2010 is a significant year for Africa. 18 African countries will celebrate their 50th birthday anniversaries this year. That makes 1960 the watershed year for African flag Independence. The next most significant year, for comparison, was 1975, when only 5 countries became independent. Although exciting for the young, as we get older (read, disillusioned) birthdays tend to pall somewhat. Still we can rouse ourselves to significant activity for anniversaries like the big 50. Time to revisit some biggish issues.
Like Names. Yesterday I was looking through the roll of African countries and it is clear that their christening was done with a striking lack of imagination. There are two Congos for instance. Okay so it is a VERY great river, and people, but surely someone could have rolled a die. Think of all those hapless foreigners arriving at the Customs desk at Brazzaville to discover that they have the wrong country. I know what I am talking about.
Of course a lot of progress has been made. Thanks to Thomas Sankara, names like Upper Volta have disappeared from the map in favour of the beautiful Burkina Faso. The ‘upper’ in the name represented a spectacular lack of courage anyway. (Upper Congo? Anyone?) Volta was as good a name as any. It was not as if Ghana, which owned most of the River Volta, would have sued – after all, the name Ghana was borrowed from an ancient kingdom located hundreds of miles north of the present day Ghana. So Gold Coast bravely became Ghana, history being a much better inspiration than geography.
Cote d’Ivoire is clearly not impressed. It has refused to shrug off its commodity name like the owners of ‘Pepper Coast, Slave Coast, and Gold Coast. There is probably a little history in the name now, since ivory exports have slumped somewhat. Of course it may simply be a case of coming late to the party. The great West African empires of antiquity have perhaps been taken, Mali, Benin, Ghana… all spoken for. Yet there is still Kanem-Bornu, Nok, even the great Songhai Empire which crushed the great Mali Empire… and to go further north, there is The Fatimad, which colonized part of Italy in its day… God knows I’d rather be ‘Nokian’ than ‘Ivorien’. But what do I know? I am Nigerian (not to be mistaken for ‘Nigerien’ from Niger)- And while we are much better off than the ‘Slave Coast’ days, there are still too many geographic echoes of ‘Niger area’ in the name that I really ought to bury my own grandmother before agonizing over the disgrace of my neighbours’ unburied ancestors.
Yet, how can I, with Sudan in the picture? I hope the country stays united after its referendum, otherwise we might end up with two Sudans and another geographical spectre of a Northern Sudan playing off a Southern Sudan, adding to the confusion of the poor citizens of South Africa and Central Africa – who will always need a compass and GPS in addition to their passports to tell who and where they are, because although South Africans are southern Africans, some southern Africans (who used to be called South West Africans) are not actually South Africans because they are really Namibians. (Get it?) Well, I just don’t get names like Central Africa Republic. Okay, so it is an African country that is also centrally located… but it is also time for République Centrafricaine to get over its position on the map and pull off a swift Burkinasque manoeuvre. Still I guess some of us have rather more pressing problems than the content of a name tag. Decades ago, one of Nigeria’s founding fathers called his country a mere ‘geographical expression’. No, it’s a long story.
There were three Guineas at last count. – Guinea, Guinea Bissau, and Equatorial Guinea. (Will all Guineans in the house please rise? I don’t mean EquatoGuineans, I said Guineans. No, not Guineans from Guinea. I mean Guineans from Guinea Bissau. Exactly.) Of course Equatorial Guinea is the geographical name to end all geographical names. This country is both within the gulf of Guinea, and close to the Equator, which is a good description of Nigeria, Cameroon, Benin, Togo, Ghana and most of the rest of West Africa. Names are a bitch. Steeped in emotion, they are impossible to approach objectively – because there is nothing objective about them. A name that means ‘pedigree’ in one language could denote ‘mongrel’ in another. Nothing more clearly illustrates the vexed relationship between negative names and their ‘owners’ than the proud appropriation by some African-Americans of the expletive moniker and abuse, nigger. And nothing more clearly illustrates the pitfalls of the Name than the Republic of Benin, which went, in the 70s, from the redolently historic name of Dahomey (named for a slave-trading 17th Century African State) to Benin (named geographically after the Bight of Benin) in order to assuage the sense of estrangement of the other ethnic groups in the country. Which makes Ghana’s choice of a kingdom miles from its borders, over the logical Ashanti, a masterclass in political name-giving.
There are some countries whose names spring from the deep loam of history, a history counted not in colonial decades but imperial centuries no less, names whose very utterance evokes clouds of ancestors, skeins of consequence… Ethiopia, Egypt, Sudan… there are names that gift gravitas, that come with a leavening of a history of histories, whose ancestral spirits strain to reincarnate in the rich loam of today… Nubia, Kush, Mamluk… and then there are names of more recent provenance which, though ill-fitting, have become the comfortable garments we have worn all our lives. Yet, history starts everyday. 2010’s rash of 50th anniversaries is another opportunity for African nations (some more urgently than most) to look again with an objective blend of subjectivity at their most-referenced bastion of identity, the Name.
In Igboland the parents name the child, but when the child is full-grown he has an opportunity, at his title ceremony, to pick his own name… but as for the really big beast, the name AFRICA itself, well that is clearly the subject of another post.