9.5 C
Alba Iulia
Sunday, September 26, 2021

Why do Zambians Have Peculiar Names?: Social Change in an African Country.

Columns Why do Zambians Have Peculiar Names?: Social Change in an African Country.

By Mwizenge S. Tembo, Ph. D. Emeritus Professor of Sociology

What if you heard about or actually knew someone whose first real name was “Because”, “Clever”, “Shame”, “Financial”, or “Trouble”? You would probably conclude that these are nicknames imposed somehow on unwilling individuals, or perhaps names chosen by people who did not know English and therefore ignorant of the true meanings of the words. You may perhaps think the names were chosen by callous parents who wanted their children to be easy targets as victims of heavy teasing on school playgrounds. But all these assumptions would be wrong. These and many other first names that you would only characterize as peculiar, unusual, strange, or right out funny are willingly chosen, cherished, and celebrated among most people of the Southern African country of Zambia. How did some Zambians develop customs that eventually came to endorse and accept these names? This is one of the many consequences of social change not only in Zambia in particular but also in Africa as a whole. This author conducted research into the meaning of Zambian traditional names over twenty years in the Eastern and Southern Provinces of the African country of Zambia. He arrived at some very illuminating explanations and conclusions.


What inspired the author to conduct research and write about Zambian traditional names? One morning forty years ago when he lived in the Capital city of Lusaka in his native country of Zambia, he was reading the Sunday Times of Zambia when his wife drew the author’s attention to the fact that some of the Zambian names in the paper were interesting, absurd, and sometimes downright hilariously funny. These were names of ordinary citizens but also those of magistrates and prominent national leaders. Zambians often joked about some of the names and speculated about their origins. One of the prominent leaders was “Bwembya Lukutati”. The speculation was that this Zambian man’s last name may have meant he had been “looked at” a lot when he was growing up. One cabinet minister was named “Steak” Mwale which was spelt “Siteke” Mwale. On the urban area of the Copperbelt, such names as “Fork” and “Cubbage” pronounced as “foloko” and “kabici” respectively” were common among the Lamba people working in the urban areas of Zambia’s Copperbelt.

Fines Bulawayo” was a member of the ruling Central Committee of the then United National Independence Party (UNIP). Bulawayo is a major city in Zambia’s neighboring country of Zimbabwe. It is as if many people in the West had first real names such as London, Paris, Rome, Chicago, Barcelona, Los Angeles. Paul Lusaka was another prominent Zambian national leader who was a descendant of the original Chief Lusakas. Lusakas was the name of a small Zambian village that was located at the site of the present national Capital of Lusaka in the early 1920s during the early part of British colonialism in Zambia.

The Zambian story goes that a Western diplomat was calling UNIP headquarters in the Capital City of Lusaka in Zambia from New York. The phone rung a couple of times and Paul Lusaka picked it up. The conversation is reported to have gone like this:

“Hello!!!” Paul Lusaka said in the phone. “Who is calling please?”

“I am calling from New York, may I speak to Bulawayo please?” asked the caller.

“This is Lusaka”, replied Paul Lusaka. “I am sorry Bulawayo is in Zimbabwe”.

The author has often not only wondered whether it is only Zambians who can have names that outsiders might regard as uncharacteristic of an African or Zambian, but more importantly what motivates Zambians and what inclines them to choose such peculiar names?


The author’s passionate interest in the meaning of Zambian traditional names started when he was very young growing up as a six-year-old at his maternal grandfather’s village at Chipewa also known as Chupu village in the 1950s. His grandfather was Mateyo Kabinda but he was known as Mchawa which means “tall and slender” which was a types of “zina la milangwe” whose literal meaning in Tumbuka language is “the name of joking.” His grandfather was a tall strong man. He used to wake up very early in the morning at dawn, always carrying an axe on his shoulder, to go and work in his field. He grew enough food to help feed more than fifteen children and grand children at the time. The author’s grandmother was Esitere Mwaza, also known as NyaMwaza, the prefix “Nya” among the Tumbuka people is used as a respectful way to address a woman. She always woke up later so that she could wait for us grandchildren to wake up. She would then feed the domestic pigeons, nkhunda, let the chickens out, and prepare food to be the taken to the field for that day. They slowly walked with her and crossed three small creeks before they arrived at his grandparent’s field. His grandmother would first make fire in the mphungu, a small grass roof structure that was a temporary shelter during the growing season. She would then cook some breakfast or warm any leftovers from the previous night. She would then join his grandfather who would already have been working tilling the field since dawn. Their field was so big that one day, the author asked one of those childish questions that his grandparents for there rest of their lives talked about with bemusement:

“Grandpa, do you use a tractor to till your field?”

