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Names and naming: What we learn from names of rivers

14 Jul, 2019 - 00:07 0 Views
Names and naming: What we learn from names of rivers

The Sunday News

Pathisa Nyathi

RIVERS, like mountains, are unique in the sense that they are features that are below general ground level. Further, they are, by and large, deep channels that cut into the earth. It is these physical realities that lend them a perception of their being in some erotic embrace with Mother Earth. In that perception, they are seen as males engaging the female earth with the result that the amorous encounter brings forth resources or “children”
 that human beings and other species depend upon for food.

Rivers are sources of water, which is critical for life. When the surface of the earth is drained of water, rivers continue to have pools of water as they cut into the water table. Sometimes it becomes necessary to dig deeper to access the water. I witnessed that effort at Sankonjana over the weekend. Kafusi River no longer has water on the surface. Only the nearby boreholes continue to yield water. There are boreholes that have dried up and the rest do not promise to yield water till end of the dry season. While cattle that travel long distances to water in the dams such as Mthoyiwana and Lubangwe, goats and sheep are in dire straits.

Villagers gathered to dig a well in order to access water for the small livestock. They knew the spots where to dig. Deep down there are bottomless drums that were used in the past. For a very long time the same sites were made use of. One spot is said to have Mabende’s (Nyathi) well while the other belonged to Manyenyeza (Jonas Ncube). Both men were elders who faced similar water challenges and resorted to digging wells at selected sites. Their descendants still remember the sites in times of prolonged droughts. After nearly day long digging, the villagers managed to reach the water table where the old drums were still lodged. In addition to watering the small livestock the water will be used to mould bricks and also for domestic use.

Pools in rivers have some cultural significance. Pools such as Fundudzi in VhuVenda has spiritual significance. In the creation myth babies are said to be obtained from pools fringed with reeds. This is of course a metaphor that is used to skirt pornography. Quite clearly. the metaphor is alluded to in reference to the female sex organ and the birth process. There are people, notably the Khumalos, that disposed their umbilical cords in pools, a clear reference to their association with water. The ukuphinda umkhondo, when a bride returns to her people for the first time after her marriage, had the inyongo bladders burnt together with impepha and then thrown into the river pool.

Rivers are a source of fish where there are perennial pools. In the upper courses rivers flow more swiftly. However, in the lower courses the flow is more sluggish, allowing suspended soil particles to settle down, in particular where there are river plains. Accumulated alluvial soils are rich in nutrients and have, in some rivers, made it possible to plant crops twice a year. Rivers such as the Nile in Egypt, the Tigris and Euphrates in Iraq became the cradles of civilisations. On account of available water, irrigation was practised with the result that food production allowed some people to pursue other interests outside of agriculture. Diversification  was made possible. 

Some of the rivers flowed towards seas and oceans. In some instances the rivers were deep enough and without treacherous rapids to allow for ship navigation. The interior was thus opened to seafaring traders. Trade became possible between places that would otherwise be cut off from each other. Both the Save and Limpopo Rivers opened up trade with the interior where gold was obtained. Where there would have been prohibitive mountain ranges, the rivers cut valleys that were followed deep into the interior. The course of migration was thus influenced by the courses of rivers. Migrating bands of people require water for themselves and their livestock. It thus makes sense to travel along river courses. The Babirwa people, migrating from the Limpopo Province in the nineteenth century travelled along the courses of Tuli, Kafusi, Mzingwane and Shashane rivers to settle in their upper courses.

For the purposes of this series of articles, our interest lies in naming. Why were rivers named the way they were named? The names may be a reflection of who lived near the rivers. In an earlier article we referred to a stream east of Bulawayo named GwabaLozwi. Indeed, we know the area was inhabited by the Lozwi people who allocated themselves the best land.  Namers use their languages to name not only rivers but everything that has to be named.  Names of rivers thus point to the identities of people who lived in the given locations. The river which is the boundary between Zimbabwe and Botswana is Shashe. Through that name, we know that the language of the namers was related to TjiKalanga who made some politico-military statement. In full, the name of the river is shaya she, meaning to be without a king. The possibility was that the BaKalanga who lived in the area did not feel sufficiently provided with security and protection by a king who ruled over them. Chances are that the king was ruling them from a very faraway place, hence the lament which found its expression in the name of the river.

A tributary of the Shashe is Shashane, a diminutive of Shashe. The two are found in the same area in geographical terms and the area where both are found was occupied by the BaKalanga. We are aware that the same name applies to a river in the Midlands not far from its border with Masvingo Province. There may be more rivers bearing the same name. That is a pointer to people of a similar language occupying those areas. There is even some possibility of the one language being introduced elsewhere by a migrating people. As pointed out, a river may be named as a way of documenting the vegetation found along the river. Umguza River is found north of Bulawayo and its name derives from the name of a plant called umguza which Ndebele women used as perfume alongside ubande, inkiza and imadlana.

Kasambabezi is the Tonga name of the river whose name was corrupted to Zambezi. The river is infested with crocodiles which prey on human beings and indeed other animals that venture into the mighty river. However, the Tonga who live along the river do know the areas that are safe from crocodiles and they know where to bath without risking being attacked. It is thus those with the requisite knowledge that bath in the river, hence the name of the river.

A river may be named by a particular people living near a part of the course of the river. The example of Kasambabezi could be a case in point. Not all its courses were settled by the BaTonga people. Its upper courses have origins in areas not settled by the Tonga who settled in the middle (Zimbabwe) and lower (Mozambique) courses. One and the same river may, theoretically, bear more than one name. However, when colonisation took place, the name of a given ethnic group was adopted for the entire river.

The Ndebele named the same river uGwembe. This is a name derived from geography. There are sections of the Zambezi River that have steep sides or cliffs. To the Ndebele the river thus resembled one of their crafts. A food platter used to contain meat is called umgwembe. Its sides are vertical and the artefact is so long and heavy, two men can’t carry it. The one possibility for new arrivals is to either corrupt an existing name in a different language or give it a completely new name.  Shashe has become Tshatshe in IsiNdebele while the tributary is Tshatshane.  We shall see more of this in future when we investigate the names given to whites by the Ndebele people.

Imagine how much knowledge we would derive if we got to know the names of all the rivers in our environment. We would know the people who lived in the vicinity of the river and the language that the people spoke. Behind each name there is a narrative that we would be all the wiser to know. Names serve as pointers to geography, history, migration, mishaps, vegetation etcetera and thus the evolving ecosystem. Indeed, in our names resides our history, inscribed through the medium of orature to capture various facets of our past and present.

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