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How Ethnic Names Can Be Used to Set Expectations of a People

How Ethnic Names Can Be Used to Set Expectations of a People

by Asar Imhotep

In recent years—since the release of The Bakala of North America, The Living Suns of Vitality: In Search for a Meaningful Name for African-Americans (2009)—I have been engaged in many conversations and panels regarding identity and what it means for Africans on the continent, as well as Africans in the Diaspora. One of the many challenges I have faced in such public discourses is trying to move the discussion of identity beyond mere labeling into a discussion about how one’s identity can be a tool of empowerment and nation building.

Many people think that a name is simply a human tool to label and identify things. But a name is more than a label: it is a vibration that resonates with the essence of a thing. A name speaks to the energy of a phenomenon and when invoked, can activate latent energies that can be used to manifest its potential. This is why in Africa, as discussed in Imhotep (2009), personal names were not simply labels: they actually represented (in some instances) goals to be achieved, or a character to be personified. A name, in essence, was a person’s destiny; his north star which directed his life. 

For example, among the Yoruba of Nigeria, a person’s “head” is called ori (or oruwo: Egyptian hr “upon, one who is upon, supervising”; hr “head”). When a human being is born out of the womb, it is the child’s “head” that comes out first. It is for this reason that in many human languages the word for “head” is often also used to mean “forward, front or lead.” This is why in English we say things like, “I want to get ahead of the storm before it comes.” Or, “That man was ahead of his time.” The “head” denotes “future” and is why among the Yoruba the word ori is also used to mean “destiny.” This term is the root of the word oriki (also oruko) which is a person’s praise name given at birth. A person is expected to live up to the meaning of their oriki.

It is under this foundational opus that I argue that a name, even when applied ethnically, can be used for more than mere labeling. It’s one thing to talk about a name relating to the destiny of an individual, but how do you capture the essence and the destiny of a community, a people or a nation in a name? These are the questions I attempted to address in Imhotep (2009). I suggest here, in this essay, that a name for an ethnic group should, in part, represent the expectations of all of the persons who exist within its parameters and have adopted the communal name to represent them: their communal totem.

As Dr. Amos Wilson has stated, “Culture is a conspiracy!” It is an organized effort by a population to set guidelines, values and procedures in an attempt to influence behavior in a way that that will motivate people to find unique solutions to their problems. Culture ultimately is a problem-solving agent.

It is believed in some communities (like the Dagara of Burkina Faso) that your spirit has chosen a particular community to be born into because 1) that community has the necessary social tools to help you fulfill your destiny, and 2) you have certain gifts that that community currently needs. So for the African, community (society) is a place designed to develop a certain type of human being and to draw out individual gifts. The people have come together, in part, to create an environment where each individual has the best chance of developing those inner gifts for the service of the community. By sharing your gifts with the community, you not only enhance the society, but the community, in turn, enhances you by giving you the kind of space and resources necessary to develop yourself fully. This is the spirit behind the AmaZulu saying: uMuntu Ngamuntu Ngabantu “A person is a person through (because of) other people.”

A culture asks itself, “What type of human beings do we want to develop?” After several meetings of the mind, different values, taboos, guidelines, rituals and institutions are set-up by the community to begin a process of socialization that will most efficiently aid in the development of the type of persons the society deems it needs in order to fulfill its greater destiny. With this in mind, I want to give just two African examples of this philosophy in action so that the reader can better understand why, in part, I have suggested a renaming of African-Americans as outlined in Imhotep (2009), and how one’s ethnic name can be a tool of empowerment and a guide for human development.

Our first example comes from the state of Burkina Faso. In the days of President Thomas Sankara (1949-1987), what is now called Burkina Faso was called The Republic of Upper Volta (République de Haute-Volta)—which before 1960 was under French control. On August 4, 1984 Thomas Sankara announced the new name for the country: Burkina Faso. The name was decided upon after consulting the two leading ethnic groups of the region: the Diou and the Moré. The word Burkina is from the Moré people’s language which means “worthy” and the word Faso is a Dyula ethnic group term that means “country.” It is roughly translated in English as “the country of integrated people” or “country of honesty” (see Viban Ngo’s Origins of African Place Names: An Introduction to Toponyms in Cartography and Politics in Africa, 2009: 279). I’ve also seen it translated as “The upright people.”

