Thursday, 7 March 2013

What's in a name?

A lot apparently. At least Mobutu thought so.

Two years after seizing power, he creating a political party to which all citizens automatically belonged and which had, as its objects, nationalism, revolution and authenticity. The first two were easily implemented: he nationalised the mines and other big companies, and outlawed foreign participation in trade.

Authenticity needed a bit more thought, and it was four more years before he launched his official campaign.

His first act was to rename the country Zaire.

Next he tackled the symbol of westernisation: clothing. This was not a new idea. Mao had done it in China, and there is considerable evidence that Mobutu saw himself as the Mao of Africa – in power terms, even if not in either political or ethical ones. The Zairean version of men’s clothing was a jacket in the form of a close fitting shirt, with pockets on the front, worn outside the trousers. African prints were a popular cloth for them. Once this had been decreed as the national form of dress it was illegal to wear a jacket and tie.

Then came names. We probably shouldn’t be surprised that he rejected his Christian names, Joseph-DesirĂ© – so effeminate! So he ordered everyone to replace their Christian or European names with Zairean ones. Priests were liable to five years in gaol if they were found guilty of baptising people with Christian names. Finally, he decided that everyone should also have a “post-name” after their surname to give them an additional identifier. The post-name was normally supposed to be that of one or more of your ancestors, but it could be the name of a village, a clan or some personal attribute. 

Mobutu had great fun renaming himself. He chose the name to end names: Mobutu Sese Seko Nkuku Ngbendu Wa Za Banga ("The all-powerful warrior who, because of his endurance and inflexible will to win, goes from conquest to conquest, leaving fire in his wake”).

The post-name is the last name but is not the family name, which is the second to last one: thus President Kabila’s name is written Joseph Kabila Kabange. This causes no end of confusion in official documents, and sorting names in alphabetical order etc. But if you ask a Congolese his name, he will first give you his surname (family name) which is actually his middle name, followed by his pre-name. Then, if you ask, he will give you his post-name. Confused? 

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