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Jabulani Means Rejoice: A Dictionary of South African Names

| August 29, 2016 | 0 Comments

Author: Phumzile Simelane Kalumba
Publisher: Modjaji Books
ISBN: 978-1-920397-34-0
Reviewed by: Fiona de Villiers

Modjaji Books is an independent publishing enterprise thoroughly deserving of the support of South African schools.

In addition to publishing novels from new authors, Modjaji (named for the Balebedu Rain Queen, Modjadji) also produces other works with a distinctive South African flavour and for a variety of possible purposes. Jabulani Means Rejoice:A Dictionary of South African Names, by Phumzile Simelane Kalumba, is one such book. At first glance, it seems to be just what its name proclaims: a dictionary of over 5 000 South African first names from nine of our 11 official languages, accompanied by their origin and their literal and contextual meaning. However, there’s much more on offer here.

Names carry weight

In 1964, proclaimed author Ursula le Guin penned a short story called “The Rule of Names”,1 which formed in part the basis of her later masterpiece, the Earthsea fantasy. Names play an important role in both works. Says one critic of the “The Rule of Names”:
It… focuses on two main concepts: the idea that appearances can be deceiving and the idea that words can hold mystical power… a true name is a name of a thing or a person that expresses or reveals its true nature. It is derivative of the idea of sacred words.2

People’s names are important in many cultures. So we might wonder why actress Gwyneth Paltrow chose the name “Apple” for her daughter.3 Kalumba, in her fascinating foreword to this dictionary, has some ideas that could inform such a discussion.

The crushing power of colonialism

At the very start, Kalumba utters a lament: “How did we lose our beautiful [South African] traditional names and how will we reclaim them?”

Her research provides the answer:
Christian missionaries from Europe built the first schools… school administrators gave a child a new name, known as a school name… with the inferiority complex instilled by colonialism, the use of African names became shameful…. But traditional names are not just black names for black people… they have significance to both the name-giver and the one being named. They are containers of memories and significant relationships.

Research included family ties

The idea of creating a dictionary of South African names came to Kalumba when she had her own children and was living in Kampala. Her Ugandan husband wanted South African names for his offspring, untainted by the memory of conflict in the land of his own birth. So Kalumba started researching South African names for their eagerly awaited sons and daughters. This process continued as their family grew and moved for a time to England, then back to South Africa.

Kalumba (her own first name, Phumzile, means “one who made me rest”) explains the fascinating tradition of naming in this country. Her own father had three names, she recounts, which her grandmother employed to explain her own fate. When her first husband died, she was given in marriage to his brother.

The first of her son’s names was Muzikawungcwatshwa, meaning literally, “you do not bury a home”, and symbolically that the bride did as was expected of her. She gave her son a second name, Muzikawulahlwa (“you cannot throw away a home”), to reinforce that she had remarried as a mark of respect and a third name, Muzikawaliwa (“you cannot refuse a home”), to indicate that she had not wanted to remarry this man. Says Kalumba, “The naming tradition in South Africa is deeply bound up with the stages of life, each of which might be marked by the assumption of a new name: birth, initiation, marriage, the birth of [other] children and the circumstances of bereavement.”

Do you know what your name means?

Naming also used to be closely associated with historical events, says Kalumba. Children may in the past have been named to mark a destructive act of nature, or political unrest. “In the absence of formal birth records, a name could thus be used to estimate the age of its bearer.”

In some South African traditions, Kalumba adds, children have been given “ugly” or distasteful names to protect them from evil. Some children are also named to bear witness to their mother’s status in her community, or her emotional state at some particular time. And, says Kalumba, “The use of surnames as first names is ancient practice. One reason for giving a child such a name was to reinforce the identity of the child and to honour the father and the family to which the child belonged.”

Use this book in all classes

As book reviewer and a teacher for 15 years, I am a firm believer that (a) teachers should constantly be on the lookout for new resources to enrich their practice, and (b) that teachers can enliven classes by teaching collaboratively and across disciplines.

Jabulani Means Rejoice: A Dictionary of South African Names could be used in language classrooms to reinforce spelling, vocabulary and other grammatical concepts. In social science lessons, the historical, sociological and anthropological ideas mentioned above could come to the fore. In life orientation lessons, names and their cultural significance across the globe could satisfy many curriculum requirements. In drama, a multitude of “name games” suggest themselves.

Just to pick this book up and recite the names – an exercise that gives over to a simple, pleasing rhythm – is to be part of our rich, South African heritage: “Hlayisa, Hlayisani, Hlayiseka, Hlebani, Hlelili, Hlelo, Hlelolwenkosi…”


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Category: Spring 2016

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