Butiama Bed & Breakfast

Butiama Bed & Breakfast

Thursday, 8 January 2009

Letter from Butiama: Name change operation

During my student days in Canada, I shared an apartment with an ethnic Chinese student from Malaysia who had a Christian name.

I told him I found it strange that a Chinese should have a Christian name. I was expecting to hear something like Lee Kuan Yew. He was also surprised to meet an African called Godfrey, my Christian name, although I know from experience he would have had great difficulty pronouncing "Mwita Chacha Marwa."

A Zambian I know says he will campaign for reversion to the original name of Victoria Falls, which to the Kalolo-Lozi people near the falls is known as Mosi-o-Tunya, meaning "the smoke that thunders." For a location that attracts many tourists there is a risk that such a name change could reduce the number of visitors. I imagine a potential tourist to the falls struggling for several minutes with a travel agent who has not heard of the new name and gives up in frustration and decides to travel to another destination.

Sometimes it is best to use indigenous names for people, places, and businesses. At other times it is better to swallow some local pride and stick to the old names to avoid some confusion, although the confusion could be temporary.*

The gradual acceptance of Pin-Yin, the Chinese phonetic alphabet, especially after 1979 when the Chinese Government prescribed its use in all translated diplomatic and foreign language publications, as the official record used in the People's Republic of China signalled a commitment to promote the use of the Peking dialect as the national standard. As a result Peking became Beijing and Chou En-Lai became Zhou Enlai.

Peking was used outside China for so long that it took a while to get used to pronouncing Beijing. Beijing used to sound "foreign"; today Peking sounds "foreign." The more than a billion Chinese probably don't need to campaign to anyone to make themselves heard. They decided Peking should revert to Beijing and the world towed the line. More likely than not, with the passage of time, people will forget the old names. Fewer Tanzanians today remember that Mozambique's capital Maputo used to be Lourenco Marques.

If East Africans decide that Lake Victoria should become Nyanza again, one wonders what would become of UK-East African relations. When the British explorer John Hanning Speke saw a big lake in the interior of East Africa in 1858, he named it in honour of his sovereign, Queen Victoria. That fact of history may be more apparent to the foreign visitor, to the tourist, and to the primary school student who has to pass an exam. I believe that to many of the estimated 30 million people living around Lake Victoria, that historic link with England is unknown. When you mention Victoria to someone in Mwanza, what is likely to come to mind is MV Victoria, the ship, not the Queen.

I would lean towards adoption of indigenous or local names rather than adopt foreign names. A friend called me recently to tell me that her brother had finally found a job "in Scandinavia". I was pleased, having known the trouble she had gone through to find employment for his brother. I asked her which of the Scandinavian countries her brother will be moving to.

She said, "The company! The bus company!" She had been referring to the Scandinavian Express Services Limited, the bus company, with headquarters at Gerezani, Dar es Salaam. I had almost landed in Helsinki, Finland.

*It is also possible for the confusion to persist indefinitely. I recently met someone from Tasmania who says letters for Tanzania frequently end up in Tasmania. Although the context is slightly different, it underscores the difficulty of distunguishing names when we have been subjected to a longer period of using a particular name.

1 comment:

Paul said...

Your insight into colonial and indigenous place names is well-spoken. You story about your friend's brother finding work "in Scandinavia" made me laugh, having wondered about the origin of this name myself on several occasions!