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Reporter Pens Picture Of A Complex Gambia, With Its Smiling Beaches
I had been in The Gambian capital, Banjul, less than an hour and here I was, car pulled over, explaining my business to a group of men in uniform.
Much Ado about the Meaning of a Name among Africans
Following their recent walloping by Nigeria's Super Eagles soccer team at the African Nations Championship, the South African national football team is once again considering changing its name from Bafana Bafana, which means "the lads".
They reckon that the name may have something to do with their fortunes, that it is time their team started playing like men.
A few years ago, troubled South African footballer, Jabu Mahlangu, also changed his surname from Pule, saying that the former name was jinxed.
Names are important in Africa.
In some societies, ceremonies are organized for the specific purpose of naming a new child.
During the naming ceremony for my sister's twins, printed sheets with the children's English and traditional names - and their different meanings - were handed out to the dozens of guests.
Many African children are given at least three names. Each is carefully selected to reflect the circumstances of the child's birth, the family history, the parents' status or the expectations for the child's future.
The general belief is that a person's name can influence his behavior and circumstances.
I have heard a number of people associate the paparazzi hunt that inadvertently led to Princess Diana's death, with her being named after Diana, the goddess of hunting.
In my church, on the second Sunday of each month parents wishing to dedicate their new babies to God line up on the pulpit with their children.
The mother or father then announces each child's names and the meanings. Sometimes, the congregation bursts into spontaneous cheering and applause when a particularly promising meaning is announced.
A young Nigerian man I know changed his surname from Ihimoyan to Moyan; "Ihi" was a deity that his family worshipped generations ago.
He no longer wanted to bear the name of a god he did not know, especially since his family is now Christian.
My friend, Iyabo, also changed her name to Busola; Iyabo means "mother has come back" and she no longer wanted to be seen as a carry-over of someone else.
These are just two out of the growing number of today's Nigerians, who, dissatisfied with their given names, are altering them to reflect a new outlook.
You are now likely to see a Mr. Alex who used to be a Mr. Agwu or Nkiruka who was Azuka.
Some of the names may sound very similar to the ones they have replaced, but their meanings are radically different.
Nkiruka, for example, means "what lies ahead is greater" while Azuka means "the past is greater". Agwu is the Igbo deity of divination, thought to be a malignant and ruthless force.
Whole communities are also changing their names.
In 1992, the people of my ancestral village in the south-eastern state of Abia voted to change our name from Umuojameze, which means "children of Ojam, the king".
Ojam was a deity the people used to worship. The villagers attributed the spate of sudden deaths in the community to Ojam's yearning for a long-overdue sacrifice, and wanted to make it clear that we no longer wanted anything to do with him.
Umujieze, the new name, sounds similar to the old one, but means "children who hold the kingship".
The late Reverend Father Stephen Uche Njoku, author of the book Challenge and Deal with Your Evil Foundations, believed there was a strong case for people and communities to change their names if they have disagreeable connotations.
"In doing this, you are making a choice to initiate a process of transformation for yourself, your family or your community," he said.
According to him, the Nkerehi people in Orumba improved their circumstances by changing their name.
The old name evoked a brutish past that included human sacrifices to their various deities and shrines; the Nkerehi now call themselves the Umuchukwu, or "children of God".
"The community now has a missionary hospital, an international secondary school and a civic centre," Rev Fr Njoku said.
The village of Ehi in Ikeduru has also changed its name to Amaudo, meaning "land of peace".
Ehi means "cow". This name, people believe, was the reason they were constantly being dominated by the Agu, a neighboring community.
Agu means "tiger", and a tiger is always likely to exert its strength over a cow.
One of the most spectacular reinforcements of the idea that names have power has been Nigeria's President Goodluck Jonathan, who enjoyed a series of "lucky" outcomes that thrust him into the highest position in the land.
The removal of those above him - through no act of his own - led to his dramatic rise from a deputy state governor to president.
However, the potency of his name is currently facing its greatest test, as a result of aggressive opposition to his perceived ambition to seek re-election in 2015.
It should be interesting to see whether Mr. Jonathan's famed "good luck" will ultimately prevail.
It should also be interesting to see what alternative names the South Africans may consider for their lads.
Whatever they eventually select, you can be sure that the rest of Africa will be watching to see what - if any - difference it will make.
One Hundred And Seventy Years Removed, Cuban Ganga Finds Roots In Sierra Leonean Village
For decades the Ganga-Longoba of Perico have been singing the same chants, a tradition passed down the generations.
But until recently this Afro-Cuban community knew little of the origin of the songs, or of their own ancestors.
