Saints vs secular stars – who will win?

Names continue to fascinate me. But it seems I am not alone. The parish priest of St Michael Cathedral Parish in Kigali also has a thing for names. Our reasons, however, are different. My interest stems from some undefined curiosity, while that of the parish priest goes to the heart of his profession.

Names continue to fascinate me. But it seems I am not alone.The parish priest of St Michael Cathedral Parish in Kigali also has a thing for names.

Our reasons, however, are different. My interest stems from some undefined curiosity, while that of the parish priest goes to the heart of his profession.

In a sermon on Sunday 14/2/2010, Fr. Jean Claude Muvandimwe waded very deep into the debate about names. . He vowed not to baptise any child not given a good saint’s name and that he would reject names of secular celebrities, be they world famous pop stars, athletes or politicians. He might find himself stuck in it and very difficult to pull himself out.

This debate about names has been going on for a long time and no one ever seems to win.

In the period just preceeding independence and the one immediately after, it became fashionable among educated Africans to drop Christian names and replace them with African ones.

They were a diverse bunch: cultural warriors or purists, nationalists, revolutionaries (genuine or pseudo) and others disatisfied with their given names for whatever reason. But for all of them, the explanation was the same.

Their rejecton of their given names was a form of reclaiming and asserting their African identity. By doing this, they were also defining themselves and their aspirations on their own terms and not on European standards of excellence or achievement.

And so you get the famous Nigerian writer, Chinua Achebe, dropping Albert, the present president of Kenya, Mwai Kibaki, letting Emilio lie dormant, Kenya’s renowned novelist and political activist, Ngugi, rejecting James and adding Thiong’o to his name and Ugandan poet and cultural crusader, Okot p’Bitek,  deciding that Ezekiel was strange to Acholi ears and did not roll off their tongues easily.

Then anyone claiming revolutionary connections, however remotely, adopted purely African names. They became a sort of political signature.

Even the reactionary Mobutu jumped on the name-change bandwagon. He outlawed given Christian names in the name of African authenticity.

And so a whole generation of Africans in the 1960s and 1970s grew up in this period of recovery of Africanness through names.

That phase is now past. There is, in fact, a reversal. Africans, especially in the towns, have rediscovered  the need to give their children names from all over the world at baptism. The choice is different from the past.

The preferred names range from pop stars and sports celebrities to political icons and other famous people, from “nice” sounding European names to one syllable names from wherever.

So you get names like, Beckham, Ronaldo or Van Persie, Derrick, Ian or Boris. There are Clintons, Blairs, bur no Bush or Brown.

Reasons for the newer names are that they are cool, modern  and exciting. The traditional Christian names of saints are regarded as old-fashioned and boring, fit only for old people. No self-respecting young person would like to bear any such name.

This is what irks the parish priest of St Michael Parish. He thinks parents should give their children names of saints, people who led exemplary moral and upright lives, as inspiration to young people and role models for them to emulate.

Emulation of the lives of saints seems to be far from the intentions of most present day parents or their children, however. Their choice of names seems to indicate a growing secularism, especially among the urban middle class.

Their role models are not the saints who gave their lives for their faith, or were exceptionally kind to animals, or gave up wealth and privilege to lead a life of material deprivation, or devoted their lives to the service of the marginalised.

The people close to their aspirations are those making wealth, gaining fame for extra-ordinary achievements here and now, not in some misty, distant past.

In this sense the choice of names reveals a lessening of the hold of religious influence and a growing secular culture. That is what concerns Fr Muvandimwe.

Even within Christian names there have been changes. The earliest Rwandan Catholics had longer Italian names. Their Protestant counterparts had names from the Old Testament. The Catholics “modernised” their names by using their French equivalent.

Thus, Benedicto became Benoit, Victoria, Victoire, Immaculata became Immaculee and Balthazar miraculasously changed to Ben. Among the Protestants, Jeremiah, Elijah, Ezekiel and Zephaniah have almost disappeared. Even such a distinguished name as Joseph ,with a direct link to God himself, is in danger of extinction.

I don’t hear many young people named Joseph.  Perhaps Minister Habineza will save it by popularising the short form, Joe.

This evolution affects Kinyarwanda names as well. The traditional Kinyarwanda names are fast disappearing, replaced by shorter ones that often make a personal statement of one form or another.

Some reveal the relationship (usually affectionate)  between parents and their children, or between parents, or with God. Others are a form of gratitude, or plea to the almighty, or a lament.

Some names like Kagame will survive because of the stature of the person bearing the name. There are probably more children named Kagame in the last twenty years than throughout Rwandan history up to twenty years ago.  Rwagatare will almost certainly disappear. Hopefully this column might keep it alive a little longer.

It is obvious that traditional Christian names are an endangered species. So are some Kinyarwanda names.The parish priest of St. Michael Parish has declared his intention to protect his own. May be he should join forces with others in what is clearly rearguard action.

They might form a “Traditional Names Protection Society” for this purpose. He, and whoever cares to join him, will not find it easy because names, Christian or otherwise, are going through an evolutionry process, and in typical Darwinian fashion, the dinosaurs will perish and the more adaptable, survive.