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South Sudan’s tricky name game

Nile Republic, Kush Republic, Juwama and Azania — these were some of the tantalising names that were being touted for the new state comprising the southern provinces of Sudan. Alas, the grey-suited politicians made a beeline for the obvious: South Sudan.

Juwama was perhaps the least attractive of the options: a portmanteau term for Juba, Wau and Malakal, the three main cities of the south. It just doesn’t roll off the tongue like Tanzania, which amalgamates the names of mainland Tanganyika and the island of Zanzibar.

Explaining why they were sticking with the tried and tested, Benjamin Marial, South Sudan’s information minister, said, “that is the majority preference — it’s the easiest for the time being; there are already many things with that name”, referring to government agencies. “Should the people of South Sudan in the future want a new name, they’ll have that chance.”

Poor Azania, Black Consciousness disciples are probably lamenting — it never quite makes it. Its origins are obscure, but some scholars think it was used by Persians, perhaps Arabs, to refer to Africa’s darker-skinned peoples.

An internet search reveals that a number of African states have names alluding to the complexions of their inhabitants. Sudan itself is derived from the Arab phrase bilad as-sudan, “land of the blacks”.

Two states, Niger and Nigeria, use the word niger — Latin for black — which was originally applied to the great West African river.

Tossing names around
Guinea, adopted by the states of Equatorial Guinea, Guinea-Bissau and Guinea-Conakry, comes from the Berber word aguinaw, or gnawa, meaning “black man”.

Rhodesia was never going to survive, for obvious reasons. Long before independence in 1980 nationalists were tossing around names for the then only dreamt-of nation.

One suggestion was Matopos, which was greeted with widespread disapproval, probably because it is the resting place of Cecil John Rhodes.

So Zimbabwe it became — a name, explained nationalist Lawrence Vambe, that was “an act of defiance to our white masters who argued that we were far too primitive to construct such a sophisticated structure as Great Zimbabwe”.

Geographical features are another option for ethnically diverse countries, as highlighted by Zambia (after the Zambezi River), Kenya (Mount Kenya), Namibia (Namib Desert) and Upper Volta (the Volta River).

But the last survived only two decades — in a moment of revolutionary enthusiasm in 1984, radical president Thomas Sankara renamed Upper Volta Burkina Faso — “Land of Upright People” in the Mossi language.

Very appropriate for a leader who banned the Mercedes-Benz for himself and his ministers. Local is not always lekker. Africa is itself a Latin word, whereas Cameroon comes from Rio de Camarões, Portuguese for the “river of prawns”, the name given to the Wouri river by Portuguese explorers.

To accommodate its successive leaders the Democratic Republic of the Congo may have changed its name more often than any other African state.

Named the Congo at independence in 1960, after the Bakongo people and the Congo River, it was renamed Zaire by tyrant Mobutu Sese Seko when he overthrew Patrice Lumumba. Zaire is a KiKongo adaptation of a word meaning “the river that swallows all rivers”.

In 1997 Lumumbaist Laurent Kabila seized power and promptly reverted to the Congo. But in the end, what’s in a name?

The carnage in the Congo continues — so perhaps the South Sudanese are being a little more honest than their predecessors.

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Percy Zvomuya
Percy Zvomuya is a writer and critic who has written for numerous publications, including Chimurenga, the Mail & Guardian, Moto in Zimbabwe, the Sunday Times and the London Review of Books blog. He is a co-founder of Johannesburg-based writing collective The Con and, in 2014, was one of the judges for the Caine Prize for African Writing.

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