What we gather from this piece of African history is that the name Upper Volta did not speak to the eternal values of the natives in terms of their collective destiny. This name did not inform them of what their expectations were as citizens of that land. So they took destiny in their own hands and renamed the country with a vibrational symbol that spoke to the essence of their character and their obligations towards one another. The expectation of each citizen is that in all of their dealings, they should act with integrity and honesty.

We now go to our second example: the AmaZulu of South Africa. The word zulu in the IsiZulu language is said by linguists to mean “sky, heaven.” This term is cognate with ciLuba kulu “sky, heaven” and ancient Egyptian hrw “sky, heaven, sun.” The actual root is Proto-Western-Sudanic (PWS) *lu(a,e,) “upper, top, zenith, height” [k->kh->h-; k->s->z- is a prefix]. Most books would argue that the name means “the sky people,” but the AmaZulu have a different take on the ethonym.

Credo Mutwa, a Zulu Sangoma (priest), in an interview with Rick Martin (see my 2009 article “From Heru to Zulu: The Spirit Beyond the Heavens”) states that the term zulu (izulu, weduzulu) is used to refer to “interplanetary-space” and is used in the sense of “travelling” (izula “travel”) from one end of space to another. In other words, it is the belief of the Amazulu that it is possible (without crafts) to travel through interplanetary space. This notion is supported by another Amazulu by the name of Jordan Ngubane who in 1979 published a book titled Conflict of Minds.

In this work Ngubane tells us how a small group of pastoralists ended up becoming one of the biggest ethnic groups in South Africa under the visionary leadership of Tshaka Zulu. At the time many of the Nguni-Bantu tribes were fighting among each other as resources became scarce in a land-locked area. A court poet challenged Tshaka’s father (Senzaghakona), who was the leader at the time, to lead his people into new heights with the following poem:

Raise me from the depths;
to heights take me,
that with grain I may return;
the grain I shall winnow;
The grain I shall cook.
(Should you do that) O Ndaba,
They will forever preach to each other about it.
The foes will;
So will those on our side.
A cord of destiny let us weave,
O Menzi, scion of Jama,
To universes beyond the reach of spirit-forms We may ascend.
(So long must the cord be) The spirit-forms themselves
Will break their tiny toes,
Should they dare to climb!

The people did not need an interpreter for this poem. It was an extension of their cultural thought process. These are the words that Tshaka internalized to fuel his revolution. The Amazulu believed that they were incarnations of eternal values and that the eternal in them was real and positive to all things; that it could do whatever it imagined. The Zulu had the power to traverse space and move from one universe to another in the endeavor to find more satisfying dimensions of being human. 

The name adopted by the emerging empire was a name that spoke to the inherent limitations of their being: the heavens, interplanetary-space, eternity. In other words, the sky’s the limit; there are no limitations to one’s development. The mind has the ability to travel to the shores of eternity to find solutions to everyday problems. The heights to which one could achieve in life is as long as eternity itself. The name speaks to the expectation that each member of the society is to develop their full mental capabilities. All they need is discipline and an expansive imagination. With having such an expansive vision, they can soar to heights that even the spirits cannot reach.

It is with these examples and more that inspired me to go in the direction I did in regards to the name I chose for African-Americans: BaKala or Nkale. Our current and past names in the U.S. do not provide us with expectations or an ideal to achieve. Names like Negro, Colored, Black and even African-American did not speak to our eternal values in relationship to the Ultimate Value: the Divine. These were the kinds of names we had prior to our ancestors’ enslavement in the Americas. My aim was to give us a sense of purpose that was lost to us as a result of the holocaust of enslavement.

