The Sunday News
NAMES and naming activities are central to human symbolism and communicative processes. To be human is to name and be named, and thereby to possess full being and the ability to relate to the world in meaningful ways (Thomson Gale. Encyclopedia.com). The name and the named have some special and organic relationship. Name and the named exist in a mutual relationship in which the power of the former is shared with the being of the latter. Indeed, to be nameless has marginal status in the world.
One recalls Yvonne Vera’s book titled, “Without A Name”. To be nameless is not to be human. It is absence of relationships and relatedness.
It is synonymous with being without a character, status and being. To be without a name is being cursed and beinglessness. A name imparts on an individual transcendence, inspiration, upliftment and motivation. A name imparts life, a new life beyond biological existence. For various reasons names are culturally and socially perpetuated within a family. That way, legacies are celebrated and memorialised.
A name is one’s signature and unique individual identity. It links a name to the named. Access to the named is spiritually and metaphysically facilitated. What is tangible and seemingly unfathomable and inaccessible is accessed and can thus be manipulated by those endowed with requisite knowledge and skills.
To Africans this was recognised as reality and applied within social and cultural spheres. There were times when names of certain individuals were not to be called out during certain times. This was particularly so at night when witches went about their nocturnal errands. It was believed witches and wizards possessed powers to access an individual’s being once they knew his/ her name.
It was a question of power accessing and manipulating power.
Names are not just some sounds which are orally pronounced. Name sound targets, not just membranes of eardrums and subsequently auditory part of the brain where it is detected and interpreted, it has the capacity to reach one’s being, one’s mind, the inner self and unique identity. The concrete is accessed through intangible means. Getting to the core and essence of a human being is accessed in several ways with one being his/ her name.
The name goes beyond its oral or literary rendition. One’s name may be “called out” without aurally pronouncing it. A prayer does not become a prayer only when vocalised. A prayer may be uttered silently and yet become effective by producing intended results. Channelling a message does not depend solely on concrete communication fibres. Africa has always known this. Witches and wizards possess this rare knowledge and skills which they can put to good effect.
Many a time we fail to come to terms with the word “umthakathi’’. We tend to confuse umkhunkuli with umthakathi. The term, when properly used, carries no evil connotations. It merely denotes one who is in possession of rare knowledge and skills, way above the average person; a cut above the rest. “Unkone ovele ngobuso emdibini!” The term is not even confined to one sphere of human endeavour. An exceptionally gifted motor mechanic may be described as “umthakathi kamakanika.” Similarly, an equally gifted teacher may be qualified as “umthakathi wombalisi.”
Knowledge and skills are neutral just like scientific knowledge. Science cannot be said to be evil. It is neither evil nor good. Only the manipulator makes it good or bad and in fact, one who elects to put it to evil ends is one who may be described as evil and not the science.
The science behind Hiroshima and Nagasaki was used to destroy. Those who put it to that role can be said to be evil and not the science behind an atomic bomb. Thus science technology may be put to good use or bad use. Craft may be used for evil intentions, and it is accordingly described as witchcraft. I have said if some people are riled or irritated by the term witchcraft to a point where they do not wish to study it and tap into its positive attributes, why not do away with the witch descriptive element and remain with the craft or science which Africa is, for some very strange reason, does not study at universities.
At night, names are not called out lest the scientifically gifted get access to one’s named being, the core and essence of being. The named is organically linked to the name. The named may be accessed through its name. Given such an expose, one should not wonder why among the Ndebele a deceased individual is generally not called by his/her name used in life. The dead all inherit and get to be called by the name “umuyi”. It may seem as if the major reason behind the practice is to avoid pain and grief associated with the dear departed.
There is more to it than meets the eye. Scientists, euphemistically called witches/ wizards, were mortally feared and in some areas they still are. Who would not fear one in possession of a lethal bomb or equally lethal lightning bolt, save for those who do not know the science at the disposal of some people. What one does not know or believe in cannot kill her/ him. Causality will be apportioned to something else. Oh, how nice it is to “bewitch” non-believers!
What we have been saying makes sense when African perceptions of life and death are appreciated. Death, they posit, is the key to eternal life beyond the material world. Death powers the never ending wheel of life. In a nutshell, they are saying one exits the material world and enters the spiritual world in spirit form. What happens around the time of death and burial may interfere with the flight and well-being of a spirit in the next world. One protective measure is to avoid calling a deceased person prior to fortification of his spirit. Death is a period characterised by vulnerability to the surviving kin of the deceased and his/ her spirit. What pass as taboos are actually measures resorted to in order to safeguard both the living and the living dead.
One who has passed on to the spirit world now enjoys the company of his/ her ancestors in the world of spirits. The spirit of the deceased serves as an entry point to the entire spiritual clan.
The scientifically endowed may cause harm to the residents of the spirit world who, once so emasculated, fail to render various functions to their progeny in the material world. One can write a PhD thesis just about perceptions, ideas, beliefs and cultural measures and practices that are invoked and applied in the interests of both the living and the living dead (see “Constrained Missionary Narratives of the Ndebele: Nyathi, 2019”).
Beyond abandoning the name of the deceased there are other cultural measures and practices that are resorted to in order to protect both the spiritual and material population which share in common blood links and, by virtue of being recently departed, now enjoy spiritual links with the deceased who stands in a special position in relation to the two complementary worlds. He/ she stands astride both worlds and is able to communicate with both better than the living can ever do. Standing at the cross roads lends vulnerability to the individual and his/ her vulnerability spans both the living and the living dead.
It is clear that African spiritual beliefs militate against uncontrolled, wanton and reckless use of names. This is true in life as it is in death.
The dead or living dead are the conduit for the living to access Source, that is, God. If the living, in particular the royal, divine and sacred are hardly called by name, what obtains with regard to God? It is names of God that African communities use that we wish to turn to in the next instalment.