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A Shona name for a white child in a tense Zimbabwe

They gave their son, born in Zimbabwe, a Shona name to honor the country and culture and were honored in return.

By Kate Chambers / May 26, 2010

Zimbabwe’s better-known Victoria Falls, in the nation’s far west.

Splash News/Newscom

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"Where are you from?" The official in the orange-painted Information Office eyed the three of us suspiciously.

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On a rare weekend holiday, we traveled to Chimanimani Village in remote eastern Zimbabwe. My husband wanted to take my son and me to see the Bridal Veil Falls. There was just one problem: The last time he visited was 13 years ago. He had forgotten the way.

We passed a shuttered cafe and the Better Days butchery. Outside a sparsely stocked store, lit only by candles, a woman with a scarf around her head stirred a saucepan of the local mealie-meal (coarse cornmeal) porridge over a fire. She watched us carefully. So did the men lining the supermarket wall.

Suddenly I felt like a stranger in the country I now call home.

"Do you have identity cards? Were you born and bred here?" the official persisted. We'd stumbled into this man's office hoping he might give us directions. Instead, the conversation was rapidly turning into the Zimbabwean Inquisition.

In its heyday, Chimanimani was a tourist haven. Backpackers flocked to the spectacular Chimanimani National Park with its towering peaks; the hardy swam in the cold waters of Tessa's Pool, and the more leisured ate sandwiches on the lawns of the Chimanimani Arms Hotel.

Ten years of shortages, hyperinflation, and political turmoil took their toll on this holiday resort, as on so many others in Zimbabwe. Few Westerners make the five-hour trip from the capital to Chimanimani nowadays.

A white official from the former opposition Movement for Democratic Change party of Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai tried to visit last month: He was stopped by armed police at a roadblock just outside the village, threatened, and forced to turn back.

"My husband was born in Zimbabwe," I told the official. "And so was our son, Sam Tinashe."

His stern face broke into a smile. "You gave him a Shona name?" he exclaimed. "That's wonderful. We Shona people always give our children English names. Names like Ben," he mused. "But you have given your child one of our names!"

To be honest, giving our child an indigenous name was a decision we agonized over six years ago. It wasn't unheard-of to give a white child a Shona name, but it was unusual.

Our boy was born in the middle of Zimbabwe's crisis. Two very flawed elections were behind us: More were to follow. My in-laws had lost the farm they'd scraped money together to buy in the late 1980s, long after independence. They had accepted their loss with grace. But the recent chapters of Zimbabwe's story were sad for them – and for the vast majority of my husband's former school friends who'd weighed life with a worthless local dollar and left.

Would a Shona name weigh heavily on our child?

The thing was, we loved this land and the friends we had here. We respected Shona culture. We wanted our boy to carry something of his beautiful country of birth with him, wherever his future led.

We dared hope, too: Maybe a Shona name would be a bridge between black and white.

Shona names might not make it into the Top 10 Baby Names of This Year list, but many of them have powerful meanings. Popular names are Tinotenda (Thank You), Farai (Be Happy) and Nyasha (Grace). Tinashe, the name we entered on our child's birth certificate, means We Are With God. He shares his name with local soccer star Tinashe Nengomasha and several nursery school friends.

So far I've had only positive reactions from Zimbabweans when they learn my husband and I "adopted" a local name. The sister at the Harare hospital where I had my son flung her arms around me, for starters.

These days, shoppers turn in surprise to hear cashiers shout out to this white woman: "How are you, Mai [mother of] Tinashe?"

"Who gave your child that name?" strangers ask me frequently.

"We did," I answer proudly.

Back in Chimanimani, our official was raking through a filing cabinet to find us a map of how to get to the Bridal Veil Falls. He shook our hands as he escorted us through the door. "Have a good time!" he called.

In the car, Sam turned to me. "He was a nice man, wasn't he, Mummy?"

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