Burundian names tell a history of bad times and good

By Todd Pitman

Associated Press

BUJUMBURA, Burundi — Her first son was born 10 years ago on a Bujumbura street while fighting raged. She named him Nzikobanyanka, or "I know they hate us."

Two successive sons were also christened with names reflecting weariness with Burundi’s long war: Tugiramahoro ("Let’s have peace") and Nduwimana ("I’m in God’s hands"). But when the fighting finally stopped and Daphrose Miburu’s youngest son was born a year ago, the 35-year-old mother chose something a little more uplifting: Furaha — "Happiness."

The history of this battered nation can be told through names like these, given to reflect the world as parents see it at the time. Some hail historical moments or a child’s most conspicuous trait. But they can also deliver terse commentaries in an unsafe world.


"Names here are individual and have individual meanings," says Philippe Ntahombaye, a university professor and linguistics expert in Bujumbura, the capital. "They can reflect a situation of conflict, but they can also serve as a means of dialogue — a means of resolving conflict."

Like its neighbor, Rwanda, Burundi is a tiny country haunted by devastating bloodshed between two ethnic groups, majority Hutus and minority Tutsis. This land of breathtaking hills in the heart of Africa is recovering from a 1993-2005 civil war that killed hundreds of thousands. Tensions between Hutus and Tutsis trace back decades.

Every name has a story to tell.

Coffee dealer Charles Ntezahorigwa, an ethnic Tutsi, grew up in the 1950s in a rural area dominated by Hutus who wanted them to leave. "They used witchcraft against us and danced nude so our crops wouldn’t grow," he said.

The hostile environment was borne out in his name — Nteza ("I’m expecting"), Kugwa ("To fall"), Ibara ("Something bad"), or, joined together, "I’m expecting something bad to happen."

Tensions were also recorded in the names of his brothers and sisters: Nkinahamira ("I’m playing on quicksand"), Nicayenzi (I’m quiet, but aware I’m in danger") and Bakanibona ("They’re planning bad things, but God will protect me").

In Burundi’s fatalistic nomenclature, and in a language that can say much in a few syllables, there’s Barayampiema ("They’re not telling the truth"), Bangurambona ("They’re plotting against me"), Barandagiye ("They’re following me"), Nzobatinya ("I fear them"), Ndikumagenge ("I’m in danger"), Ntamahungiro ("There is no place to hide").

There is even Hicuburundi ("Burundians kill"), a name linguists say could memorialize tragedy, or warn the child who bears it to be careful — some countrymen can pose a threat.


Ntahombaye (meaning "I live nowhere") says such appellations aren’t meant to express hatred, but to encourage social cohesion.

"It’s a way to say to your neighbors, you know their intentions, their bad intentions," he said. "But it’s also a way of telling them, ’We’re aware of these sentiments you have, and we invite you to change."’

Other families may respond with names of their own, creating a kind of dialogue played out over years or generations.

Plenty are positive: Ndikatubane ("Let us live together"), Ndizeye ("I trust"), Rukundo ("Love").

Or mundane: Bitwi ("Big ears"), Bitonde ("Big nose"). Giswi means "you look like a small chicken," Ntezahorigwa says.

Others memorialize historic moments. One prominent politician is named Mukasi, meaning "scissors," in celebration of his family’s first pair. Burundi’s independence from Belgium in 1962 occasioned Burikukiye ("Burundi is becoming independent").

Famines gave rise to Ndikiminwe ("I have very little in my hands to give"); locust plagues — Nzige ("Grasshopper"); conflicts — Kibiriti ("Match box"), an allusion to combatants who set village huts ablaze.

Children are traditionally given two unique names in Kirundi, the national language. But colonialism ushered in a taste for European first names, like the ex-rebel leader-turned-president Pierre Nkurunziza, whose surname means "good news." The missionaries who brought Christianity gave rise to names like Nahimana ("Whatever happens is up to God").


Some families have adopted the Western custom of passing on the father’s family name. The practice is rare, though, and at least one learned the benefits of keeping to tradition.

A judge, who declined to be identified because of the sensitivity of the subject, said his Tutsi uncle had killed "many" Hutus in 1972, when a spasm of bloodletting shook the nation. His children carried the family name and were easily identifiable because of it.

"People always said, ’you’re the son of that guy, you did this and that to our family,"’ the judge said. "So when they grew up, they all changed their names."

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