African Studies Quarterly

Traditional African Names. Jonathan Musere. Lanham: Scarecrow Press, 2000. 400 pp. Cloth $65.


Until the publication of this book, it was extremely difficult to find any volume that collects and defines the meanings of African names in English. Africa is a diverse continent with many cultures, traditions, and languages. Names are part and parcel of all African traditions, and virtually every African indigenous name has a distinct meaning or connotation. While it would be next to impossible to compile a comprehensive thesaurus of all African names, let alone their synonyms, this book compiles about 6,000 names from central, eastern, and southern African countries, such as Burundi, Congo-Kinshasa, Kenya, Rwanda, Sudan, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia, and Zimbabwe.

Although the compilation of African names is not entirely a new phenomenon, what distinguishes this book from previous ones is its simplicity in name descriptions and definitions. This volume looks at the in-depth meanings of indigenous as well as adopted African names. African personal names have multitudinous functions such as the association of one's occupation, habits, or personality. Many African names emanate from one's ancestry through clan, ethnic/tribal, or religious affiliation. Names can also be commemorative of ancient wars and conquests. Since most of these names emanate from the "Bantuphone" region of east, central and southern Africa, it is not uncommon for many of them to have a similar meaning, albeit different pronunciations. A word such as Muntu connotes a person, but actually it is derived from the common linguistic descent of people in this region. It is therefore not surprising that the word "ntu" is common among most ethnic groups in this region and carries the same meaning. For example, a word such as "Gahungu," which denotes a small or young boy, has a similar connotation amongst the Hutu, Tutsi, and Twa ethnic groups of Rwanda and Burundi.

The author also includes new African words that have been adopted from Western political and cultural contexts. For example, the word "Democracy" in most African contexts is pronounced as "Demokrasi." Like other African names given to people during a certain historical phenomenon, this word has been given to some newborns during the current democratic struggle on the continent.

The alphabetical listings of these names as well as the book's well-prepared index will be very helpful to those that are not familiar with African appellations. This book is highly recommended for scholars and students of African anthropology, linguistics, literature, history, and politics, as well as anyone interested in learning more about an important aspect of African culture.

S.B. Isabirye
Flagstaff, AZ