NIGERIA holds the prize for an eccentric presidential name but move over Goodluck Jonathan, you can also meet Suffering or chat with Chinese in the heart of Africa.
The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) abounds in quirky names coined by mixing common nouns, adjectives and religious fervour into a fresh shortened moniker.
Christian first names have long been used in the country and continued after independence from Belgium in 1960.
In the 1970s, the custom carried on undercover even after former dictator Mobutu Sese Seko (1965 to 1997) launched a drive to restore African names.
But next to all the secret Maries, Josephs and Pierres (Marys, Josephs and Peters), newborns were turning up with decidedly Christian—if unrecognisable—sobriquets.
Take Plamedi for example. It stands for “Plan merveilleux de Dieu” or God’s marvellous plan.
Then there is Merdi for “Merci Dieu ou Merveille de Dieu” meaning Thank God or God’s marvel.
These are often popular when couples have had trouble conceiving and, after a mix of prayers and medical treatment, finally have a baby, said Olivier Kana, a doctor at the Monkole maternity hospital in Kinshasa.
The proliferation of Pentecostal Christian churches in the DRC, as in other parts of Africa, has helped boost the trend. Their evangelical energy tends to be more exuberant than the traditional Catholicism—the church of 40% of the 70 million Congolese—brought in by the Belgians.
‘Names can save your life’
As elsewhere in Africa, the Congolese sometimes name their offspring after presidents or their employers—often hoping to gain favour—or even their profession.
Nouns like Budget, Verdict, Jeunesse (Youth) and Plante (Plant) as well as adjectives, often of the superlative kind, are also big.
Therese, a 34-year-old housewife, had no doubt about what to name her twin boys when they were born three years ago.
“They’re called Precious and Sublime. They are precious for me and I hope they will also be precious to society,” she said.
Regional variations have also been noticed, including one specific to the east of the country where for the last 20 years conflict has erupted among armed groups from local areas or nearby countries over ethnic, economic or border disputes.
“Your name can cause you problems or save your life,” said Justin Paluku, a doctor at the Heal Africa hospital in Goma, capital of the strife-torn Nord Kivu province.
“People have gotten used to no longer using [traditional] names to hide the real [ethnic] identity of their child,” he said.
According to the law, names have to bear a “link to Congolese cultural heritage, cannot be contrary to good morals or be in any way insulting, humiliating or provocative.”
Many are named in the local language after powerful animals, such as Lion or Leopard, but other variants include the tamer Pigeon and Poodle.
The travails of ‘Suffering’
Some names, people believe, mark the fate of individuals for life.
Ferdinand, a resident of the eastern city of Goma, cites the case of a man baptised Mateso or Suffering in Swahili.
“According to those close to him, his name has been the root of all the misfortunes that have befallen his family,” the 29-year-old Ferdinand said.
These include his unwed daughters’ pregnancies, his good-for-nothing sons, his rocky employment history and the fact that his house was burnt to the ground.
If it proves unduly troublesome, people can change their registered names “but often reverence for one’s parents prevents them from doing so,” said Richard Bondo, a lawyer in Kinshasa.
For 28-year-old Chinois, or Chinese in French, an unusual name has become a source of pride.
Named thus because his family found he bore a resemblance to Chinese workers building a bridge near his native village, the journalist—now based in Kinshasa—was rebaptised Bienvenu or “Welcome” in French by a local radio station on the grounds that his real name would sound bizarre on the airwaves.
But he is unfazed by the jokes and the snide remarks that often follow whenever he is introduced to people.
“I show them my voter’s card and say—I am the sole Chinese in the Democratic Republic of Congo!” he said.