Two years ago — shortly before the birth of my daughter, Waniso — I wrote a blog post about the importance of a person’s name in my culture:
The naming of a child holds importance in Shona culture. A child’s name might indicate what was happening historically when they were born, it might hint at a struggle within that particular family, or perhaps provide insight into the hopes and dreams for the child. As someone with a very distinct first name (and one that does not come from my language and culture), I’ve often given a lot of thought to the power of names and what my Shona name should be.
Revisiting the significance of the name Stalin in a recent conversation with my father, he explained that while he was in Rhodesia’s “rebel army,” he and other soldiers were studying in Mozambique. They read books about Joseph Stalin, who was elevated as a strong leader. While in combat, my father made a plan that if he ever had a son, he would name him Stalin.
The complexity of my naming story does not end there. Please stay with me.
I grew up being raised by the maternal side of my family. Immediately after the War for Independence, my father left the army and was drawn to the bright lights of the city, while my mother, pregnant with me at the time, remained in the rural area. This was the beginning of a disconnect between me and my paternal family, which holds great significance in my culture.
I not only grew up in my mother’s hometown, carrying my paternal family’s surname of Tafura, but was also given the nickname Toro, which was the original surname of my father’s side of my family.
For a number of reasons, I hated the nickname Toro. The main reason was that it made me feel odd and unwanted. The name singled me out because I was the only one in the community with that family name. I also felt like an outsider spiritually, because culturally your spirit is primarily connected to your paternal family’s spirit world.
Although the connection to my paternal family was mostly absent, my paternal grandfather loved me deeply and would visit occasionally, bringing me treats. Despite this, I hated his visits. My biggest fear was that, because he loved me so much, he was going to take me away to their village where I “belonged.”
I spent two decades resenting the names that tied me to my paternal family and marked me as an outsider. Although my story of pain and division is unique to me in many ways, in the early 1980s, due to the war, many other families experienced various types of disruption and turmoil that left their families in tatters. Families were devastated by the deaths from the war and many were traumatized by the terror that swept through our villages.
My father was not exempt from the trauma of the war, the influence of life in the city under the new Zimbabwean government, and I can now put his choices in perspective in a way that leads to healing family divisions and working towards connection and love. Rather than resenting the connection to my paternal family, I’m embracing it as an important part of who I am.
So what is the actual history of Tafura and Toro? How do I bring those aspects of who I am into the present?
One explanation for the name change is that due to disputes within my paternal family, my paternal great grandfather sought to distance himself from relatives and decided to abandon the surname, Toro. He replaced it with his father’s first name, Tafura. His original surname, Toro, means “water spring.” As for the meaning of Tafura… it has a few meanings, but no one in the remaining generations of my family are able to identify which meaning is connected to our surname. Tafura can mean “table,” “we have grazed,” “we have blown our noses,” depending on the context.
Another possible reason for the change to Tafura is more simple. It was common at the time that names would be hastily changed when applying for official documents, like a birth certificate. The white Rhodesians, who governed administrative aspects, dismissed the importance of our naming systems.
In the process of affirming my Shona identity and seeking to strengthen my knowledge of family history and connection, I’ve decided to reclaim a family name, my original last name, that was discarded by my great great grandfather. As a way to honor my ancestors and maintain a connection to our family lineage, I’ve decided to reclaim the name, Toro (with the prefix of Sa- which indicates respect).
While my wife sometimes struggles to introduce me as SaToro after 9 years of calling me Stalin, I’m sticking with it! Please join me!
Let us all find meaningful ways to connect to our past as we carve a path towards the future.
— SaToro Tafura, Artist