Wednesday December 18 2013

Why children named Mandela, Kwame, Lumumba will rule Africa

By Charles Onyango-Obbo

So we say; farewell Nelson Mandela. The larger-than-life global icon and former South African president was buried in his village home of Qunu on Sunday.

One of the questions being asked is if “Africa, or indeed South Africa will have another Mandela”. To which I say yes, though not in the way most people think. There are hundreds of thousands of African children named Mandela, and to be sure given the status he assumed upon his death, I expect that possibly by the end of 2015, there could be well close to one million Africans named after Mandela.

One or two of these Mandela’s will one day become president of African countries. To understand why that is so, let us look at other famous leaders whom Ugandans, and Africans in general, have historically named their children after. The most popular, by far, is Ghana’s founding father Kwame Nkrumah. Not only is Nkrumah popular in Africa, but the name is also a favourite with people of black descent in Europe, the USA, the Carribeans, and Latin America.

Running almost neck and neck with Nkrumah, is Lumumba. Patrice Lumumba was a [DR] Congolese independence leader and the first democratically elected prime minister of the Republic of the Congo after he helped win its independence from Belgium in June 1960. He was ousted and murdered by reactionaries in 1961, in a murky affair involving Mobutu Sese Seko and the CIA.

The other popular choice is Sekou, after Ahmed Sekou Toure, who was president of Guinea from 1958 up to his death in 1984.

Then, there is Samora, after Mozambique’s revolutionary leader and eventual president, Samora Machel. Samora was president from 1975 to 1986, when he died in a plane crash that African radicals still maintain was sabotaged by agents of the apartheid regime in South Africa then. The charismatic and pretty-faced Burkina Faso soldier Captain Thomas Sankara, assassinated in a plot in 1987 by his deputy and current Blaise Compaore, is also a latter-day favourite.

Also making the naming list is Egypt’s radical general and leader Gamal Abdel Hussein, Tanzania’s Julius Nyerere – quite an admired figure, and Kenya’s founding father Jomo Kenyatta. There is also Kenya Mau Mau leader Dedan Kimathi, and Amilcar Cabral. Cabral was a Guinea-Bissauan and Cape Verdean writer, and a nationalist thinker and political leader.

The man who stood at the head of this trend was the legendary, truly amazing, and ultimately tragic, Zulu king Shaka. Formally Shaka kaSenzangakhona, he became better known as Shaka Zulu, one of the most influential men to tread the African continent. Shaka was assassinated in 1828.

From outside Africa, the American president John F Kennedy was quite a popular one; so was Cuba’s revolutionary, Fidel Castro; Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, and more recently US President Barack Obama.

Proving that African politics has always been, and remains, dominated by name, there are hardly any women on that list. There has been a long time for Africa to adopt these men’s names, especially of Nkrumah’s, Lumumba’s and Sekou. In 15 years, therefore, we can fully expect that the Mandela name will have reached critical mass, and like Nkrumah and Lumumba, there will be more people named Mandela outside South Africa than inside.

Mandela was a democrat, yes, but generally most of the rest were not. Rather they were idealists, progressives, courageous, and captured the spirit of their age perfectly. The African parents who name their children Sankara, Nkrumah, Lumumba et al also tend to be idealist, progressives, pan-African, global minded, and rationalist/scientific and, therefore, ambivalent toward religion or even atheist. They choose these names often to escape the national parochialism in which they live, and to place their children in a space where they will not be quickly categorised into national ethnic categories.

Precisely because they are these kinds of broad minded and public spirited parents, even if some of them may be just humble school teachers or village barbers, their children are likely to succeed in life than those born to conservative narrow-minded ones. They are likely to give their children the freedom to explore; to encourage them to use contraceptives; to go to graduate school; to marry later – and marry a girl or boy from outside the tribe; and to have fewer children. When I think of Uganda and the rest of Africa in 2050, I see many prominent men in public and business leadership named Kwame, Obama, Mandela, Castro, Lumumba, and so on.

Because they will still be the children of their progressive parents, they are more likely to build enlightened and just societies than those that populate Africa today, and to identify themselves with something bigger than their clans. Where men like Kwame Nkrumah failed, that generation will redeem them. Where their work was unfinished, as in the case of Lumumba, they will finish it. And where it ended in glory, as in the case of Mandela, that generation will ennoble it.

* & twitter:cobbo3