Both his grandparents laughed with amusement. With obvious pride they replied:

“We use a hoe with our bare hands to till the land so that you can eat as much sima as you want until your stomach is full”. Sima is the Zambian staple food.

Those very positive formative years with his grandparents left an indelible mark on the author’s life. The names of the close relatives and elders in his village: Mchawa, NyaMwaza, Chipewa, Chupu, Ngaramira, Mwendapole, Kunotha, AnyaKudambo, and many others have forever been attached to his soul and have a special meaning. He associates these names and their meanings with warmth, love, pride, security, and joy. Even the name of the creek Denkhule, that he crossed everyday to go to school all have a deep positive meaning forever in his entire life.

The author’s father was a primary school teacher. He told stories every evening when the author was growing up. He told his stories to the family especially after a delicious dinner under the glowing soft light of the hurricane lamp. During these stories, many close relative’s names came up again and again of people who had deeply influenced his father’s life as a child and a young man growing up in the village. The names Zemba, Curazelu, Kakoba, Mtuma, Dikirani, Sajeni, Chimbalanga, Mjeruzye, Kurilaniko, Mkhutanyanga, Machona, Carumako, Visi, Kaswatu, Yamise, Zibalwe, Vayeya, and many other names,in one way or another, exhibited kindness, exceptional leadership qualities, humility, brusqueness, impatience, sense of humor, courage, bravery and some for being daring and adventurous. The names often had specific meanings that exhibited some of these virtues. Some of the relatives unfortunately were known for being lazy, making bad decisions, drinking too much and generally being disruptive in the village or family. Their names and “zina la milangwe” or “names of joking” also reflected these meanings. The impact of these stories and the accompanying ambience, were so strong on the author’s soul that even to this day in America, where evening life is dominated by bright lights, teenage children blaring loud rap music, television, ringing of the telephone, the computer, and video games with loud sound effects, the author still has a nostalgic yearning to eat a quiet dinner outside in the evenings under a hurricane lamp or moonlight and hold relaxed conversation. Of course, this has never been possible.


An African proverb says: “A child who does not travel thinks his mother is the best cook” also applies to the author’s appreciation of traditional Zambian names and how Zambians accommodated to the Western influence and social change through British colonialism in their choice and appreciation of names. If the author had only lived in his home village all his life, he would have assumed that his native Tumbuka names were the only ones that were most interesting.

However, when he left his village to travel one hundred and fifty miles and went attend Chizongwe Secondary Boarding School in 1967, which is located in the provincial Capital of the Eastern Province, his exposure to what names could be was expanded. If he thought his own family, relatives, and ancestor’s names were creative and very distinctively unique, the names of the more than four hundred students at Chizongwe Secondary School primarily from all the four corners of the Eastern Province of Zambia showed remarkable differences and variation.

These differences seemed more exaggerated and complex when the author attended the only national University of Zambia in 1972. The names from the rural Northern, Eastern, Southern, and Western and urban Zambia all converged among the students at the University. This was further very fascinating for the author. One pattern seemed very obvious in all the names of the Zambian university students at the time. Zambian names showed a remarkable variation and creativity in choices of first names. But almost with few or no exceptions at all, most Zambian last names identified an indigenous clan. Because of this, the vast majority of indigenous Zambians could easily be identified and perhaps their ancestral heritage traced by their last or clan name. You could tell what tribe of origin or traditional group a student belonged to by their last name. As a general rule that seemed to apply in the overwhelming number of cases, if a Zambian had a last English name such as Brown or Smith, it meant they were a colored person or a person of a mixed race or had had some Western, White or European heritage. If your last name was Patel, Ayub, or Mohammed it meant your were Mwenye or which is a Zambian endearing term for an Indian or someone who has an Indian heritage.


Zambians have generally wide latitude and freedom in the choice of their first names. Although the majority of tribes, ethnic, or language groups have relatively permanent or distinctive last, family, of clan names, the first names can be chosen in anyway and at any time. There are some patterns, however, as to when the names can be chosen or let alone changed. One of the subjects of field research Tumbuka, Chewa, Ngoni and Nsenga in the Eastern Province and the Tonga people in the Southern Provinces of Zambia was to determine the customs of naming babies and how the names are chosen.


