Names of the nation, annotated

Names are containers of memories, relationships, schools of thought. They tell our stories and the stories of our ancestry.

So when Alicia Keys sang You Don’t Know My Name to Mos Def in a 2004 music video, she was saying: “You don’t know my story.”

Keys was a waitress in a diner and Mos Def was a handsome patron. As a youngster watching the clip, I thought to myself: “Mara, he is here every day! Why doesn’t she just tell him what her name is, if it’s so important?”

Fifteen years later, after reading Jabulani Means Rejoice: A Dictionary of South African Names and growing up a little, I get it.

The name of the author, Phumzile Innocentia Simelane Kalumba, tells a story in itself.

When she was born, eMkhondo, a small town near Piet Retief in Mpumalanga, she received her first name, Phumzile, and her maiden surname, Simelane.
“I am the last-born in the family and the only girl, so my mother named me Phumzile, which means ‘one who has made me rest’ in all Nguni languages,” she says.

She moved to KwaNongoma in KwaZulu-Natal to attend school, where she used her second name, Innocentia, also bestowed on her by her parents.

“During the era of colonialism in South Africa, Christian missionaries from Europe built the schools, hospitals and churches. A new convert was required to take a Christian name. School administrators gave a child a new name, known as a school name on registration day. Innocentia is my school name,” she says.

After school she completed her bachelor of commerce degree at the University of Cape Town in 1998.

When she married her Ugandan husband, Denis Kalumba, two years later, she took on his last name.

Simelane Kalumba has also lived and worked in Johannesburg, Kampala and the United Kingdom. Although her academic focus is business, the experience of motherhood sparked her fascination with South African names.

“Giving birth to my children was the beginning of this book,” she says. “My husband wanted our children to have South African names because they are names with meaning. Uganda is a land that has been scarred by many wars. The current naming culture [in Uganda] is founded on a religious divide, and most people carry names that primarily indicate whether they are Christian or Muslim.”

When she returned to South Africa she studied linguistics in isiXhosa at the University of the Western Cape and took a special interest in onomastics, the study of the history and origin of proper names.

Jabulani Means Rejoice meticulously catalogues thousands of African names from nine South African languages. They are listed in alphabetical order with gender indications as well as information on ethnographic origins and meanings. The book also provides cultural context and history, discussing everything from the naming rituals themselves to the practice of using names to protect newborns from the curse of the evil eye.

Curiously, the book does not include phonetic details about pronunciation, which suggests it is intended for South Africans with a basic command of at least some of the indigenous languages. Yet the tone and content of the introductory essay suggest it is aimed at readers without any such foundation.

But Jabulani Means Rejoice serves as a welcome and valuable reference on naming practices. It answers questions for which a name bearer may not have the answers, and it contributes to South Africa’s rich indigenous knowledge systems. 

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