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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

African women and the marriage question

(Pic: Flickr / David Precious)
(Pic: Flickr / David Precious)

If you’re a single young woman, there’s one question that you’ve come to dread. It comes up at family functions, social events and random interactions, over and over again.

“When are you getting married?”

In the Somali community, this question creeps up on you as soon as you’ve turned the ‘appropriate’ age of 19. My dad regularly reminds me that people will have certain expectations of me once I begin to enter my mid-20s. One of them happens to be marriage. And, at 23, my stock is apparently plummeting by the moment. My mother was younger than me when she married, and was my age when she had me. I am clearly out of sync when it comes to the process of matrimony. What started out as “We won’t put any pressure on you about this” quickly turned into casual jokes about when my mom or younger sister are going to take out their nicest dirac (traditional Somali dress) for my wedding.

Here in Canada, after you graduate, you are expected to begin to worry about savings, retirement, and health insurance – not marriage. You start spending your money on plates, pillows and new tyres as part of your new independent lifestyle. It’s interesting to see how western culture dictates that there is no particular right age or time to get married – it happens when you are fully ready. There is no concern with getting a spouse by a certain age. Yet, being raised in an African household, our traditions tell us something else. Personally, being wedged between two very different cultures has left me feeling really confused.

The reality is that my generation seems to be marrying, buying houses and having kids later than the previous generation; in clear contradiction to the ‘traditional’ African experience. Yet here I am, like many other diaspora Africans, fearing the expectations that come with being older.

I continuously ask myself “Where is my career going?” rather than “Whom will I end up with?” The world I live is extremely different from the one my parents were raised in. The reality is that we cannot be expected to fit old-fashioned moulds of what we should have achieved or who we should be with or how many kids we should have by the time we are 23/27/30/40 years old.

It seems like the expiration date on marriage is non-existent for African males living in the west. They are expected to become financially stable before the topic of marriage is even broached. They can get married whenever they feel comfortable and ready and yet the emphasis is placed on the female to be married before it’s ‘too late’.

Personally, I can’t help but remember why my parents migrated to the west. They wanted us to enjoy the comfort of better education, opportunities and standard of living. Now, to be able to truly obtain their goals, I feel that I must follow their guidelines and succeed rather than feeling guilty about being too old to ever get married.

When we hear our relatives, family friends or even parents tell us that we must get married young ‘because we are Africans’, we must remind them that culture of marriage is only as good as its purpose to people. And, that if we continue to look at marriage from a linear perspective without allowing it to evolve, it will simply become another worthless detail about our civilisation in history books.

Many African women seem to have romanticised the ideology attached to marriage rather than marriage itself. And that, to me, is problematic. How can we uphold the dynamics of family within an African context if we romanticise the ideology rather than truly grasping the responsibilities and expectations that come with it? Marriage involves sacrifice, compromise and all those nice-sounding words that are difficult in practice – it’s not a decision one should make based on a romcom or a persistent parent.

I believe that ever-changing views on marriage have always been a matter of generational differences that affect women regardless of their racial or ethnic background. In fact, one could even say that this is a global phenomenon that isn’t explicitly tied to African women. Here in the west, marriage is not a must-do, it’s a matter of personal choice. As it should be, for women across the world.

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

Africa’s top tweeting cities revealed

(Pic: Reuters)
(Pic: Reuters)

Johannesburg was the most active Twitter city in Africa in the last three months of 2013, according to a new study called How Africa Tweets.

The city had 344 215 geo-located tweets, followed by Ekurhuleni with 264 172, and the Egyptian capital Cairo with 227 509, communications agency Portland said in a statement on Wednesday.

Durban followed with 163 019 tweets and Alexandria, also in Egypt, was closely behind with 159 534 tweets.

The study by Portland also found that cities in South Africa and Egypt were the most active on Twitter.

Twitter activity in Africa peaked on the day former South African president Nelson Mandela died.

“The day of Nelson Mandela’s death – 5 December – saw the highest volume of geo-located tweets in Africa,” it said.

The study also found that English, French, and Arabic were the most common languages on Twitter in Africa, accounting for 75.5% of the total tweets analysed. Zulu, Swahili, Afrikaans, Xhosa, and Portuguese were the next most commonly tweeted languages in Africa.

Tuesdays and Fridays were the most active tweeting days.

“Twitter activity rises steadily through the afternoon and evening, with peak volumes around 9pm,” it said.

It also found that soccer was the most-discussed topic on Twitter in Africa.

“[Soccer] was discussed more than any other topic, including the death of Nelson Mandela. The most mentioned [soccer] team was Johannesburg’s Orlando Pirates.”

Politically-related hashtags were less common.

Allan Kamau, head of Portland Nairobi, said the African “twittersphere” was transforming the way that Africa communicated with itself and the rest of the world.

“Our latest research reveals a significantly more sophisticated landscape than we saw just two years ago,” he said.

“This is opening up new opportunities and challenges for companies, campaigning organisations, and governments across Africa,” he said.

‘The right to choose your own sexuality is a human right’

(Pic: Reuters)
(Pic: Reuters)

In the wake of the recently passed “anti-gay” law by the Nigerian government and President Goodluck Jonathan, there has been much speculation online as to how Fela Kuti, my father, would react. So let us get this clear, and I will also express my own views on the matter.