When the baby is born, the mother stays in seclusion with the baby for about one whole week. On the designated day after the umbilical cord of the baby has fallen, the mother and the baby come out from the house. This is why the name given to the baby at this time is known as “zina la pamdotho” among the Tumbuka and “zina la bamkombo” among the Chewa, Nsenga, and Ngoni peoples. This means: “name of the umbilical cord” and is a special significant symbol of intimacy within families. The person who is to choose the baby’s name always must first offer a chicken to the mother, and these days money might be offered instead. Sometimes they might also buy some clothes for the baby. There are variations in who is chosen or designated to name the baby. It could be the paternal grandfather who is given the honor of carefully choosing a name. Some families will designate the paternal grandfather to give the name if the baby is the first born to the couple. In this case, the rest of the subsequent babies born are named by the father. The father of the baby or a relative could also name the child giving it his or her own name. Then the next baby is designated to be named by the maternal grandmother in some families. The person who is choosing the name must be cognizant of what has been happening in the family as this information will determine what type of name they will choose and the meaning of the name. Depending on the circumstances, the baby sometimes is simply given the grandparent’s name. You might choose the name of an old relative(s) especially grandparents, aunts, who might be old or are dead. The name might depict the circumstances in which the baby is born which might be serious, sad, tragic, happy, joyous or right out comical. The name generally depicts the social circumstances of the baby’s birth in the broadest sense of the term.

In some cases when a child is born, several days or weeks sometimes might elapse before a name is given. This long period of time might elapse because the grandparents or the person who is designated to choose the name lives very far away or is on a long journey. As soon as the person is summoned, they name the baby immediately after their arrival.

In some cases, a relative might simply indicate that they will offer a chicken to the mother and name the baby. In other words, whoever wants might sometimes name the baby. Even a total stranger might offer a chicken to the mother and earn the right to name the child. There is sometimes incredible flexibility and variation about the custom and process.

This quote from a respondent from a village best summarized the traditional customs surrounding the naming of the baby in the Eastern Province of Zambia:

“When a child is born before we name him or her, we consider the past experience so that we can name him according to the circumstances. The one giving a name should give something to the parents or the newly born child, it could be money or a chicken.”


The name of the umbilical cord is often used by the parents and relatives until the child reaches puberty. Once they reach puberty, the girl or boy is usually expected to change his or her name. From then on, the adults and especially peers will call the child only by their new name. Parents and others close adult relatives may continue to use the name of the umbilical cord only in the child’s absence or never in front of the child’s face. This is often a gesture of the parent’s respect for the child and acknowledgement of the child’s growth and maturity. Grandparents, however, are given the latitude to use the name of the umbilical cord when they are praising, joking, or it could be rebuking and teasing the child. This might be if the child has demonstrated a particularly extreme, offensive, impetuous conduct, rude, or an unacceptable behavior. It could also be during an occasion of great joy, jubilation, and celebration as during the child’s wedding ceremony. The use of the name of the umbilical cord is a sign of great intimacy between a person and a close older relative. It often means they knew the child from when they were a baby. However, the casual or cavalier use of the same umbilical cord name by a stranger or a peer is regarded as insulting and belittling and therefore cause for offense, hostility, and among juveniles even physical confrontation.

Besides the name chosen at puberty, most people in Eastern Zambia have “zina la milangwe” or “the name of joking”. This might be a nickname that has a comical meaning which depicts the person’s bad or unflattering attributes, pit peeve or good habit. Others will publicly call or address them by this name and the person might ravel in its notoriously comical meaning. So, it is not unusual for a typical Zambian from the Eastern Province to have up to four names all of which might be used in the appropriate social circumstances. For example, parents might know the child’s four names, but they might use the name of the umbilical cord when referring to the child because this is how they intimately know him or her. Peers and other contemporary adults might know him by the name he or she chose at puberty and at school. He or she might also have one or two “zina la milangwe”; the names of joking; one now and another name when they are in their old age.

A good example is this author. His “zina la pamdotho” chosen by his grandparents was “Yakhobe”. When he was a young teenager in upper primary school the name was momentarily a linguistic regional variation of “Yakobe” without the “h”. During his secondary school days, the name was changed to the English and biblical “Jacob” and friends nicknamed him “Jack the giant killer”. The name “Jack” stuck. When he was in his thirties after he had finished his Doctoral studies, he changed his name to “Mwizenge” which means “you are welcome.”

