Zimbabweans Barking Up the Wrong Tree With ‘Silly’ English Names, Says Artist

A prominent Zimbabwean illustrator and animator has embarked on a project to replace “silly” colonial-era names of trees with their native ones. Tafadzwa Tarumbwa wants names like sausage tree and monkey-orange, snot apple and African bubblegum, replaced with their names in Zimbabwe’s indigenous languages.

“A lot of the English names just don’t work,” he told RFI, adding that he found them belittling, and he isn’t the only one.

During the pandemic and its accompanying lockdowns and school closures Zimbabwean parents, like those almost everywhere else in the world, were forced to help with their children’s online school work. Some of these parents approached Tarumbwa for help in finding the English names of indigenous trees and fruit.

What they found made them uncomfortable: names like the ones mentioned above.

These young parents now appear to be the group that’s most passionate about using only native names for trees, explained Tarumbwa.

A mental challenge

“Given how lovely these fruits sound in their native names, one can’t help but wonder why they need to have English names in the first place.”

The childishly named snot apple, for instance, has a variety of names in indigenous languages: dohwe in Shona; uxakuxaku in Ndebele; and munego in the Tonga language of the northern Zambezi Valley.

The sausage tree, which produces fruit that do resemble giant hanging salamis, is known as mubvee in Shona and ipfungwani in Ndebele.

Tarumbwa has now started a project to collect the names of well-known trees in at least five indigenous Zimbabwean languages. He plans to include them in a book, along with photos and illustrations. He also plans to get help coming up with more accurate translations of the Shona names into English.

“The English names could be based on taste, texture, colour, or even English sounds that are more identical to the native names.”

Tarumbwa, an animator and children’s book illustrator who has received nominations for his work at Zimbabwe’s National Arts Merit Awards, is no stranger to challenging creative projects.

Children’s stories demand lots of imagination, he said, “and I enjoy that mental challenge.”

His current projects include a book entitled Gogo & Gamu. It’s the story of a Zimbabwean girl sent home one holiday by her parents living in the diaspora to stay with her grandmother and learn more about their home country.

Fruits we love

Tarumbwa’s memories of his own childhood visits to his grandparents in Zimbabwe‘s rural areas are fueling the passion behind his latest tree renaming project.

He recalls picking lots of matamba, the fruit of the small tree with a dense crown of leaves that is inappropriately named monkey-orange in English. The fruit are big, perfectly round and smooth with tough shells. Tarumbwa and his friends would smash them open on a rock before eating the soft, sweet pulp.

“We would try and make a game out of it, to see who could crack theirs the fastest. Those who knew the right pressure points could do it in one hit. After eating the fruit, we also got to play with the round shell ‘cups’ that got left behind.”

Wild seasonal fruits would provide sustenance for extended play dates with friends in neighbouring villages. There would be no need to go back home early to find food.

For a city-based artist, the task of finding pictures of those fruits of his childhood to illustrate the book won’t be easy.

“Even the internet doesn’t have several of the fruits we know and love,” he said.

But Tarumbwa has been heartened by the positive feedback he’s received from like-minded Zimbabweans. Many have contacted him after he posted his own objections to some of the English tree names on Facebook. Some have offered to send him their pictures.

Positive names, positive attitude

He’s even consulted village elders to hear their views. They were unaware English names even existed for local trees, and were baffled by the need for them.

“To some, it stands to reason that such a fruit only needs its native name,” he said.

Sambulo Ndlovu, a professor of linguistics at the Great Zimbabwe University in the southern city of Masvingo, says he agrees with Tarumbwa’s project.

“When looked at critically, the English adjectives used to differentiate African flora are derogatory,” he told RFI.

Ndlovu, whose 2021 book Naming and Othering in Africa delves into how names in Africa have been used to either dominate or to subjugate, said some of the names used for local plants and trees, such as monkey nut, bird-plum, pigweed and snot apple “imagine African ecology as savage, detestable, and less authentic.”

He said renaming them could help to raise awareness as to their usefulness to humans, and aid in their long-term conservation. That would be useful in a country that is estimated to lose around 300,000 hectares (741,000 acres) of its indigenous forests each year as they are felled for firewood, or to make charcoal or dry tobacco on farms.

“Names and naming are powerful tools in the development agenda,” said Ndlovu. “Positive names determine positive attitudes towards the trees.”

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