Traditional Zambian African Names

What Does Your Traditional Zambian African Name Mean?
What does your Zambian name mean? When I was growing up in rural Zambia, many people had solid traditional names. But they also had interesting modern ones. A cousin was known as “Because”. There were individuals with names like Twelufu (twelve), Badwell, Sign, Beenwell. Many attractive young girls had names like Fatness, Fainess, Mainess. More recently, I encountered an elderly man whose nickname was “Ethye” the equivalent of “sneeze” in English. One also comes across names in newspapers, radio and everyday life like Skin, Experience, Given, Cloud. You probably have a Zambian name or know someone who has a Zambian traditional name in Kaonde, Bemba, Ngoni, Lozi, Tonga etc. But you don’t know what their name means.

A study was conducted in 1988 among the Tonga of Southern Province to find out what Tonga traditional names mean. A group of people participated in a study conducted by this author at the Institute for African Studies University of Zambia. They responded to a “Tonga Indigenous Names Questionnaire.”

The respondents, who were between the age of twenty and seventy years, were drawn from a total of twenty-two villages in two districts of the Southern Province of Zambia; Choma and Gwembe Valley.  A total of 134 people participated in the study; eighty-six men and forty-eight women. In the majority of cases, the groups of nine up to fifteen people agreed about the meanings of the various Tonga traditional names. But in some cases, they did not know the meaning of certain names and some names had more than one meaning or several circumstances in which the child or person was given the name.

A total of three hundred and eleven (311) Tonga traditional names were collected. The ten Tonga names which were most frequently cited in descending order are:

1) Nchimunya which means “the same”. The name is given to the third or more consecutive daughters or sons born to a family.

2) Mutinta means “to change”. The name is given to a baby girl born after the woman had two or more consecutive sons. The name can also be given to a baby boy born after a woman had two or more consecutive daughters.

3) Michelo means “roots” or “herbs”. The name is given to a baby boy or girl who is born to a couple who spent many years of failing to conceive until roots or traditional herbs were used in order for the woman to conceive.

4) Cheelo means animal, nothing, meaningless, ghost. The name is given to a baby boy or girl born to a woman whose preceding babies always died. The couple is saying why give the new baby a person’s, ancestor’s or real name if she or he is going to die anyway?

5) Lweendo means journey and is given to a baby boy or girl who was born when the mother was on a journey.

6) Miyanda means “roots” and has the same meaning as Micheelo.

7) Mainza means rain season. The name is given to a baby boy or girl who was born in the rain season.

8) Muchaala means “to remain behind” and is given to a boy or girl whose mother or father died soon after the baby was born.

9) Milimo means “work”. It is given to a baby boy or girl who was born when parents were busy in the field in the rain season, building a house etc.

10) Chimuka means “late” and is given to a baby boy or girl who was born late or beyond the ninth month of pregnancy.     Generally, the study showed that the Tonga traditional names are chosen according to  significant social events that might have happened when the baby was born. For example, the high infant mortality rate particularly in the olden days before the introduction of clinics and vaccinations forced parents to express their anxiety and sorrow through particular names like “Cheelo”. Other events that influenced the choice of names were difficulties that might be encountered as couples try to conceive, performing vital activities like farming, marital disputes, war, village conflict, time of the day when the baby was born; evening, night, dawn. Many names and nicknames reflected the baby or adult’s character and personality.     These findings might explain why some Zambians have modern peculiar names. May be Zambians choose some of their modern first names because of the significant and important impact of the modern urban life on their social survival and existence.   The names reflect their continuous attempt at assimilating and accommodating the influence of the train, motor vehicle, the factory, money economy, reading and writing, the cinema, the video, employment in the modern sector, and urban living on their life style and world outlook. If this is the case then we will continue to see an increase on the Radio and in newspapers of such names as Supuni (spoon), Foloko (fork), Pensulo (pencil), Financial, Umbrella, Clever, Jazz, Trouble, Shoulderblade, T-bone etc.

Names bearing some of  these meanings and others are available in the full book which is a comprehensive research report from the last 25 years of field research into Zambian traditional names during my periodic summer travel to Zambia.Mwizenge S. Tembo, Zambian Traditional Names: the Meaning of Tumbuka Chewa Nsenga Ngoni and Tonga Names , Lusaka, Julubbi Enterprises Limited, 2006.

The book is available at Lusaka International Airport Departure Lounge Gift Store, The Book World Bookstore at Manda Hill Shopping Mall and the University of Zambia Bookstore in the Capital City of Lusaka in Zambia. I have a limited number of copies. If you would like a copy of Zambian Traditional Names, write a check for $20.00 to Mwizenge S. Tembo and mail it to: 302 Sandstone Circle, Bridgewater, VA 22812.