After some months on Zanzibar I now start to get used to the names (in Swahili majina) commonly used here; and time after time I have “discovered” that many of these names can be found in my dictionary, because they are also frequently used Swahili words. The same phenomenon can be found in Norwegian names like Dag, Finn and Gro, or in English names like Joy, Cliff and Frank, but the fact that these names mean something is coincidental. In Zanzibar, however, the use of these types of names are much more widespred, and probably also more intentional. This caught my attention, so I tried to learn more about it, and this is the result of my little “investigation”.
First of all, Zanzibar is a muslim community, and islamic names like Ali, Mohammed (often abbreviated Moh´d), Bakar, Farid, Khadija / Hadiya, Fatma / Fatimah, Rashid, Othman, and Omar are frequently used. There are also a lot of Arabic versions of names we can recognize from the bible, like Suleiman (Salomon), Yussuf (Joseph), Mussa (Moses) and Maryam (Maria). On the list of Arabic names, we can also include names inspired by the timing of the birth of the person having this name: Idi (born during the Idd festival), Haji (or Hajira for girls, for a person born during the pilgrimage to Mecca, known as Hajj), Ramadan (born during this well known Islamic month), Rajab(u) (born during the 7. month in the Islamic calender, with the same name), Shawal (born during the 10. month in the Islamic calender, with the same name), Juma (born on a Friday, known in Swahili as ijumaa, which is a word with Arabic roots), and Hamisi/ Khamis (born on a Thursday, known in Swahili as al-khamis, which of course is also a word with Arabic roots). Much more could be said about these names and their meaning, but that is outside the scope of this blog post (because that would be more of an Arabic than a Swahili story).
What really fascinate me, and what I found confusing to begin with (because in some occations I didn´t understand that it was a name I was hearing/ reading, and not just another word in the sentence), are the names having straight forward meanings in Swahili. Many of these are beautiful, nice words that I can easily understand that parents would like to associate with their children: Lulu (pearl), Kito (gem stone), Heri (blessed/ successful), Salama (peace or safety), Jamala (courtesy/ elegance), Zawadi (present), Rehema (mercy), Amina (peaceful), Jabu (wonderful), Mahir(i) (skillful), Baraka (blessed, related to the wellknown name Barack).
Among the more neutral names we find Mosi, Pili and Tatu (meaning “one”, “two” and “three”, often refering to first born, second born and third born child of the family), as well as Tenda ([to] do), Sadiki ([to] believe), Saada (help), Mkubwa (big man), Bimkubwa (big woman), and Mar(i)jani (coral). However, there are also a number of names that I find less flattering: Pakacha (plaited fruit basket), and Zabibu (grapes). And why would anyone name their newborn child Mzee (old person) or Bimkongwe (old lady)?
Some names are straigth out negative and would probably have caused the child to have a hard time in school, if the translated versions were used in Norway: Mtumwa (slave), Shida (problem), Kombo (wrong), Bimbaya (bad woman), Bimchafu (dirty woman), and Bimnono (fat woman). I have a hard time understanding how parents can call their own child things like this, and I have asked some of the locals about it. The explanation I have gotten is that these names are given to fool evil spirits (or even to fool God) into believing that the child is not worth taking, so some of these names are chosen when the family has already lost one or more children because of illnesses or accidents. This reminded me on another fascinating custom, that is quite common here: The face of newborn children are often painted, and according to what I´ve been told, the mother makes an effort to make the baby look ugly and dangerous in an attempt to scare away evil spirits.
Many of the boy names in Zanzibar (as in other muslim regions) begin with Abdul-, like Abdulrahman, Abdulrauf, Abdulwadud, Abdulsomad, Abdulshakur, Abdulkhalim, Abdulkhadir, Abdullah. They all mean the same: Abdul is Arabic and means “servant”, whereas the second part is one of the 99 different names for God (Often meaning things like “the Mercifully Gracious”, “the Most Mercifull”, “the Eternal”, “the Most Thankful”, “the Mild”, “the Patient”, “the Capable” and so on). So these names are probably chosen by parents who would like their son to serve God.
Similarly, many of the girl names in Zanzibar begin with Mwana-, but this has a completely different origin. Examples are Mwanaidi, Mwanajuma, Mwanakhamis, Mwanapili, Mwanaomar, Mwanakombo, Mwanajabu and so on. Mwana- means “child of”, so originally these names were probably given to the daughters of Idi, Juma, Khamis, Pili, Omar, Kombo, Jabu and so on, but I have been told that this is not the case anymore. However, these names can, like any other name, be found again and again in the same family. This is in fact one of many unformal rules regarding names:
Most Zanzibarians have three names, of which the two last equals the two first names of the father of that person. This means that the first name is generally given to that person, the second is the given name of the father, and the third is the given name of the paternal grandfather. The next “rule” is that the given name of the first born child is chosen by the father or the fathers family and friends. Many times they will choose to name boys after their paternal great grandfather. This means that for many generations all first born boys in a family can share the same three names, with the internal order between the names as the only difference (for instance: Ali Khamis Mohammed is the father of Mohammed Ali Khamis, who is the father of Khamis Mohammed Ali, who is the father of Ali Khamis Mohammed and so on). But the mother and her family has also got some rights: The second born child, and every second child after that, has the name chosen by the mother and her family. So the unequality between the sexes, when it comes to naming of the offspring, isn´t quite as huge as I first thought. Anyway, as we say in Norway “the name is no disgrace for anyone!” (“navnet skjemmer ingen”)