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What’s in an African name?

In Zimbabwe, it reflects history, hope, or parents’ aspirations – and quirks.

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Twenty-seven years ago, as the Chiore family of Harare, Zimbabwe, celebrated the birth of their seventh child, they didn’t linger long over what to name him. The choice was obvious.

Literally. “Most people can’t believe it,” says Obvious Chiore, now a waiter in a Johannesburg, South Africa, restaurant. “It’s helpful though – I get a lot of regular customers because people can’t forget me. I’m one in a million.”

Ask a Southern African to explain the meaning of his or her name, and you’ll often hear an elaborate tale of family politics, tradition, and sometimes prophecy. In 1918, for instance, a chief in a remote corner of eastern South Africa gave his son the name Rolihlahla, a local word meaning “pulling the branch of a tree,” or, colloquially, “troublemaker.” Rolihlahla – better known as Nelson – Mandela lived up to his name. 

But as English elbowed its way into the region’s governments, education systems, and media over the past century, the naming tradition has also taken on a new linguistic twist, and nowhere more obviously than in Zimbabwe.

Check the phone books of Harare and Bulawayo: Alongside a slate of Annes, Johns, and Philips you’ll find Lovemores, Addmores, and Godsaveses. There are Noviolets and Pinkroses. In recent years, there have been professional Zimbabwean soccer players named Danger Fourpence and Have-a-look Dube. One of the nation’s leading opposition politicians is a Zimbabwean man named Welshman.

“I suppose it’s because of colonization, but many parents believe if you give your child a name in English, it will help them get ahead in life,” says Pinkrose Mpofu, a call-center operator in Johannesburg who is from Zimbabwe. Ms. Mpofu doesn’t have to look far to find more recipients of that naming ethos: Down the hall are Zimbabweans Thanksalot and Godknows. “We get a lot of laughs when we introduce ourselves,” she says.

The names are reminders of the Zimbabwe that once was, a country with Africa’s highest literacy rate and one of its most rigorous and democratic postcolonial school systems. It left behind a generation of seasoned English-speakers, even among the country’s poorest. 

The buoyancy of that era – which stretched across the 1980s – is even recorded in popular names of the time, including that of a man this writer once interviewed named Freeman Chari. Born in 1981, just a year after the country’s independence, Mr. Chari was the first in his family to grow up a free man.

But as political violence accelerated and Zimbabwe’s economy splintered under the weight of policies from international lenders in the early 1990s, many began to flee the country. Today, some 2 million to 4 million Zimbabweans live abroad, compared with a local population of just 14 million.

Most who leave come to South Africa, where their hopeful names – copied out again and again onto asylum petitions, applications for work permits, résumés, and job-wanted ads – are betrayed by the fact that they are in a nation of high unemployment and deep distrust of foreigners.

When he came to South Africa in 1991, Professor Ndlovu took up work as a gardener, because – despite his name – he was an unskilled immigrant and “there was nothing else,” he says. Shopman Moyo, who says his parents probably thought his name meant “businessman,” did not become one when he came to Johannesburg. He’s a Coca-Cola delivery man. 

“However long you are here, even if you have a South African passport like I do, the police look at the name on your ID and they know you are not from here,” says Last Sibanda, a mechanic who has lived in South Africa since 1996. “They begin to ask you strange questions.”

His name is a poignant token of family history. The 10th of 11 children, Mr. Sibanda was originally named Khiwa, a Shona word meaning “white person,” for his pale skin. But when his youngest brother died at age 3, their grief-stricken mother decided she would never have another baby, and sealed the promise by renaming her youngest living son “Last.”

Far from home, other Zimbabweans in South Africa tell more nostalgic family histories in their names. There’s Staysoft, a Johannesburg gardener named for a popular brand of fabric softener, who says he got his name because of the soft skin he had as a baby. Mpofu’s colleague Godknows was born to a single mother after his father “pulled a disappearing act,” so the name was “a comfort, a reminder to have faith that it would all work out.”

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