The Star (Nairobi)

29 December 2012

Kenya: What's in a Name? Quite More Than You May Think

I don't know about you, but I like to scan through the newspaper looking at the headlines and stories making the news before getting to grips with reading the whole thing.

I find that approaching a paper in this way tells me where the stories I really want to know more about are placed and this just makes my life easier.

Of course there are often stories that have captivating headlines that promise a hell of a lot but leave the reader feeling shortchanged, but like in life, you have to learn to take the rough with the smooth.

A couple of Sundays ago I was flicking through the pages of South Africa's Sunday Times when I came across a headline that stopped me in my tracks and forced me to read the story there and then.

Perhaps if you see what this showstopping headline said, you'll see my point and so here it is reproduced just for you dear reader: "Unhand our chief's virginal thighs, sir!"

Now you've got to admit that's quite an arresting headline and unless you have absolutely no sense of humour or lack the curiosity gene, it is the sort of story you want to know more about.

The headline was great and the story lived up to the billing as a page lead. It was all about an odd name for a school in the KwaZulu-Natal province that has caused a stir because the provincial head of education has decided the name needs to be changed and promptly.

For years pupils at Mathangetshitshi school have been giggling at the name of their school which translates to "thighs of a virgin" in the local Zulu language.

According to the story the name of the school was taken from the nickname of the institution's orginal benefactor Chief Alpheus Bongizwe "Mathangetshitshi" Nhleko who is described by villagers in the news report as "a well built man who would parade his taut, easy on the eye, thighs while strolling through the village."

In his will after he died in 1989 the narcissistic chief donated a portion of his private farm for the building of the school which then adopted his nickname for it's official name and has been known as such ever since.

Now, however, some politically correct government official has decided that this school along with others in his jurisdiction have "uninspiring and inappropriate" names.

The list of schools with the odd names include, Phuza (drink) Primary School, Nkawu (monkey) High School, Mgwazeni (stab him) High School and Bambinkuzi (pickpocket) Primary School.

However, the villagers and Chief Nhleko's relatives are determined not to let the education official have his way. The school's headmaster insists the name is not offensive and told the newspaper reporter, "We're proud of it and it's history" as he pointed to the school's enviable academic records.

The story reminded me of other strange place names I have come across including a place in Kenya's Coast province called Odd.

If you don't believe me check the following coordinates: Latitude: 2° 29' 02" S Longitude: 40° 12' 27" E. Then there is Britain which has perhaps more than it's fair share of silly place names which include, and I kid you not, Shitterton located between Dorchester and Poole and Scratchy Bottom, which is an idyllic hamlet based around a single street of picturesque thatched cottages in rural Dorset.

In the United States apparently there is a village in the state of Pennsylvania called Intercourse (meaning in this case the meeting place of two highways).

Rumour has it that the people of the village changed the name as it was too embarrassing. I also read that there is a town in Norway called Hell.

It gets even better - if you use the country's abbreviated form, the town is called Hell, NO! The name Hell is derived not from the fiery furnace but from the Old Norse word hellir, which meant 'cliff cave'.

Believe it or not this Hell tends to freeze over annually. Product names also don't escape this crazy name trend. I have read about a soft drink in Ghana named Pee Cola, bottled in the capital city Accra.

In Spain I have heard about a washing powder called Colon, which frankly I found strange but not as worrying as my British friends find Kenya's own Toss washing powder.

In British slang, Toss means to masturbate though of course right thinking people know it means to discard, still, not a great name for a household product that you want people to buy.

As for the 'virginal thighs' school in KwaZulu-Natal the reigning Zulu monarch King Goodwill Zwelithini has now waded into the argument with his spokesman saying that the education officials should seek an audience with the royal household about the name because "We would not be happy if a part of Zulu history was erased without consulting the royal household." For now whatever your name or the name of the school you attended, have a very happy and prosperous 2013.

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