Tag: culture

The butchering of African names

Following this year’s Oscar awards, the media was abuzz with John Travolta’s mispronunciation of an Oscar nominee’s name. He introduced Idina Menzel as the “wickedly talented, one and only Adele Dazeem”. American-born Menzel, whose ancestry is Russian and Jewish, subsequently laughed off this faux pax, calling it “funny“. However, Travolta’s actions are indicative of a wider and more problematic practice of westerners regularly butchering international names that they are not familiar with. It has become somehow excusable for them to consistently get it wrong – and many will not even make an attempt to pronounce the name correctly. When it comes to African names in particular, this propensity to towards pronouncing foreign names ‘any old way and how’ seems to increase.

Africa has been treated with so much indifference over the years that a type of mental block emerges when Western journalists, talk show hosts, African country ‘experts’, and the general public are confronted with the African name. Africa is still very much the exotic ‘other’ in popular Western imagination. Therefore, names associated with Africa are perceived as somehow more exotic and different than other foreign names – leading to the perception that they are more so difficult to pronounce for Westerners. Consequently, it has become even more acceptable to accept the mispronunciation of African names.

Typically, people take great care to make sure they pronounce another person’s name correctly unless they don’t care or they make the error deliberately. African names are consistently placed outside of these social norms because they are the African ‘other’. In Sigmund Freud’s studies, he noticed that the aristocrats would subconsciously mispronounce the names of their physicians more than any other group. This was interpreted as a way for the aristocracy to keep physicians in their place and remind them of their own social prestige. In doing so, they were also effectively relaying the message that doctors were not important enough for them to bother pronouncing their names correctly. The continued mispronunciation of African celebrity names sends a similar message. Therefore the common practice of pronouncing a stranger’s name correctly seems to be lost, either because Africans are the exotic other with “difficult” names or because an individual simply doesn’t care enough to make an effort to get an African name right.

Lupita Nyong’o
While much attention was paid to the grotesque mispronunciation of Menzel’s name at the Oscars, few paid attention to the continued mispronunciation of Oscar nominee Lupita Nyong’o’s name. It’s mispronounced on a daily basis by people in American media that either don’t bother – or make a half effort – to learn how to correctly pronounce it. Some have argued that the mispronunciation of her name stems from the way it is spelled. The apostrophe in Nyong’o has proven to be troubling to journalists who are thrown off by it and often omit or misplace it. However, they have no problems with foreign apostrophised Irish names such as O’Reilly and O’Brien.

Lupita Nyong'o accepts her best supporting actress Oscar for her role in '12 Years A Slave'. (Pic: AFP)
Lupita Nyong’o accepts the best supporting actress Oscar for her role in ’12 Years A Slave’. (Pic: AFP)

Western media has somehow taken to pronouncing Lupita’s surname with a hard ‘g’ as is commonly used in Germanic languages such as the word ‘God’ in English – or ‘Gott’ in German. When prompted, Nyong’o has repeatedly informed the media that the ‘g’ in her surname is a silent or soft ‘g’ – as with ‘song’ in English or menge (crowd) in German.  Logically then, if you can say “Song of [Solomon]”, then you can correctly pronounce Nyong’o. Perhaps out of desperation over the mental block adopted by the Western public who just can’t seem to “relate” to the exotic silent ‘g’, Nyong’o has gone as far as releasing a video to guide the media. This fell on deaf ears as media experts continued to pronounce it the way that is most comfortable for them.  So it was almost inevitable that on one of the biggest nights of her life, her name was announced by Austrian Christoph Waltz with a hard ‘g’.

If it’s African, I can’t pronounce it
Other African names such as Chiwetel Ejiofor, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and even Germanic African names such as golfer Louis Oosthuizen cause fumbles. Even African presidents are not immune. Many will recall how journalists struggled to correctly pronounce Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela and the name of his birthplace, Qunu.  Those that could not pronounce these simply left them out. Omission seems to be a ready remedy to “difficult” names. Some may have noticed that the name of the so-called “fake sign language interpreter” at Mandela’s funeral, Thamsanqa Jantjie, was rarely used in media headlines and some television reporters avoided saying his name – they simply erased his name and hence identity.

In extreme cases, Westerners take insulting liberties with the pronunciation of African names to the point where they are not recognisable. Although he spent nine long months in the desert with Egyptian actor Omar Sharif, Irish actor Peter O’Toole did not make an effort to learn the stage name of his co-star. Rather than taking the time to ask him how to pronounce what can be considered a typical name for an African of Arab origin, O’Toole decided to call Sharif  “Fred”, saying “no one in the world is called Omar Sharif”. His arrogant attitude is a clear example of how African names quickly become completely negated using ethnocentric lenses and justifications.

