What’s in a name?

By Kae Matundu-Tjiparuro
February 2012
A cutting word is worse than a bowstring. A bowstring cut may heal but the cut of the tongue does not.

This may have been in the minds of many mothers and fathers who named and continue to name their children Kaezembua, literally meaning ‘words that have been uttered at one point or another, how hurting or sweet-sounding they may have been, are unforgettable’, in the Otjiherero or Otjimbanderu lingua.

Contrast this with the name, Kajetopora, meaning ‘words do not cut’. In a different meaning but still related to these words is Kaenandjira, meaning ‘words have no path and can fly from all directions and in all directions’. Not to speak of Maerijeta, meaning ‘words would automatically be heard sooner or however you try to keep them to your chest’. The only thing is that Jeomba, ‘words are delayed, are specially to the one whom they concern and affect while others not directed to them are the first to hear’ as per the full saying, Jeomba imba pomuni pombara yepunda. (Words delay to reach the ears of the affected but not that of the busy curious bodies)

But the long and short of it is that there is hardly any personal name in the Otjiherero culture that does not have one or another meaning to give truism to the general assumption that one’s name is their identity and a window on their culture and themselves. One’s name links them to their past, ancestors and is a part of their spirituality. Certainly as much as Kaezembua, although the one who named the child might not exactly remember what words were uttered at what point they may have inspired them to give the child such a name, nevertheless, confirms the razor blade sharpness of the spoken word that is worse than a bowstring. But this is just to illustrate that there is more to personal names in the Otjiherero-Otjimbanderu culture than simply a name, as in any other Namibian indigenous language or any other African language, for that matter.

For instance, in Yoruba in Nigeria, the name Abimbola means “born wealthy” while in Igbo Adaeze means “king’s daughter”. In eastern Africa, Aberash means “giving off light”.

In southern Africa, Andile means “they have extended” in Zulu, Boitumelo “joy” in Tswana and Boipelo “proud”. Cast your mind to a country like Zimbabwe and you will come across what is described as “cool” personal names like Wiseman, Prudence, Rejoice, Lovemore and what-have-you although one wonders whether such have either their Tshona or Ndebele versions.

Likewise, in Namibia, especially in Otjiherero, it is unusual to find personal names that have no meanings and are not related to one or another event or person. Indeed, one could assert that there’s hardly any name in the Otjiherero language that is not in memory of an event or a person.

A name like Katjire (which can literally translates as long, bulky, denoting strong and weighty physique in this regard is a case in point as much as Kaezembua.

In this vogue one can find an endless list of different classes of names whether based on the physique of someone or a particular part of their body; in the latter case more so in the naming of boys. Hence names such as Katjituezu (bulky one), Kasupi (short one or Shorty), Kare (tall and slender one or Taller as the English version may be), Korunjo (one with small mouth), Keharanjo (one with a wide mouth), Katjoviho (one with big eyes) and Tjozombaze (one with anomalous feet).

Female names in this line of naming bordering on ridicule, derogation or taunting are few and far in between in the Otjiherero language or culture but names like Kouvere (one with small breasts), Sukombi (ugly girl), etc are common. But as diverse as they are, names in the Otjiherero language also range from the unique, unusual, and popular to the simply cool.

This seems something not confined to the Ovaherero and Ovambanderu cultural groups in Namibia only but extend to others, and beyond on the African continent where you find names that are masculine or feminine and those that are gender neutral.

In the Otjiherero language, typical masculine names are Kazandona (Boy Boy), Kaupasaneua (meaning manliness is not transferable, either you are born manly or not), Kazandu (Boy), Hijaviposa (father of quarrels), and Hijonganda (father of home or household).

The feminine versions would be Kasukona (Girlie), Inaaviposa (mother of quarrels) while in terms of gender neutrality names like Kaapaa (Whitey), Kaapa (White) and Tjirumbona (White one or Karumbona (Small white one) all denoting one’s lighter complexion, come to mind.

As much as a name like Kamaizemi (the homestead shall never perish) or Kamauzemi (fire shall never be extinguished) may ordinarily be gender neutral but because heirs to any homestead or holy fire have been men, they rarely have baby girls being given such names.

You find, among the Ovaherero and Ovambanderu cultural groups, names linked to historical epochs such as 1959 Katutura Massacre, Jazepovandu ondjembo ya Snynam (meaning ‘the shooting of the killed Snyman people’) or Jarimbovandu, meaning the 1904-1908 had scattered people, a reference to the people who because of the war, were forced out of their country onto exile in neighbouring countries like Botswana, South Africa, Angola and even in West Africa in countries like Togo and Cameroon. The gender neutrality of such names as much as they are related to wars are perceived to be a male-dominated activity if not exclusively so then. To this epoch, one can add names like Jamanovandu ondjembo (meaning ‘the gun (war) has finished the people’). This name also has reference to where any homestead or a family that has been reduced in numbers due to death.

You also find among the Ovaherero-Ovambanderu cultural groups, names related to their struggles for land and for liberation such as Ngarikutuke (let it be free). One Namibian personality with such a name is Dr Ngarikutuke Tjiriange, Namibia’s first Justice Minister, now retired. Then you would find name (s) like Rakutuka (the land, country is free) or Rakotoka (it is back).

In-between the two opposite ends of the aspiration for freedom, on one end and actual freedom, on the other, one finds an array of names reflecting these epochs like Rairirira (land, country is colonised for ever); Kamaarija (land, country shall never revert back to its rightful owners); Retuura (not succeeding in liberating the land, country); Mbakondja (I have struggled); Kangavi (one of Garvey), Mberikondjera (I have suffered or struggled for it, either the land or country), Uahena (they flee the country).

Among the common personal names in the Otjiherero culture are ones influenced by religion and which refer to the natural powers that are like Kapimbua (They are not answered back to); Kapurua (They are not asked); Ngajozikue (praise be to them); Jozikee (praise them); Ngatangue (praise be to them); Kenapeta (They are not sizeable); Kapangurua (They are not judged).

Some names denote when the child was born among the siblings like being the first boy to be born among girls, Uatengapo, or the first girl to be born among boys, Kopovavena or the last born of the children, Uaseinina. Strangely, you may be unaware of any girl to be born among boys being named Uatengapo. As much Mbanjanda (I’m rejoicing) occurs only among boys denoting a father’s joy at having eventually a boy. PF