This story from the South African Associated Press syndicate about Namibia renaming a town really rubs me the wrong way. (Update: The original story has been taken down, but here’s a similar one from The Guardian) ABC news in America picked it up and posted it under their “weird news” category. Because a sovereign nation choosing its own appropriate place names is so weird, apparently.
Twenty-five years after independence, Namibia has been making a concerted effort to rename landmarks, streets, towns and regions from vestigial colonial German or apartheid-era Afrikaans names to indigenous African names. Uhland Strasse in Windhoek, for example was recently renamed “Dr. Kenneth David Kaunda Street” in honor of Zambia’s founding father. I had no idea who Uhland was, but a Google search told me he was a German poet who died in 1862, fully 20-odd years before Germany colonized South-west Africa. That one is a no-brainer. Why a street in the capital of Namibia should bear the name of an obscure 19th century German poet is beyond me.
Other renaming efforts have been more controversial. The Caprivi Strip (the skinny part of Namibia that juts out of the northeast like a guitar neck) has been known as the Caprivi Strip for longer than most people can remember. The residents even call themselves Caprivians. I suspect that few living Namibians realize that Georg Leo Graf von Caprivi de Caprera de Montecuccoli was the Chancellor of Germany from 1890-94, succeeding the infinitely more famous Otto von Bismarck, and overseeing the colonial administration of Deutsch-Südwestafrika. Under Caprivi’s watch, Herero leaders complained about German settlers raping and murdering Herero women, which the German authorities (and presumably Caprivi, himself) did nothing about. In the AP story, the author refers to Chancellor Caprivi as “a German count,” trivializing his role in the subjugation of the Namibian people. Namibia has now renamed the region the Zambezi Region, reflecting its connection to the Zambezi River. Which is way better than memorializing someone who institutionalized rape and genocide.
But now there’s a move afoot to rename the sleepy little town on the Skeleton Coast from Luderitz (humbly named after himself by Adolf Luderitz) to a more locally-appropriate Nama name, ǃNamiǂNûs. The symbols represent clicks in the Nama language. As the article states, some of the local white residents are not pleased. Or at least the one guy they interviewed, named Crispin Clay.
“Nobody’s quite certain how to pronounce or how to spell it,” said Clay. The “nobody” he’s referring to is presumably himself and the white 8% of Namibians. Because I’m fairly certain that most indigenous Namibians, regardless of tribal origin, would have little trouble reproducing a fairly accurate pronunciation, clicks and all. Clay added, “We’ll never get the clicks right.” Again, who is the “we” he’s referring to? With that defeatist attitude it’s clear he has little interest in even trying to learn the correct pronunciation. C’mon Crispin, give it a shot, man! Click-speak can be fun. Open your mind a little.
The other specious argument made by Mr. Clay is that “the proposed name could hurt Luderitz’s ability to attract international tourists and might not be recognized by computers and websites.”
Riiiiiiiight, because tourists never want to go anywhere exotic-sounding. Which is why Waikīkī in Hawai’i is so unpopular, or Mazatlan; or Beijing, which is the Anglicized approximation of squiggly little Chinese symbols that computers and websites can never get right. Or even the US state of Massachusetts, with its unpronounceable Algonquian name.
In blatant disregard for fairness, the reporter didn’t interview or quote a single Nama person or anyone who is in favor of the name change. Because, well, why bother? It would have distracted from the narrative he wanted to drive, which is that this name change is silly and frivolous. A tongue-twister.
Listen German people, Namibia hasn’t been yours since you lost the First World War almost 100 years ago. You lost the right to whine about Namibia’s place names long ago. For crap’s sake you might as well be demanding that they go back to calling it Deutsch-Südwestafrika. Oh shit, what’s that? German letters have those funny little punctuation marks over them that symbolize pronunciation. Well that will never work, that spelling will never be recognized by computers and websites. We’ll never get the umlauts right! Tourists will never want to go somewhere with a funny sounding name like that!