What’s in a name?
A person’s name is important marker of their identity and it should be treated as such. One’s name is of enormous significance to both the individual and the naming system in their society. The Ashanti in Ghana give names based on kinship, day of the week and circumstances surrounding the birth or occupation. The Yoruba in Nigeria, give names based on the physical condition of the baby at birth, birth order, the family’s social status or professional affiliation. In other cultures it may have religious significance such as warding off evil spirits. In the Senegalese Muslim tradition, names like Malik (King) have religious symbolism. Similarly, Mahmoud (fulfillment) – another popular North African Muslim – has significant meaning. Regardless of when, why, or where it happens, the giving and receiving of a name is of major importance. To simply omit or mispronounce them is extremely problematic.

Since one’s name carries such significance, people generally resent the mispronunciation of their name. It amounts to a distortion and misrepresentation of their identity. Accidental distortions or mistakes in pronouncing a name can be irritating. However, deliberate mispronunciations and distortions of a name – whether conscious or not – are sizable insults. As more African celebrities appear on the international stage, Western media should familiarise and educate themselves on how to pronounce African names correctly.

Sitinga Kachipande is a blogger and PhD student in Sociology at Virginia Tech. Her interests include Africana studies, tourism, development, global political economy, women’s studies, identity and representation. Follow her on Twitter: @MsTingaK

Being African abroad: Are we a lost generation?

A few weeks ago, I was approached by an elderly Somali man who asked about my ethnicity. I responded that I was Somali. He then began to ask for help in Somali. As he described what he needed, I stood there blank-faced, staring at this man and trying to figure out how to explain to him that I could not understand Somali. I mean, yes I am Somali. But I do not speak the language.

When I finally mustered up the courage to tell him, a wave of frustration appeared on his face. He was dumbfounded. “You do not understand,” he said. “Your language is your passport. Without it, you are just a Somali by appearance and nothing else,”  he protested rather poetically. I realised he made a very valid point. I truly had nothing that separated me from my fellow Canadian peers besides my skin complexion. I could not speak my language and the older I became the more I realised I had picked the ‘westernised’ card over the ‘embracing my ethnicity’ card. It was time I found my roots.

Growing up, I was always the token black kid in most of my classes. I had the darkest skin, the roughest hair. To put it simply, I was always the “sore thumb” in all my class photos. Despite being born and raised in Toronto, I was still subjected to societal segregation due to my appearance. It was nothing drastic, but I was still bullied or stereotyped by my peers and teachers. However, over time, I learned to adapt. Like a turtle, I mastered the ability to live both in water and on land. Or, I should say, I learned to survive at home and outside of my home.

I was taught at school that unlike the United States and their forceful melting pot, Canada embraced all of our various ethnic descendants. Usually, when a teacher would discuss Canada and our ‘tossed salad’ analogy, he/she would make it a fact to point at my direction while enthusiastically claiming I was an example of this wonderful multicultural nation, then ignorantly ascribing me to a random African country of his/her choosing to prove their point. During moments like those I wished that I was not a case study for my social studies class; that I could fit in with the Rebeccas and Ashleys sitting around me. To me, fitting in was entirely different from belonging. I did not feel as though I wanted to belong as I understood that I could never truly belong in this society. Instead, I felt I needed to learn how to adapt mannerisms, so that I would avoid such situations in the future. Being westernised seemed ideal.

My parents made it a point to make sure I acknowledged that I was both Somali and Muslim, as these descriptors became almost entirely interchangeable. However, at school I was just the black kid so these descriptors truly meant nothing to my classmates. As Christian beliefs dominated throughout my schooling life, trying to explain an Islamic holiday or fasting during Ramadan became irritating as my classmates could not fathom why I was not eating during lunchtime. They would ignorantly assume I forgot my lunch – every day for a month. This explanation appeared to be more logical for them to believe, rather than to care to understand that I was fasting for God. The reality was that westernised values collided with my traditional Somali values.

A “double identity” was not easy to achieve. My parents were traditional Somalis living in Toronto; my peers were all Canadians. I spent most of the day with my peers rather than my parents, so as time passed I slowly began leaning towards my Canadian identity rather than my parents’ traditional Somali one. The task of forging an ethnic identity is compounded by opposing demands from the two worlds. At school and with my peers, the more “westernised” I was the easier and more relatable I became. I wouldn’t call my parents ‘hoyo’ (mother) or ‘abo’ (father) in public, I would address them as mom and dad. I would not carry any Somali food in my lunch bag,  I’d take a  peanut butter and jelly sandwich with suitable snacks that I could be able to trade with the other kids during lunchtime.

