Imagine you went to England, Australia or America. Imagine that there you came across the inhabitants of those foreign lands with their exotic foods and peculiar mannerisms. Suppose at a meeting you were introduced to some of these inhabitants and you heard names such as Ihaveseenashepherd, theydon’thaveachief, Iamhappy, Hehashelpedme, or Hehaslovedme. If you did hear such names, I wouldn’t be surprised if you concluded that such names are most bizarre and that the cultures which give birth to such names should be extraordinarily unique. But that is exactly how Setswana names are structured. Many of the Setswana names are full sentences. A simple sentence is composed of a subject and a predicate or put differently; a simple sentence has a subject and a verb. Examples will include He knows or I am a shepherd. Many of the Setswana personal names or surnames are full sentences. As they say in Setswana: maina a Setswana a a bua meaning that there is more to the Setswana name than meets the eye. The Setswana names have a story that they tell. Below we list some of these names together with their English meanings. Let us look at some of the names: Kebonemodisa ‘I have seen/found a shepherd’ is a common name which captures the hopes of a family or parent. The name has historically been given to sons whose parents hoped will take care of their livestock. Later the meaning of the name changed slightly to refer to one whom the parent hoped will take care of the family or the parents themselves. The name Keitumetse ‘I am happy’ is popular as a girl’s name. It expresses the joy of a family at the arrival of a new born. The name for boys with a similar meaning is Thabo, a Sotho word meaning happiness or joy. Below I present a list of names, together with their English meanings with minimum comment.
Gabanakgosi ‘they don’t have a chief’, Onthusitse ‘He has helped me’, Onthatile ‘He has loved me’. Some of the most colourful names are of children born to single parents, especially where there has been considerable conflict between the family of the father of the child and the unmarried mother. A female single parent usually faces great challenges from the parents of her lover. Sometimes she finds herself weak and unable to respond to the accusations and charges of the parents of her lover. Her outlet becomes the name of her child. So we end up with names such as Banyatsang ‘what are they despising? Bankaketse ‘they have told lies about me’; Gaalatlhwe ‘he is not discarded, abandoned, or forsaken’; Gagonthesepe ‘it doesn’t bother me or it doesn’t do anything to me’; Gakeratege ‘I am not loved, liked or preferred’; Keatlhotswe ‘I have been judged or sentenced’; Olebetse ‘he has forgotten’; Kesotlegile ‘I have suffered’; Gabaikanngwe ‘they are not trusted’; Ketlogetswe ‘I have been left behind or I have been abandoned’ or Oitatotse ‘he has denied any wrongdoing or he has refused to take any responsibility (for the pregnancy). These are painful names which have been given intentionally as protest names or as names which will forever remind the name-giver of a specific painful moment. Some of the pain may be not because of conflict between families, sometimes it is because of bereavement. Sometimes the father dies while the mother is expecting. This results with names such as Ikgomotseng ‘comfort yourselves (imperative)’. Some Setswana names show a deep faith in God. A family may feel that it is where it is because of God’s protection or look at the child as a gift from God. We therefore have names such as Modimoofile ‘God has given’; Modimoopelo ‘God is gracious’; Modimoosi ‘only God’; Gaofenngwe ‘He (God) cannot be defeated’; Modimoothata ‘God is strong’ Modimothebe God is the shield; Keolopile or Koolopile ‘I have asked of him (God)’; Tirotsaone ‘his (God) actions or roles’; Onkarabile ‘he (God) has answered me’ Tiroyamodimo ‘God’s act’ and Tiroyaone ‘His (God) work or doing’.
Some names which celebrate the birth of a child are extraordinarily beautiful as they articulate the hope of what the child will become later in life or what such a chid represents to the parents. Names such as Kebonyethebe ‘I have seen/found a shield’; Modisakgotla ‘the guard of the traditional court’; Modisakgosi ‘the chief’s guard’; Morulaganyi ‘one who puts things in their right order, or one who sequences things’; Onkemetse ‘he is waiting for me or he is representing me’; Otlaadisa ‘he will tend livestock’ all articulate the hopes of the family concerning the child.
I wish to end this column with a personal episode. My own surname means ‘he has been left behind or he has been abandoned’. I don’t know much about the history of the Otlogetswe name, why it was given or the circumstances under which it was given. However when I was a form four student at Seepapitso Senior Secondary School leina le na la ya mareelelong. It is indeed true that a bad name is an itchy rash – leina-lebe seromo. We had gone to play a couple of games against Letlhakane Senior Secondary School and on our way there we had left our boxers in Serowe, at Swaneng Hill. Two days later when we returned from Letlhakane we stopped at Swaneng to have lunch and to pick our pugilists. After lunch I wondered off with a couple of friends into a classroom and strummed a few guitar chords and sang a few songs. At the time I was taking guitar lessons from a guitarist called Peter Black, an American Peace Corps based at Seepapitso Senior. While we were enjoying an acoustic guitar tucked far away from the hall where everyone was gathered, the trucks left without me. A story is told that when one of the trucks overtook the truck which I should have been in, students in my truck shouted Thapelo Otlogetswe! Thapelo Otlogetswe! It was a shout which was ambiguous between Thapelo o tlogetswe and Thapelo Otlogetswe. It was only in Palapye that the trucks stopped and a Toyota van was sent back to pick me. I caught up with everyone in Mahalapye, the village of my father’s birth, and enjoyed my 15 minutes of fame. For a long time that year, the joke has was on Thapelo o tlogetswe, or perhaps it was on Thapelo Otlogetswe!