I start with the Bible. Proverbs 10:7 “A good name is more desirable than great riches; to be esteemed is better than silver or gold.” Ecclesiastes 7:1 “A good name is better than costly perfume.” I am not a theologian, but it is clear that the use of the word name above is synonymous with reputation. In other words one’s reputation is one’s identity; one’s name. In the Setswana idiom, ina lebe seromo ~ a bad name is like an itchy rash. Recently I asked friends on my Facebook page to post some shocking personal names. I indeed received some shocking names. Let us look at the English ones first; we will consider the Setswana ones later. Some of the owners of these names are Zimbabweans now residing in Botswana. There is one person called Revolution whose younger brother is Circumference. These names are certainly big words! One of my friends studied with a certain Liquid. Another one had an acquaintance by the name Permission and another called Six, while a certain Mr Nownow used to teach at a local junior secondary school. Lovemore and Lovermore are now common household Zimbabwean names. There is also a lady by the name Laughter, three young men by the names Twotwos, Courage, and Government. One of my friends reminded me that right here in our parliament sits a Boteti North MP by the name Slumber, the Hon. Slumber Tsogwane. It is difficult to find another by the name Slumber or Tsogwane. There is a guy called Mistake in Kanye. How does a child grow up with a name like Mistake? Wouldn’t such a child feel that his life is a big mistake? I have also heard of a certain Mr. Agreement and Forget. I hear one lady calls herself Penny when her true name is Penetration! This reminds me of an employee of Department of Information and Broadcasting by the name of Consideration who shortened her name to an equally colourful Consider. There is also Payment and Creature as well as Fortunate who work here in Gaborone. Some of these colourful English names when translated into Setswana, don’t sound too bad actually. Take the name Payment (Tuelo), Laughter (Setshego), Agreement (Tumalano) and Permission (Teseletso). These are perfect Setswana names which don’t raise an eyebrow. However in English, they do sound strange.
Some of the most colourful names are to be found the Setswana language. Some names such as Moloi (witch/wizard) we are used to and don’t shock us anymore. However the following names di a bua and suggest that there is more to the name than its basic meaning. Let us consider them briefly: Ketlhoetsweng (Why am I hated?), Mmadijo (the food lady), Keitatotswe, Bathomitlwa (people are thorns), Gaethapiwe (it is not washed away), Molapisi (one who tires others), Rranko (Mr Nose), Mmasekopo (one with a protruding forehead). The name Keitshentse could mean all sorts of things. It could mean I have soiled myself; I have destroyed myself, I have impregnated myself! There is also the woman by the name Mmadibokwana (the girl with small worms). Another one is called Phunyakobo (punch holes into a blanket)! There is also Keitatotswe (literally I have been rejected by my parent), Gasewasepe (he is nothing) and Gabankimele (they are not too heavy for me). What about a young man called Rantjapedi (the one with two dogs). Another one bears the name Mpolayakeswe (kill me so that I die). The 80s were full of Kedibonye (I have seen them), Tshotlego (suffering), Khutsafalo (suffering) and Dicheleketo (struggles) as normal names. I have met a certain Keakile (I have lied) and Mr. Dikgeleswa (Mr skin lumps). I do remember a most humorous situation at junior secondary schools after one of the teachers got married during one school vacation. At the beginning of term the headmaster walked proudly to the podium to announce that one of the lady teachers got married during the past vacation. She was therefore no longer Ms Sejakgomo (the cow eater), she was henceforth to be known as Mrs Sejanamane (the calf eater). The entire assembly erupted in laughter.
I have heard of the surname Motlhokarraagwe (the fatherless one) of one Keaiperekela (I am working for myself). There is also a certain Gakeitse (I don’t know) Nkalolang (chase me away). There is a certain Mathata (problems) and worse of all, a Kalanga name Matoko (faeces). There are always reasons why names are given. The reasons are a legion. Some children are given because of the situation at birth. If it was raining a child may be called Motlapula or Pule. If the child is born when the mother is going through a family loss such as the death of a parent, the child may be named Khutsafalo (sadness) or Kutlobotlhoko (sadness) to document and forever capture the emotional status of the family at the time of birth. What we sometimes call bad or ugly names are better understood in context. Take the name Masepa, Masimba, or Matoko (faeces) can in many cases be explained contextually within the belief system of the society. Consider the case of a woman who has had multiple deaths at birth of her children. There is a belief that those children are being taken away because of their good traits. To protect the newly born child, the mother will give it a bad name such as Setlhobogwa (a thing that we have given up on), Selo (thing), Masepa (faeces), Mmamaswe (one who is very ugly) or Noga (snake). The belief is that the terrorising element will be turned away by such ugly names and leave the child alone, ensuring the survival of the child. Therefore before condemning Batswana for giving their children bad names, there is a need to fully understand the cultural context in which such names were given. Every mother loves its child. There is therefore no reason why a mother would traumatize a child with a hideous name. In Setswana societies, a name is not just a thing of beauty. A name is also not just a tool of identity. A name is communal. It documents the family and the social life in a complex manner than many are aware.
While I know this to be true, I am awe-struck by the name of the councillor for my area Phagenyana Phage!