I highly doubt my parents or parents of other second-generation children would imagine that their kids would be put in a situation where they would have to deal with the clashing of values. As I grew older, I began to witness the extremes: some second generation children began rejecting their culture or even effectively removing themselves from interaction with members of that culture just to avoid the stigmatisation of being associated with their nationality. Others began to develop a heightened sense of ethnic pride, often in reaction to discrimination or hostility from the host society. Either way, both seemed extremely drastic to me.

(Pic: Reuters)
(Pic: Reuters)

The manner in which Somali youths, or even second generation African youths, understand their identity is complex. The majority of second generation Somalis struggle with the notion of identity simply because identity and culture are deeply intertwined – as religion is an identity, and nationality is an identity, and so on. It seems as though rather than incorporating various aspects of both the western culture and our traditional culture, the majority of Somalis seems to have lost the overall Somali culture in their process of attempting to assimilate into society. There are more of us, who are unable to speak the language, or who do not generally uphold our cultural values.

We tend to forget that we are the future of our cultures. We are the ones who will carry forward our language, and our traditions. However, if we are too busy attempting to assimilate into a society that essentially rejects us, who will continue to keep our traditions alive? I would like to think there is hope. We have a chance to change our situation. Rather than suppressing one’s identity, I feel as though it is time we began embracing the variety of identities.

If not now, when will we?

Iman Hassan is a specialised political science student at York University in Toronto, Ontario.

Replica of Tutankhamun’s tomb aims to divert tourists from threatened site

An exact replica of the tomb of Tutankhamun is set to be installed near the 3 000-year-old original, in what one of the world’s leading Egyptologists has called a revolutionary development in Egyptian archaeological conservation.

King Tutankhamun is removed from his stone sarcophagus in an underground tomb in the famed Valley of the Kings in Luxor. (Pic: AFP)
King Tutankhamun is removed from his stone sarcophagus in an underground tomb in the famed Valley of the Kings in Luxor. (Pic: AFP)

Officials hope the £420 000 (R6.8-million) project will prolong the life of the original while promoting a new model of sustainable tourism and research in a country where many pharaonic sites are under severe threat.

Tutankhamun’s tomb is one of 63 burial sites in Luxor’s Valley of the Kings. After years of visitors, some have had to close due to damage while others – like Tutankhamun’s – are under threat, with restoration efforts likely to make the problem worse.

“The attempt to fix the tombs to make them visitable is itself now the largest long-term risk to the tombs,” said Adam Lowe, whose Spanish-based firm Factum Arte led and funded the creation of the tomb’s replica under the supervision of Egypt’s supreme council of antiquities.

The project aims to divert visitors away from the threatened original while still giving them the chance to experience what it is like inside. The process could be used to give visitors the chance to experience other sites that are too fragile ever to be opened again.

“It’s revolutionary,” said Kent Weeks, a leading Egyptologist who has been researching pharaonic sites since the 1960s. “It’s not just a way of protecting the tomb of Tutankhamun, but it’s a test case, a model that could be used to protect other sites across the country.”

The project’s leaders acknowledge that visiting a replica will sound less appealing to many than seeing the real thing. But they hope the facsimile, which is indiscernible from the original, will give visitors a better understanding of the tomb.

The original version can only be visited for short periods at a time, making enjoyment of its qualities difficult. But the sturdier replica will be able to accommodate more people for longer periods, allowing them to learn more about why the tomb is special.

Tourism decimated
“The challenge is to get people to visit the facsimile and say: my god, I can’t tell the difference – and what’s more, there are things I can experience in the facsimile that I can’t in the original,” said Lowe.

“We want people going to both, and tweeting and blogging and saying: this is a very interesting moment in the history of conservation, we understand the problem, and the facsimile is better than the original.”

With tourism decimated since the ousting of Mohamed Morsi as president in July, Egyptian authorities hope the new tomb will help bring visitors back to Luxor.

“This is the first build in the Valley of the Kings for 3nbsp;000 years,” said Nigel Hetherington, co-author of a book about the area. “We are essentially replicating a pharaoh’s tomb for the first time ever.”

He said that if was replicated across Egypt’s many other historical sites, many of which are under threat from looting and decay, the project could have other far-reaching benefits.

“It’s a long-term plan that will put Egyptians in charge of documenting their own heritage. With this technology, they’ll be able to scan any of their sites. In terms of building a database, it’s a godsend, and it could safeguard not just the Valley of the Kings, but all of Egypt’s heritage sites.”

