What’s in Six Names

Posted on September 7, 2015 in Essays

Review of Alec Pongweni, The Oral Traditions of the Shona Peoples of Zimbabwe: Studies of their folktales, songs, praise poetry and naming practices (Centre for Advanced Studies of African Society, 2012)

For scholars at African universities, life continues to be tough. The pay is wretched, the workload in both teaching and administration beyond the wildest nightmares of AUT members in Britain. Facilities are cramped and crumbling, and libraries starved of publications. Even for those who have negotiated the political minefields of states where neutrality is not an option, there remain the hazards of inadvertently giving a bad grade to a student with important connections, or of simply being from the wrong part of the country. Meanwhile, our putative scholar has to watch his compatriots, exiled by compulsion or by choice, flourishing at foreign universities, with access to proper libraries and opportunities for publication. The most visible research on African themes has long been conducted in the United States and in Europe.

Scholars at universities in southern Africa have had to contend with another problem. The best regional resources are found in post-apartheid South Africa. Yet universities there were seriously damaged by the academic boycott over three decades, which left much scholarship “provincial” in the worst sense. After 1994, researchers at the universities of Malawi, Zambia or Lesotho could find themselves patronized by colleagues from the south, who actually knew less about the key issues than they did. The balance has yet to be fully restored.

Alec Pongweni is Professor of English Language and Linguistics at the University of Botswana, which has itself over the past three decades offered internal asylum to scholars in trouble (Pongweni formerly lectured in linguistics at the University of Zimbabwe). His Oral Traditions of the Shona Peoples of Zimbabwe is characterized by clarity of expression, generosity towards other scholars, a deep love of Shona culture and a concern for the state of the language. Versions of each chapter have appeared before, but in small editions, not easily located. Cape Town’s Centre for Advanced Studies of African Society was amply justified in combining them in this volume.

The longest is a monograph in itself, a humane and richly entertaining study of “Shona naming practices”. People may acquire names in six different ways: two at birth as personal and lineage names, a third conferred by the diviner, a fourth descriptive of character, a fifth marking an important event, and a substitute replacement name, such as those of guerrillas fighting during the war of independence. Their linguistic structure is described and analysed. But “any list of Shona names is a palimpsest … one cannot but be struck by the wealth of information, historical, merely descriptive or picturesque, or social”, contained in a telephone directory or a graduation programme. The essay is exemplary in teasing out examples.

A similar social focus informs his analysis of advertising in Zimbabwe. Beyond linguistics, Pongweni shows up the casual racial stereotyping in the marketing of skin-lighting creams (“for beautiful women”), Bata shoes (“a new style walking our nation”), and urban furniture (“no one wants to eat sitting cross-legged”). Typically, he links this with the decline of the extended family. Whereas a schoolteacher was formerly expected to meet school fees for his third cousins, his own children now demand “Bata bush babies” and Fanta that “freshivates” (Pongweni adds, “who can blame them?”), making wider responsibilities unaffordable. There are essays on Figurative Language, on Gender and Sexuality, and on Text and Context in Shona Folklore, including Stereotypes of Women. But the most substantial ones, following on from the concern with naming practices, are on Shona praises and resistance songs, patently his first love.

Much oral poetry, clan praises included, is not readily accessible. References can be obscure, even to the performer, and when the metaphors refer to movements between settlements, or succession disputes, the history can be lost in the poetry. Pongweni is meticulous in teasing out the meanings of dense texts, paying particular attention to linguistic forms. This is invaluable. But in decoding the poems’ alternative history, he skimps rather why they are valued as poetry. About one construction, describing a totemic lion, he notes how the “low tones and affricative and plosive consonants onomatopoetically imitate the guttural, seemingly subterranean roar of the lion”. On lines from one of the Chimurenga songs, about “women possessed of indolence / Who spend their time sharpening fingernails, / Fingernails for scratching the people of Zimbabwe”, he comments that nzara (fingernails) also signifies famine, while kwenya (scratch) doubles as the word for lighting a fire. One would like more of this, demonstrating the performer’s riddling ingenuity.

Attempts to express the sheer power of the material can misfire. The line Ndopatigere pano from a song by Jordan Chitaika about forced relocation is translated variously as “This is where we live”, “This is now our home”, “We have to call this home”, “Whether we like it or not, this is our home”, “That’s home for us”, “But now we find ourselves here”, and “How fickle fate is”. The linguist’s anxiety to capture the line’s rich nuances is manifest. But the song’s poignant economy is dissipated, as Chitaika is made to sound garrulous. This niggle comes from a reviewer who honours the material as Alec Pongweni does, without a fraction of his expertise.

First Published Times Literary Supplement, 13 December 2013