Now, thanks to the work of an Australian academic, Cuba's Ganga believe their roots lie in a remote village in Sierra Leone from where it is thought their relatives were sold into slavery more than 170 years ago.
"When I first filmed the Ganga-Longoba, I believed their ceremonies were a mixture of many different ethnic groups," says historian Emma Christopher, of Sydney University.
"I had no idea that a large number of Ganga songs would come from just one village. I think that's extremely unusual," she says.
The initial breakthrough came when a group in Liberia saw her footage of a Cuban ceremony and recognized part of a local ritual.
Spurred on to seek the songs' exact origins, the academic spent two years showing the film across the region until she confirmed that the Cubans were singing in the almost extinct language of an ethnic group decimated by the slave trade.
Her enquiries finally led her to Mokpangumba, where villagers not only identified the Banta language but recognized songs and dances from the initiation ceremony for their own secret society, devoted to healing.
"That's the moment when they said: 'They are we'," Dr Christopher recalls, describing how the incredulous Africans began singing and dancing along with the Cubans on screen.
They identified nine of the songs in total, despite lyrics twisted over the decades and distance. For the villagers it was compelling proof that the people of Perico were family.
During more than three centuries of transatlantic trade, just short of a million slaves were shipped to Cuba. The vast majority were trafficked in the 19th Century as forced labor for the island's vast sugar plantations.
Dr Christopher has singled out a woman known by her slave-name "Josefa" as the likely link between Perico and Sierra Leone. It's thought she arrived in the 1830s when the Gallinas slaving port was most active.
The local plantation owner includes a Josefa Ganga amongst the property in his will: below his real estate, and just above livestock.
Remarkably, Josefa survived to see the 1886 abolition of slavery in Cuba - far exceeding the average seven-year life expectancy for slaves here, where conditions were brutal - and she managed to safeguard the songs and traditions of home.
"Someone once said we originated from the Congo, but I always had doubts," says Alfredo Duquesne, an artist whose work has long been inspired by African themes but who has never known where his own roots lay.
"It bothered me. I wanted to know where I came from," he explains in his single-storey home crowded with woodcarvings, near where his ancestors would once have labored in the cane fields.
The Santa Elena plantation has long gone. But many descendants of its former slaves still remain in the small town of Perico, including the group labeled "Ganga" by those who trafficked them.
Every December they meet to pray to Yebbe, as the Ganga call San Lazaro (St Lazarus), in a night-long ceremony of dance, drumming and song that has remained intact through the decades.
San Lazaro is a saint known for curing the sick, and is revered by Roman Catholic and syncretic faiths in Cuba.
It was Florinda Diago, thought to be Josefa's great-granddaughter, who preserved their heritage in Cuba; she then entrusted that task to the current "grande dame" of the Ganga community, a frail but feisty woman in her 80s known as Piyuya.
The healing secrets have been lost, but Piyuya can still sing every chant: songs of lament and joy for the dead and in celebration. In the 1980s she wrote out their lyrics for the first time, alongside hand-drawn flowers in a now yellowed and tattered notebook.
Organizing a reunion for the divided "family" wasn't easy given restrictions on travelling from Cuba at the time, and limited resources. But eventually, four Cubans did make their ancestors' voyage in reverse - to Sierra Leone.
The incredible safeguarding of traditions has allowed Afro-Cuban descendants to discover their roots at last
"When I opened my mouth to sing, they just stood there staring," Elvira Fumero recalls of her arrival in Mokpangumba.
"Then it was like an explosion. They started to sing the responses, and dance with me. And I knew then that this was where the Ganga came from," she says, smiling.
The Cubans' journey - to Africa, and uncovering their own roots - is captured in a documentary by the Australian academic that shows the two groups singing and celebrating together as well as sharing more modern traditions like baseball.
It's still a rare experience for most Afro-Cubans.
"Cuba was cut off at a time when other nations in the Americas were going through black pride and fighting for some justice for what happened to their ancestors," says Dr Christopher, who points out that the island's 1959 revolution declared racism "solved".
"That left a lot of Afro-Cubans adrift, not knowing how to celebrate where they came from and be proud of it," she says.
Whilst many Cubans of Spanish descent have rushed to seek out their ancestry - and passports - Afro-Cubans have been far less anxious to do the same.
But for Alfredo Duquesne, visiting Sierra Leone changed everything.
"It was as if I'd just left the previous weekend. I touched the soil and thought: 'This is it. I've come back,'" he says, describing himself now as "at peace".
"At last I know where I come from," Alfredo says. "I'm not a stranger any more."
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