The facsimile is said to be one of the most sophisticated replicas ever made. Its creation involved measuring 100 million points in every square metre of the original tomb. Factum Arte used laser scanners to capture the texture, shape and colours of the tomb, before reproducing it with machine-operated blades, some with a width of less than two-tenths of a millimetre.

The process builds on that used to make replicas of fragile caves in southern France, and a high-resolution facsimile of Veronese’s Wedding at Cana.

The tomb’s replica will be installed near the Luxor home of Howard Carter, the legendary Egyptologist. The installation is scheduled to start in December.

“There’s a lot of arguments between conservators and tourism experts about whether replicas will help or hinder tourism,” said Weeks. “But we should be able to show that there is no conflict between the economic needs of the country and conservation needs of the tombs. One can make a much more meaningful visit to the replica than one ever could to the original.”

Patrick Kingsley for the Guardian

T2T: Three friends, 24 countries, 165 days and 30 901km

Despite Africa’s impressive economic growth, it’s clear from the way people talk about and do business on the continent that views of Africa have not changed dramatically in the past 20 years. Some views are excessively positive, others overly negative. Both are equally harmful. We – that being me, my husband Matt and our friend Ishtar Lakhani – think it’s high time that changed. And so an idea was born – to do something to make people see Africa differently.

The aim of the T2T Africa expedition is to help people see Africa differently. (Supplied)
The aim of the T2T Africa expedition is to help people see Africa differently. (Pic: Supplied)

Having lived in three African countries – Ghana, Kenya and South Africa – and traveled or worked in another 20 between us, we learnt the hard way how narrow our view of the continent was. We now know that different size and colour condoms are required in even neighbouring countries. We know that a marketing campaign that was successful in one country can fail in another simply because the model wasn’t wearing shoes, and in that country only prostitutes don’t wear shoes.

We’ve learnt that differences go deeper than belief systems and languages, and similarities are not neatly contained within the arbitrary lines on maps. The treasure chest of cultures that exists on the continent requires more understanding and respect.

But what would be the best way to share these lessons? The most obvious way would be to illustrate that Africa is a continent of 54 diverse countries and to show as many countries as possible in as much detail as possible. We believe achieving this could be as simple as getting in a car and driving as far as time and money would allow.

This would give us access to some of the many unsung, self-funded projects that sustain thousands of people each day, allow us to learn about some of the cutting-edge technology that is helping to push the continent forward and, best of all, meet lots and lots of people. It’s these details that we believe could help all of us see Africa differently.

So that’s what we’re going to do: three friends, 24 countries, 165 days and 30 901km.

From the 5 October 2013 Ishtar Lakhani, Matt Angus-Hammond and I will be driving from Tsitsikamma in South Africa to Tataouine in Tunisia, via the southernmost and northernmost points of the continent with detours to the east and west coasts.

Along the way we will share as many pictures and stories as we can of the things we will see and learn, whether it be the story of a start-up entrepreneur, a trail blazing eco-tourism initiative or an incredible human being whose name we should all know.

The trip will take the three South Africans through 24 countries in 165 days and 30 901km. (Pic: Supplied)
The months-long trip will take the three South Africans to the four corners of the continent. (Pic: Supplied)

We’ll send updates via Twitter, our Facebook page, website, a weekly blog here on the Mail & Guardian’s Voices of Africa site and through as many other channels as we can along the way.

We also hope that our journey will make a difference to the people we meet along the way. One of our team is doing a master’s degree in food security and the other two have been part of a successful food garden in Orlando West, Soweto for eight years, so it made sense to take advantage of this experience.

So in addition to our #seeAfricadifferently campaign we will be planting 45 food gardens – an average of two per country – en route. The seeds and water-carrying equipment for this initiative will be purchased with R61 050 raised via Thundafund, Africa’s first crowd-funding platform, over a 60 day period.

Volunteers are being sourced via social media and experts all over the continent are generously giving us their time to make sure this has the best chance of succeeding. We know the gardens won’t all survive and that if we go back in two years some may no longer exist. But we also know that with the right people involved, within five years a single garden could be feeding an entire school of 60 staff and children daily.

Preparing for this trip has already taught us many lessons and the only thing we now know for sure is that while we don’t know what we’re in for it’s sure to be one heck of a journey. We hope you’ll join us for the ride

Tracy Angus-Hammond is a disabilities activist and social researcher with a passion for convincing others to see Africa differently. She volunteers at Nkanyezi and occasionally contributes to Africa: The Good News. She is also the owner and manager of a research consultancy, Angus Hammond Africa. Tracy has lived, traveled worked in more than 20 countries in Africa. Follow her on Twitter or visit the T2T website for more details on the trip.