The ethonym BaKala consists of two words: ba- (nominal prefix meaning “they, them, their”; used in the plural human noun-class in Bantu languages) + kala (root meaning “fire, charcoal, the Divine, intelligence”). The root is polysemous, meaning that it has multiple meanings. This is a result of metaphorization of the central domain (others by way of homonym). The root meaning “fire” is also used to mean “light.” Light becomes the physical source that inspires extended meanings of “consciousness, awareness, enlightenment, intelligence, etc.” The relationship is demonstrated when we say things like having a “bright” idea; or when one has an idea in one’s head, a “light” goes on.

In the ciLuba-Bantu language (a language group by which many African-Americans’ ancestry lie), we have terms like MuKela, NKela, NiKela which mean “erudite, learned, learned man, educated, civilized, noble.” The term -Kela is synonymous with -Vila or -Vilula "complete, do to perfection"; “a thorough knowledge of, possess/to have (to grasp an idea).” See also muvile mumanè “scholar.” In ancient Egyptian we have the cognate term iqr "trust, trustworthy, skillful, excellent, pleasing, well to do, superior"; "wealth, virtue, excellence"; "worthy man, a nice guy, a goody goody, dependable"; "a trustworthy man, wiseacre (< a person with an affectation of wisdom or knowledge)."

The word –kala (for us) has the same connotations as the name Burkina Faso or AmaZulu. A MuKala (the singular of BaKala) is someone who is “trust worthy, wise, dependable, erudite, well learned, educated, civilized, noble” and personifies “excellence and virtue” (the real sources of wealth). It is an expectation for all of us who have grown up in this culture, who are inheritors of a great legacy, to follow in the footsteps of our elders and ancestors who have exemplified these traits (i.e., Harriet Tubman, W.E.B. Dubois, Marcus Garvey, Malcolm X, Fannie Lou Hammer, Martin Luther King, Jr., Mae Jamison, Carter G. Woodson, Queen Mother Moor, Ben Carson, etc.).

As stated before, culture is created to develop a certain type of human being. For the developing African-American culture we ask, “What type of human beings do we want to develop?” The ideal African-American human being, I posit, is a MuKala/Nkale (see Imhotep 2009 for expanded meanings). All of our pedagogical efforts should have one goal in mind: to create a MuKala. Our education should not simply focus on giving him/her a certificate so they can get a job. All persons in America who are the descendants of enslaved Africans should be expected to develop into a MuKala/Nkale because it is a MuKala that has the creative capacity for invention, innovation, job creation, and general problem solving.

The name gives us a goal to work towards and it is a bar by which to measure authenticity for each of our members (within the ethnic group BaKala/African-Americans). It is no different than the name “doctor.” If someone says they are a medical doctor, we EXPECT them to be intelligent and about the business of healing. This is implied by the very meaning of the title doctor which has gone through a sense evolution from a root meaning: "religious teacher, adviser, scholar," in classical L. "teacher," agent noun from docere "to show, teach, cause to know," originally "make to appear right," causative of decere "be seemly, fitting.” The very name forces a certain expectation of the title holder. This is the ideal behind Bakala/Nkale that I envisioned for my people; that when someone refers to a MuKala, they expect nothing but excellence.

But all of this is for not if we don’t create the institutions where our children may learn the ways of the BaKala; so that they can grow-up to be the best them they can be; so that they can use their gifts to make the world more beautiful than how they inherited it; so that they can provide us with new more satisfying dimensions for being human.


Asar Imhotep is a computer programmer and Africana researcher from Houston, TX whose research focus is the cultural, linguistic and philosophical links between the Ancient Egyptian civilizations and modern BaNtu cultures of central and South Africa. He is the founder of the MOCHA-Versity Institute of Philosophy and Research and the Madu-Ndela Institute for the Advancement of Science and Culture. He is also the author of The Bakala of North America, the Living Suns of Vitality: In Search for a Meaningful Name for African-Americans, and Passion of the Christ or Passion of Osiris: The Kongo Origins of the Jesus Myth.