A name of our own

• The Bible tells us that when God had finished creating the world, he tasked Adam – as his first duty to himself and his creator – to name the animals in the Garden of Eden. By so doing, Adam established the dominion over the Earth that God had granted him. In giving names to people and things, writes The Editor of the Southern Times, MABASA SASA, we assert who we are, where we came from, and where we are going. That is reason enough for African countries to rename colonial landmarks. English bard William Shakespeare, in his 1600 play “Romeo and Juliet”, wrote: “What’s in a name? that which we call a rose/ By any other name would smell as sweet.” It all sounds very pretty, but that which applies to a rose surely cannot apply to all that is in the world. Names mean a lot. And that is why just a few weeks ago there was a lot of noise over the renaming of Gloudina Street in Windhoek, Namibia. That road has been renamed Joseph Makwayu Ithana Street, after the late Namibian liberation hero and former chairperson of that country’s Public Service Commission. If a name was just a name, then a lawyer called Andreas Vaatz would not have tried so mightily to keep it as Gloudina Street. After all, the road remains the same, cars can still use it, people can still walk on it, and dogs can still do their business on it. So evidently the rose does not smell just as sweet because it has a different name. It is worth noting that the street being fought over is in an upmarket Windhoek suburb, one mostly populated by white folk. They would like to keep on honouring their own and hence the opposition. On the other hand, black Africans would like to honour and preserve their own history by having a name of their own. There was no corresponding outcry of such a magnitude in Zambia recently when President Michael Sata renamed airports and a stadium to honour liberation stalwarts like Kenneth Kaunda and Simon Mwansa Kapwepwe, among others. President Sata said of his decision: “We have to reconcile with the past. This country is what it is because of the past.” How much simpler can it be! But it is not so simple in Zimbabwe, where the authorities have essentially ruled out renaming their biggest tourist attraction. Named after a British monarch, for decades many people have said the mighty curtain of water should cease to be called Victoria Falls. They prefer the indigenous name, Mosi oa Tunya – the smoke that thunders. Surely, that name is more powerful and alluring; but the state will have none of it. And so today, Livingstone’s statue still stands over the falls as if to validate the claim that he “discovered” them, and moreso as if to assert his “right” to name Mosi oa Tunya after his queen. William Bright, a Gambian who is passionate about the issue, wrote in a piece titled “Renaming Africa’s Landmarks” that “self-definition is self-empowerment.” He wrote: “Let’s start by renaming Lake Victoria and the Victoria Falls back to their original African names that they were known as before they were rudely changed. “These great landmarks were ridiculously named after a British monarch who more than likely never visited these sites, and had absolutely no historical, cultural, ancestral or other relevant links to these landmarks other than the fact that the areas were conquered by her country and rudely renamed after totally disregarding the names they were know as. “Before these landmarks were ‘discovered’ by the Europeans they had local names.” Bright has started a Facebook campaign to pressure the African Union and the continental leadership to get rid of names not of our own. The campaign’s raison d’etre: “We need to preserve our heritage that those who invaded us a long ago rudely interrupted. “Yes we may not be able to rectify everything, but little by little we can achieve self-actualization through self-definition.” Bright continues: “This campaign is to start with two very big landmarks of global interest and say to the world that we are Africans and we are redefining Africa… “Modern Ghana was known as the Gold Coast. What does this say to you? “To me, it is a reference to the amount of gold that could be looted and stolen from that area and the people who inhabit it. “The name totally disregards the gallant Asante, Fante and other tribes that resided in that area. “The only interest was the gold. Thankfully when the Gold Coast regained independence, it changed its name to Ghana after an ancient kingdom, which was actually located around the area of Mali… “The same goes for Ivory Coast. It’s a shame that this ridiculous name still exist. “Upper Volta was changed and renamed Burkina Faso (Country of Honesty) in 1984 under the rule of the great Thomas Sankara. How very brilliant was that! “Sierra Leone. What a ghastly name. In fact the people refer to their country as Salone. “I think this is a better name, as it is an Africanization of Sierra Leone. “The name came about because a Spanish voyager seeing the mountains from a ship, thought that they resembled lions and called them ‘mountain lions’ in Spanish. “Thus Sierra Leone! Imagine if this voyager was an Englishman, this place would have been called Mountain Lion, and the people would be called Mountain Lioners???” It is not just in Africa where this issue of naming is contentious. The Angel Falls in Venezuela – the tallest falls in the world – were named after American pilot Jimmie Angel in 1933. The man was looking for “a river of gold when he came close to flying into a cascade of water so high it seemed to fall from the sky”. The lost fortune-seeker never found the river of gold but left his name to the falls. President Hugo Chavez, uncomfortable with the country’s most famous landmark being named after a lost American, and declared: “This is ours, long before Angel arrived there. This is indigenous property, ours, aborigine.” There are no more Angel Falls in Venezuela, they are now called Kerepakupai-Merú, which means “waterfall of the deepest place” in the indigenous Pemon language. President Chavez did not stop there. He changed Christopher Columbus Day to Indigenous Resistance Day. Interestingly, Columbus was also lost when he bumped into America (how many of our names come from lost Westerners?!) In addition, President Chavez changed the country’s official name to the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, in honour of independence hero Simon Bolivar – after whom Bolivia is also named. In Australia, Ayers Rock has been renamed Uluru; it’s original Aborigine name. European explorer William Gosse “discovered” it in 1873 and renamed it Ayers Rock after Sir Henry Ayers, then chief secretary of the colony of South Australia. Several Indian cities have changed their names in recent times: “Madras reverted to Chennai, its name when the East India Company established a trading post in 1639; Bombay became Mumbai in 1996; and Calcutta became Kolkata. Even in the United Kingdom, the trend has caught on. Liverpool Airport, one of the oldest in the country, was in 2002 renamed after one of its most famous sons – John Lenon. The changed logo is a self-portrait by Lennon and a line from his song “Imagine” that goes: “Above us only sky.” There is power in naming. The Bible tells us that God gave Adam dominion over all Earth. To assert his authority he was told to name every animal in the Garden of Eden. This was a show of ownership, of dominion. It also allowed Adam to define the space around him and which he had dominion over. It was the first exercise of authority and sovereignty. By giving a name, you are assigning values and characteristics both to that which has been named and to yourself as a sovereign. There is a reason why very few landmarks and/or structures in Europe and America are named after Africans. And it just might have something to do with the fact that they exercised authority over us and thus have no reason to treat our names with honour. Yes, you will find a statue and a road here and there named after Nelson Mandela, but you will not get much by way of Kwame Nkrumah, Gamal Abdel Nasser, Patrice Lumumba and Samora Machel. Those are our heroes and we should honour them: no one is ever going to do it for us. There is real power in naming, let’s exercise it!

November 2011
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