I wanna hold your hand: Bro-love in Uganda

A friend visiting my hometown recently was quite shocked at the male-on-male affection he had received and witnessed since being in Uganda. As a heterosexual and somewhat macho male, he was uncomfortable with the hand-holding attempts made towards him by his Ugandan male hosts, coupled with the fact that he was completely caught off guard since he’d pegged Uganda as an ultra-masculine country as a result of all the anti-gay media reports. While the affection he was referring to has nothing to do with homosexuality or masculinity, it did make sense to me that an African-American 30-year-old male from New York would feel confused by a guy trying to hold his hand. I suppose I overlooked bringing up this cultural custom in my tourist guidelines for him, but I can see that it is noteworthy to mention, most especially to those with a more Western approach to same-gender PDA.

As a woman, observing male behavior from mannerisms to ego makes for interesting viewing – just as men enjoy peering, prowling and poking fun at our occasional feline cattiness and the mysticism surrounding us going to the bathroom in pairs. When you walk on Kampala’s streets, it isn’t uncommon to see two male friends walking hand in hand, peacefully and jubilantly swinging their hands in the basking sun or grown men greeting each other with a handshake that lingers into a hand interlock that lasts for a substantial part of the conversation. It is a very effortless and comfortable display of friendship, respect and affection. When I was younger I was embarrassed by my male family members holding hands with other males when greeting, most especially when they would do so with men of a different race, culture and background who were obviously uncomfortable and trying their level best to free themselves from the situation.

(Graphic: Kenny Leung)
(Graphic: Kenny Leung)

Western culture regards adult hand-holding as effeminate, romantic, something that generally takes place between a man and woman, a romantically involved couple, not between two heterosexual, non-feminine, virile African men. Once one gets rid of these preconceived and often fear-induced interpretations, it becomes obvious that these displays of affection are actually actions of good nature, solidarity and hospitality, not romantic fondness. In a debate with said African-American friend, I defended the affections he received from Ugandan males as no different to his regular greetings with his American friends. The only difference is that their actions have been adjusted and have conformed to fears and preconceptions of straight vs gay behaviour. I argued that their masculinity is increasingly being defined by rules and definitions of appropriate male behaviour in fear of seeming gay and ultimately fear of being gay, especially among black males. Same-gender affection is a normal part of life; our children do it naturally until they too become molded by ‘acceptable’ behavior, stereotypes and fear.

“I guess it’s an African thing,” he said.

I wasn’t going to let him get away with a conclusion that easily, most especially because I know many other cultures are less inhibited with expressions of bro-love. And I was right. Parts of Asia, the United Arab Emirates and other African countries tend to be more comfortable with male-on-male PDA, but just because it is uncommon in America now doesn’t mean it has always been that way.

I came across some 19th century American photography that proved my point. At the time it was quite common for men to go to a studio with their best friends and pose in seemingly affectionate and loving poses. They held hands, sat on each other’s laps, intertwined their hands and legs … I rest my case.  This was before homosexuality was termed such so perhaps the boundaries for homosexual behavior were less narrow and prejudiced. Men could hold hands because they liked each other, because they felt like it, because it wasn’t wrong to do so. This is all quite similar to 21st century Africa, where we aren’t yet as hung up with creating boundaries between heterosexual and homosexual behavior, although perhaps we are at the early stages of doing so.

When my African-American friend’s favourite basketball team celebrates a win or do whatever it is they do that drives them into a chest-bumping, ass slapping, hugging situation – that behavior isn’t equivocal to homosexuality, because it has been deemed appropriate by the powers that be, because it’s sports, adrenalin, basketball players or any other reason one could concoct, then it is acceptable? I guess so.

My friend felt assured and I suppose relieved that people weren’t making constant passes at him, but he wasn’t sure if he could return the love, and I get that. We can respect the cultural practices of others without having to conform to them. One needn’t feel forced to kiss another man on the cheeks because he is in Rome or walk the streets hand in hand with their buddy in Uganda but, as I said to my friend, if he does he’ll still be a ‘real’ man afterwards – I promise.

Melinda Ozongwu is a writer based in Kampala, Uganda. She writes television scripts and regular opinion pieces on the subtext of urban culture in African countries. Her blog SmartGirl Living is a cocktail of thoughts, recipes and advice for the modern African woman. Connect with her on Twitter