The reader might ask; “Isn’t this confusing? Why not just have one official name and everyone will know you by the one name?” In conducting research and observing how and why the names are used, it occurs that having a number of names might serve several useful functions. First it gives the individual the opportunity to grow, accommodate and accept change in him or herself much more easily. The name change is a powerful symbol, for example, that the child has changed and grown from being a “boy” or “girl” to “a young man or woman” and on the way to acquiring full adult status in the family, village, or community. Its is a right of passage for all adults from Eastern Zambia among the Tumbuka, Chewa, Ngoni, and Nsenga peoples. Second, the name changes especially in assuming the “zina la milangwe” or “the name of joking” provides an individual with an opportunity to acknowledge some of his or her extreme typical personality characteristics or quarks as others see the person in the family, village or community. Are you too quiet or humble, too talkative, or do you complain all the time about life? Are you too cheap or very prosperous, are you too generous? Do you always like to wear clothes that are very fancy? Do people say you walk with a certain pride in your step? Are you short tempered or easy to get along with? Are you you too short or too tall? Do you like to always say exactly what is on your mind? The new names can reflect all these continually changing qualities in a person as they go through life’s stages in the family and community.

Third, names also provide and define certain levels and amounts of privacy between individuals in the community. For example, normally only people who know the individual intimately or since he or she was a baby will know the name of the umbilical cord. Teachers and employers might only know the person’s modern English school name and not the other names.

Fourth, the opportunity to change the name also provides the individual with a crucial way to depict times when they have experienced drastic or traumatic change or some type of metamorphosis in life. Once they survive the trauma one way of healing or reflect the change might be to choose a new name. For example, if one has survived a bloody battle during war, traumatic event, serious famine or calamity in which one survived but others died, or if the individual has immigrated to an entirely new harsh culture and has hit a fortune. In all these and other dramatic and life-altering events, the person’s old name might no longer be adequate to capture the changes and reflect what essentially be the “new person”.


The choices of what seem like peculiar names by Zambians today is consistent with the Zambian traditional customs and patterns of name choices. A collection of five hundred and seventy-six (576) traditional first names was conducted from the Tumbuka, Chewa, Nsenga, and Ngoni peoples of the Eastern Province of Zambia. An examination of the names, their meanings and circumstances in which the names were chosen suggested four major factors that determine how Zambian parents traditionally chose the baby’s name. First, the most impinging social circumstances in which the baby was born are used to determine choice of the name of the baby. For example, due to the very high infant mortality rate and death rate in general before modern medicine was introduced, a large portion of the names have to do with too many babies dying before this one was born or too many relatives dying at the time of the baby’s birth. Some of the other circumstances include marital problems, infidelity, feuds in the family. Second, the baby’s name was often a message and a commentary on crucial issues that might have been going on in the family, village, and community. Third, parents often had high aspirations for the baby. The family may have been happy and expressing joy at the birth. The baby was often expected to play a certain role in the future of the family in terms fostering unity and supporting the parents in later life. Fourth and perhaps what is most relevant to how Zambian adults chose names today is how some names were “zina la milangwe” or nicknames or “names of joking”. These are names with lighthearted meanings that are often comical, amusing, and the individual used to mock and poke fun at themselves.

What were the most frequently cited Zambian traditional names? There were fifteen names that were cited more than once. Tables 1 shows a sample of the fifteen traditional names from the Eastern Province of Zambia.


NAME                                    FREQ          PERCENT 

  1. Masiye                               10                    15.50%
  2. Suzgho                                6                      9.50
  3. Komani                               5                      7.65
  4. Mabvuto                              5                      7.65
  5. Misozi                                 5                      7.65
  6. Zondiwe                              5                      7.65
  7. Mavunika                            4                      6.30
  8. Chimika                              3                      5.00
  9. Ganizani                              3                      5.00
  10. Jumbani                               3                      5.00
  11. Kondwani                           3                      5.00
  12. Malilo                                  3                     5.00
  13. Phaskani                              3                      5.00
  14. Tikambenji                          3                      5.00
  15. Phyera                                 2                      3.10

      TOTAL                                63                      100 


It is not surprising that Zambians today choose first names that reflect technological and social changes that are all around them. Some of the changes are formal Western education, national and international sporting events, newspapers, radio, television, the computer, new marital habits and customs, teenage pregnancy, immigration, political change and conflict, and urbanization just to a mention a few aspects of the social changes. Zambian African names have always reflected the social conditions and significant events that affected the couple, the family, the village and the entire community. Once an adult, a Zambian has tremendous latitude, autonomy and freedom in the choice of his or her first name. The first names the modern Zambian might choose indeed might appear strange such as: “Pencil”, “Wonder”, “Gearboxdatsun” “Skin”, “Experience”, “Sky”, “Conference”. The new “peculiar” and “funny” choices of names, therefore, are only a continuation and extension of long-standing cultural traditions.