My father would not support this law. He would know why the law was passed: as a way of distracting the population from the main problems we face today – poverty, lack of electricity and services, corruption, mismanagement, and so on and so forth.

That being said, Fela may have had some reservations about homosexuality itself. Who is to say? No one can speak for him. But Fela would not have had any reservations about upholding and protecting basic human rights. The right to choose your own sexuality and sexual behavior – as long as it is between consenting adults – is one such human right.

It’s a difficult topic for a lot of people in Nigeria to understand as it’s a very new issue that has never been quite public. Our culture and traditions and certain religious values make it more difficult for many to accept or understand, and it will take some time for those people to learn to respect the fundamental human rights of others to express themselves freely. People have said that being gay is “un-African” – I’m not an expert on our history, but I don’t know of any [instance] where the topic is mentioned in our history (I am not referring to Christian orthodoxy that was brought by non-African missionaries).

The gay community in Nigeria will have to be patient and realise acceptance of homosexuality is a gradual process which will take a very long time – especially in the north of Nigeria. But they must slowly put their case forward. They will need a lot of diplomatic support, and they will have to fight the law. They might definitely lose, but they will just have to keep on fighting for their fundamental right to live. There is no other choice.

We have to keep talking about the issue of gay rights, but it’s the government’s responsibility to take the lead to defend people’s fundamental rights. Citizens must have the right to be who they want to be.

Femi Kuti for okayafrica, a blog dedicated to bringing you the latest from Africa‘s New Wave.

 

Botswana clamps down on foreign pastors

(Pic: Flickr / EL@Seattle)
(Pic: Flickr / [email protected])

Charismatic churches are on the rise in Botswana, with pastors promising miracles in the forms of successful marriages, work promotions, financial freedom, children for the barren – the list is endless. However, the government of Botswana has come out strongly against these “wolves in sheep’s clothing“, threatening to deport them for their antics.

The country is currently considering a new policy that will give foreign pastors 30-day permits reserved for visitors and tourists instead of the usual 5-year permits allocated to them. In cases where foreign pastors apply for licences to operate their churches, they must have more than 250 listed congregants.

As reported in the Midweek Sun, former minister of labour and home affairs Peter Siele and Ntlo ya Dikgosi deputy chairperson Kgosi Lotlamoreng II started a campaign to curtail foreign pastors in 2010 and 2011  over concerns that they are are defrauding Batswana of their hard-earned money.

Some pastors have been accused of drug dealing, sponging money off locals, power struggles within their churches, failure to submit annual tax returns and preaching ill about President Ian Khama, which is akin to a crime in Botswana – you just don’t speak badly about the president!

Nigerian Prophet Peter Bollaward who was the helm of the Glory of the Latter Ministries in Gaborone was deported on February 8 after the ministry of labour and home affairs declared him a ‘prohibited immigrant’. He was reportedly detained for a few days before his deportation and questioned about the several millions in his ministry’s account and the fleet of expensive cars he drove.

In 2011 the flamboyant Pastor Frances Sakufiwa of Zambia, who ran the New Seasons Ministries and lived in Botswana for 15 years, was deported under a presidential order.  He was surrounded by controversy, mostly related to his roving eye. It’s alleged that the handsome, charming and married pastor was a womaniser who changed women as often as one changes underwear. A few days after he was booted out of the country, a group of women reportedly pleaded with the president to reverse his decision and allow Sakufiwa back into Botswana, claiming he was “highly anointed”.

However, other sources claim the pastor was sent packing from Botswana because of his politically inclined prophesies. Apparently the Khama government became increasingly nervous about his prophesies and the huge media attention they were attracting.

In an interview with the Midweek Sun last year, director of immigration Mabuse Pule stopped short of proclaiming that government would not tolerate foreign pastors. “They come here to abuse our people and push personal agendas. The pastors group themselves and see our own pastors as outcasts in their own country,” he said. He used the biblical analogy in Matthew 7:15 which likens such folk to wolves in sheep’s clothing. “God does not bring crooks here. We will not allow anyone to deceive our people using His name,” Pule said.

In Botswana, the title of pastor is synonymous with wealth and social prestige. Congregants pay tithes and purchase miracle water and other religious memorabilia from the church. Pastors also receive ‘gifts’ from congregants in the form of money, clothes and even vehicles for their blessings and help.

Many Batswana have deserted Methodist, UCCSA, Anglican, Roman Catholic and ZCC churches in favour of the charismatic churches that have sprung up. The latter are characterised by loud music, singing and dancing, vigorous preaching, promises of miracles,  and exorcising of  “devil spirits”.

An acquaintance was involved in a horrific car accident that left her bound to a wheelchair  for a few months. Now a congregant at the Universal Church, she can walk with a slight limp and vehemently believes that God used the pastor to heal her through the Holy Spirit. As a self-proclaimed agnostic, I’m never sure how to digest this except by pointing out how commercialised faith and God have become.

On the few occasions that I visited the Universal Church and New Seasons, I was struck by the high turnout of congregants, particularly the youth, who are dressed to kill and are enthusiastically dancing, singing and chanting praises. Church is the new “cool” in this country; a big social club. This is a choice many Batswana have made, and it’s clear that charismatic churches will continue to thrive despite government’s attempts to stop them. The people will believe who and what they want to believe.

Keletso Thobega is a copy editor and features writer based in Gaborone, Botswana.