Perpetuating conflict through names

By IAfrica
In Zimbabwe
Jul 7th, 2014

The Shona have a remarkable gift of perpetuating conflict through seemingly innocent means like giving names to animals such as dogs

Ignatius Mabasa
AS  a Shona language activist, I am interested in so many facets and aspects of the language. I am interested in the history and meaning of names of places in Zimbabwe.
Ultimately, I hope to educate my fellow Zimbabweans and rectify historical errors such as our pronunciation of Bindura, which is written with a “Bi”, but is pronounced using “Bhi” because most white people could not and still cannot pronounce the bilabial “b”. (A bilabial is the speech sound that is formed by closure or near closure of the lips, such as p, b, m, w).

Most whites struggle with words that use ba, be, bi, bo and bu. They tend to add an “h” after the “b”.

This explains the “bhu” in “Bhulawayo” which in actual fact is a soft “bu” in Ndebele. The “bu” in Bulawayo is like you are saying “vu” in Shona. Also, traditionally, there was no such thing as Bhuhera or Bhohera, but instead it should be Buhera or Vuhera or Uhera.

Besides the names of places, most of which have been bastardised and allowed to become national because of lack of cultural advocates and knowledgeable people in the media, I am also interested in the stories behind people’s first names such as — Muranganwa, Kuzovamunhu, Mahwinheyi, Matinyanya, Urayai, Zvakoneka, Zvanyadza, Musorowegomo and so forth.

Yet, what I want to explore in this article is something that was triggered by the most bizarre and outrageous Shona name that I have come across.

This name is Muneinazvo, which literally means “It is none of your business.” How one on earth could give a child such a name, and actually allow the child to grow to adulthood being called by such a name may be madness to some, yet to others, there is logic in that very same madness.

I have often heard people casually remark that the Shona people are peace loving and magnanimous. To a certain extent that is true, but the Shona are not homogeneous and particularly at this time in history where a lot of Shona people have become citizens of the global village and residents in the Diaspora, we need to be careful not to generalise about the Shona, the Ndebele or any other group of people for that matter. Socially, things are falling apart and the centre can no longer hold. A lot of people no longer behave in a manner that is acceptable to their societies and specifically to the values of hunhu or ubuntu. Anyway, that is a matter for another day.

Back to the peace loving Shona people. What I have observed is that what we refer to as being peaceful, is actually an indicator of people who are not capable of handling conflict properly. Traditionally, the Shona society has been known to be patriarchal. Men are in charge and they often abuse culture to their advantage. Men have the power and this is seen in cases where a woman who becomes successful can paradoxically be referred to as, “Uye murume pachezvake!” literally meaning, “That woman is a real man.”

In most cases among the Shona, women receive the short end of the stick in almost everything. A good woman is supposed to be submissive, she does not ask questions and shuts her mouth when men raise their deep baritone or bass voices. In brief, the belief is that a good woman is docile.

Among the Shona, because men pay a bride price, we have abused the meaning of what it means to marry. Marriage to most Shona people means a one-sided union where the man “acquires” a wife or wives and uses those acquisitions to elevate himself to the position of chief, as well as to have children. It is such perceptions where unions are used to elevate the men that often create problems.

A married woman’s docility is supposed to be extended to the in-laws and a host of other relatives. A lot of women find themselves in conflict situations because culture has cut and dried how they should behave.

Often, I have seen women who are trying to escape an abusive relationship being sent back to their husbands with very strong words of warning from the mbuyas and tetes.

Often they are told, “Ndizvo zvinoita kuwanikwa,” meaning that it is very normal for a husband to treat her woman that way. The thinking is that a good woman endures pain and abuse even if it means risking death. As a result, you find unhappy women enduring and suffering in marriage, because there is nowhere to run.

Some women are even dying because they are challenging tradition and culture. And when women find themselves in very difficult situations where they are trapped by culture and are not given a voice, they usually carry their pain in their bosoms while they are literally burning to ashes inside. Generally, men abuse power to oppress women, and when the women find themselves in such marriages, they usually use the most strange ways of painting murals with the pain in their chests. I have spoken to a number of angry women, who have named their children protest names that eventually have embarrassed the children when they grow up.

You may have heard the names —  Ndanatsei, Muchanyara, Nyekutai, Tambudzai, Tsverukai, Matinyanya, Chamunorwa, Marwei, Musayemura, Musafare, Muzanenhamo and so on.

Dealing with conflict in situations where people are powerless to defend themselves has its other dark side whereby people can even commit suicide.

Another way of handling conflict in the Shona society is when matters that are originated in broad daylight can be settled during the night through supernatural means.

Injustices and conflict are so much part of our daily lives. However, the need for social justice is what inspired a lot of creative people traditionally to intervene either using song, storytelling or bembera. The folktale that was popularised by Kireni Zulu’s song called Mazai adhimba is one good example.

The Shona art of perpetuating conflict through names is often extended to domestic animals.

Some have been tactless in this area by openly and directly giving the names of people who are the source of their misery to their dogs.

Generally, even though they are man’s best friends, dogs are regarded as unpleasant and contemptible. In order to get even, or to protest in a smart way, a wronged person may go to the extent of just acquiring a dog not because they need one, but to use it to perpetuate conflict.

Names of dogs in Shona can make you laugh or gasp in shock because the freedom to create is uninhibited. Some examples are Tsamwauputike, Dakanehama, Zvomoendoko, Remandini, Majaira, Muchatuta, Zvitarise and so on.

One man in the village gave his cow a name called Government.

If you are not the keen type, you may think it is just another name.

But if you are the inquisitive type like myself, you will want to know the story behind the name. One explanation behind a cow named Government is that people in the village love to borrow from each other to the extent that some end up abusing the community’s sense of sharing and take advantage of the community values to unashamedly do things without moderation.

A cow is, therefore, aptly named Government to communicate to such fellow villagers that my cow is not Government (public) property, it belongs me and only me. The other meaning behind the cow named Government is that, “When it comes to property that I worked hard for, I am the final authority and you cannot expect to go anywhere to appeal.” Another meaning may yet be that, “The communal government system of sharing is not working for me.” Quite often, the people do get such messages, and may actually stop borrowing Government. The Shona people have a remarkable gift of perpetuating conflict through seemingly innocent means.

One such way, where conflict is nurtured, is through names like Muneinazvo, which is rather on the extreme end.

Some names among the Shona are ways of recording historical events, while others are purely ways of protesting or commenting at some social happening that victimised someone, and their commenting through the name is their only way of hitting back, getting even or trying to seek justice from the community. The Shona people are historically and generally known not to be hostile or aggressive. Where possible, they will avoid open conflict.

However, avoiding conflict is not a reflection of being pacified or mollified.

Ignatius T. Mabasa is a language consultant, translator, novelist and storyteller.

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