Thursday, November 4, 2010


For this blog post I’m going to deviate from my usual pick one word and analyze it format. The title of this blog post is the Congolese word for name. A defining part of any person, place, or thing is its name; so, a blog about names is equally important as a blog about a verb or adjective.

Recently my English class finished the book The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver (I’ve made several connections to the book in previous post, but here is a summary one last time). The book spans some history of the Democratic Republic of Congo, especially the troublesome post-colonial era. For a little bit of background knowledge… in 1965 a man by the name of Mobutu became president of the Democratic Republic of Congo. In 1971, through his authoritarian regime, Mobutu tried to rid the Congo of the remnants of colonial rule. He changed the name of the Congo to Zaire to reflect a more pro-African culture. Mobutu also changed the names of many cities and street names to more indigenous names. The main characters in The Poisonwood Bible have trouble adapting to the change because they’ve only experienced the Congo with colonial names.

When a name has been used for so long, and people begin to associate with that name, can a change like Congo to Zaire make the population more authentically African? I think that the actions or events that happen to a person/country define them more than a name. To me names are just used for designation but can acquire meaning over time. Mobutu’s radical shift wasn’t widely supported by the population of the DRC. His attempt at representing African culture was forced and to me the new names seem inauthentic. Colonialism was a defining moment in the Congo’s history and the Congolese didn’t relate to the indigenous names; therefore, the colonial names like Leopoldville did represent the Democratic Republic of Congo more. In cases like the DRC/Zaire, Mobutu acted dictatorially and didn’t take into consideration the population’s reaction. As a ending-side note, I do think that a name change can have a positive effect on a person, especially if they choose the name.

Questions for consideration: What are the reasons for changing a name? How long does it take for a name to “stick”? Can society function without names? What are the implications of parents choosing names for their children instead of kids picking their own names?


  1. Hi Lauren! I really like the point you made about names like Leopoldville being better representatives. Despite the roots of a word, people have developed associations to the words "Congo" and "Leopoldville," and theough "Zaire" is supposedly more "authentic" a name, it still represents Mobutu's power rather than the people of the nation.

  2. Hey Lauren,
    I think reclaiming original names is very important for indigenous peoples in dealing with colonialism. (I would say recovering from, but that's too optimistic.) While Mobutu probably took thing a step too far, and perhaps in an unnecessary direction, the basic idea that native peoples should have the power to call places originally theirs by the original names is powerful. It is hard to imagine having a sound identity as a Jew if I had to refer to Jerusalem (or Yerushalim as it's pronounced in Hebrew) as Al-Quds. Names give groups power and cohesion, and even if they change over time, that's a symptom of colonial power, not complacency or correctness.