From time immemorial, native names have been part of our cultural heritage and have added value to the way citizens of a specific tribal grouping understand certain things in society.
But little by little, with the dawn of urbanisation and Christianity as facilitated by intermarriages, native names are slowly fading across the country.
For Clifford Kamfumu Sikanona Mkanthama, a longtime advocate for the preservation of the Malawian culture and traditions, native names fading trends, date way to the 18th century.
According to him, the history behind African names fading stems from the dawn of Christianisation in the country in the 1850s.
Mkanthama said: “When Christianity was introduced in Malawi, anything that was or seemed to be rooted in traditions was viewed negatively (za chikunja)
“Christianity was the new life, new creation and those who had embraced Christ had to change their traditional names.
“Names from the Bible were optional ones, but any English name would also be appropriate. Chisumphi was worshipped before the new God from the Bible.”
He said as time went by, the former understood local names but the latter needed these names changed to be relevant to the exigencies of the church.
For instance, Mdaphawachete (you killed the innocent) as a local name had a meaning, but these witch-hunting slogans created negative gossip as names not good enough for salvation.
“Such names needed to be replaced with more Christian-friendly ones. If you had changed to being a good person from a bad one you could be a Paul from Saul and it made some religious sense,” said Mkanthama.
He added that giving names to children had a special place in the life of a child in Malawi.
Names denoted history and what had happened when a child was born. If they were born during troubled times, they would be called Mavuto as a mark for their background.
“Also having traditional conviction about names does give pride and confidence to the parents to name their children,” he said.
Elsewhere among the Tumbuka, names such as Mujinyumwe, Muleza and Nyuma had been a symbol of who the bearer of such names are in their families.
For Traditional Authority (T/A) Ndindi of Salima, new names can never be avoided in modern days where urbanisation and intermarriages are part of life.
“The world is evolving and we should expect such impacts on our cultural values, including names.
“A number of cultural aspects such as the way we dress, eat, or even dance are changing to suit modern life,” he said.
According to the traditional leader, the few parents who still value local names will always face resistance.
“Our children are difficult to convince, they are surrounded by more urbanised environment shaping their way of living,” he added.
On his part, Levi Zeleza Manda said the trends on the fading of native names cannot be generalised across all tribal groupings.
He says, compared to 50 years ago, there are more parents today giving their children local names.
“Even people who had their African names changed upon baptism are changing and adopting their childhood names.
“Married women are also reverting to their maiden surnames or hyphenating their maiden surnames with those of their husbands,” said Manda.
T/A Ndindi concludes by saying that from all cycles, native names have deep cultural meaning and they need to be valued and preserved. n