[lg policy] A Shona name for a white child in a tense Zimbabwe

Harold Schiffman haroldfs at GMAIL.COM
Fri May 28 14:39:27 UTC 2010

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

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

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

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


 Harold F. Schiffman

Professor Emeritus of
 Dravidian Linguistics and Culture
Dept. of South Asia Studies
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6305

Phone:  (215) 898-7475
Fax:  (215) 573-2138

Email:  haroldfs at gmail.com


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