile (beauty has come), Tshepo (trust); while men bear names like Thata (strength), Thatayotlhe (all the strength), Maatla (Power), Mogale (Hero), Tau (Lion) etc.
Some names also reflect the way children look at birth. If a child is thought to be beautiful at birth, the child might be given the name that reflects beauty e.g. Bontle (beauty), MmaBontle (Miss Beautiful or pageant). On the other hand, sincere in their judgement, and perhaps crude in their speech, if parents consider a child to be ugly, they might name it Mmamaswe (Miss-ugly) although some of them tend to be rather beautiful as grown-ups. If they are very dark at birth they might be called Montsho (the black one) and when they are very light in complexion they might be called Tshweu (white), Lekgoa (white-person), Leburu (A Boer); or Moleele (the tall one) if they look rather tall.
We develop the Setswana naming patterns next week by looking at the preservation of memory, articulation of a parent’s hopes and name shortening.