Adamic, Louis. What’s Your Name? New York: Haper and Brothers, Publishers, 1942

Chuks-Orji, Ogonna. Names From Africa: Their Origin, Meaning, and Pronunciation, edited by Keith E. Baird. Chicago: Johnson Publishing Company, Inc., 1972.

Lambert, Eloise. and Pei, Mario., Our Names: Where They Come From and What They Mean, New York: Lothrop, Lee and Shepard Co., Inc., 1960.

Madubuike, Ihechukwu. Structure and Menaing in Igbo Names, Buffalo: State University of New York, Department of Black Studies, 1974.

Madubuike, Ihechukwu., A Handbook of African Names, Colorado Springs, Colorado: Three Continent Press, 1994.

McKinzie, Harry. and Tindimwebwa, Issy., Names from East Africa, Harry McKinzie, Publisher, 1980.

Stewart, Julia., African Names: Names from the African Continent for Children and Adults, New York: Citadel Press, 1994.

Tembo, Mwizenge., What is Your Name?: Tumbuka, Chewa, Ngoni, Nsenga, and Tonga Zambian Traditional Names, July 9, 2001. Unpublished Book Manuscript.

Tembo, Mwizenge., What Does Your African Name Mean?: The Meanings of Indigenous Names Among the Tonga of Southern Zambia, Lusaka: University of Zambia, IAS Research Reports No. 1, 1989.

Zabeeh, Farhang. What is in a Name?: An Inquiry into the Semantics and Pragmatics of Proper Names, The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1968.

Zambia Daily Mail, 11, 19 November 11, 19; December 3, 1981; January 7, 1982.

Mwizenge S. Tembo: The author obtained his B.A in Sociology and Psychology at University of Zambia in 1976, M.A , Ph. D. at Michigan State University in Sociology in 1987. He was a Lecturer and Research Fellow at the Institute of African Studies of the University of Zambia from 1977 to 1990. During this period, he conducted extensive research and field work in rural Zambia particularly in the Eastern and Southern Provinces of the country. The research topics investigated included the meaning of Zambian traditional names. He would like to thank the Institute of African Studies of the University of Zambia and now Institute for Economic and Social Research and Bridgewater College for their assistance during the field work. He is co-founder of Zambia Organization for Documentation and Validation of Culture and Technology (ZADOVATE). The name was later changed to Zambia Knowledge Bank (ZANOBA). He is Emeritus Professor of Sociology.


This article was also published in: Mwizenge S. Tembo, Such Peculiar Names: The Significance of Naming in Zambia, The World & I Magazine, May 2002.


  1. Too academic for this platform my good sir, you could have readjusted it to fit the LT readership. However, a very good and straight to the point article in Sociology. NB: Please research for us such names as Enelesi, Dailesi, Elinati etc if these are Western influenced names or are purely Eastern names.

  2. Fun fact: Lungu is a Romanian male name and its also a village in Estonia.That name is also associated with bad governance in Zambia.

  3. Kikikikikikiki Iwe Nostradamus I agree. although I find this article wishy washy. It’s a matter of creating a story where there’s none

  4. Interesting article though it is hardly gave a clear view of the Zambian perspective but instead it clearly discussed the the Eastern province names as seen by the names. My conclusion is that most names discussed are from a specific region which is quite common but interesting to learn the history attached to them.

  5. Too academic for this platform my good sir, you could have readjusted it to fit the LT readership. However, a very good and straight to the point article in Sociology. NB: Please research for us such names as Enelesi, Dailesi, Elinati , Mailesi etc if these are Western influenced names or are purely Eastern names


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

- Advertisement -

Latest News

Winless Power Dynamos Lose Fourth Straight Game

Power Dynamos have remained bottom of the FAZ Super Division with no points after losing their fourth consecutive match...

More Articles In This Category

- Advertisement -