Is Tanzania losing its identity?

Tuesday November 26 2019


By Grace Malahleki

What is in a name? Your name says who you are. Where you come from and who your kin are.

A name brings a sense of pride and belonging. I can safely say I am my father’s daughter because I carry his name, which can be traced back to his grandfather. All the off spring who came from my great grandfather can easily be traced because they all have one thing in common- the family name or simply put the surname, which has been passed from one generation to the next.

John, Bernard, Prosper, Laser….are some of the surnames that Tanzanians carry on their national identity cards. But the question is -where did these surnames came from? Do they identify that the holder of the ID card is a native of Tanzania? Tanzania has more than 100 native languages, Kiswahili as the most dominant and preferred medium for communication. The country also has German and Arabic influences as well as traces of the English colonial era. That being said both the Germans and English are masters at preserving and upholding their identities- in the form of the family name- the surname.

Loss of identity

A trend observed by Life&Style show that most Tanzanians are unconsciously losing their identity- their Ubuntu. A quick way to recognise whether one is your kin is simply by referring to their surname. Traditional Tanzanian surnames are fading into oblivion, why? Because a child assumes the father’s first name, as a middle name and his children later adopt that first name as their surname.

Wait, stop there! So if the father’s name is John, all children following will carry the surname John? It then becomes very difficult to identify from which tribe one is from and worse still what nationality.


The Registration Insolvency and Trusteeship Agency Registration Manager, Patricia Mpuya highlighted that the trend has been obtaining for some time now as some parents are indeed preferring to drop the surname or family name.

Although RITA requires parents to submit three names for registration of the child, problems are arising when parents are giving only two names instead of the required three. According to the government directive the names carried on the birth registration document should include the child’s name, father’s name and lastly the surname.

Despite this directive being in place, Mpuya says to her dismay, “the parent has all the power and can even name a child with a selection of names completely divorced from the family name with no linkage at all to the surname, most problems are arising from the new generation in particular”.

The registration manager says some parents deliberately omit the surname as they would not want their children to be linked to certain areas or tribes. “It is unfortunate because Tanzanian people are not concerned about tribalism, we are a very peaceful nation,” she highlighted.

Ms Mpuya raised another area of concern when it comes to upholding family identity. “In some cases a parent can have four children but all differently named- then it becomes difficult to say the siblings are related. We try to educate the parents that there should be consistency in naming all the children.

On the use of first names as surnames, Ms Mpuya feels it is very difficult to easily identify one as being Tanzanian especially on the international scene. “As RITA we expect that the last name should be the surname and hopefully the obtaining situation will eventually self-correct in the long run”.

Assistant Director of Arts Development in the Ministry of Information, Culture, Arts and Sport, Dr Emmanuel Ishengoma has stressed the importance of preserving culture and identity as he said this connects a people to their ancestral past. “If it is not important for us to maintain our cultural heritage and identity, it should be the same that we do not need to have any connections to any religious beliefs because they all belong to the past. I understand that culture is not necessarily a thing of the past,” he says.

Dr Ishengoma went on to highlight how maintaining one’s identity can help shape the nation. “Not only does it shape them but also gives nations respect in the eyes of other nations. This means nations with clear identities will surely be dominant over those that don’t. In my view one of the factors that make Nigeria sit at the high table is their dress code, so much that even when a Tanzanian comes up with a similar design, one will normally say amevaa Kinaijeria,” he says

As a person who influences policy making Dr Ishengoma hopes that days of having John Martins and Marylin Littlefields will come to an end and be replaced by John Simbachawene and Marylin Okechukwu. A liberal social researcher with the Makerere Institute, Diana Kamara says although surnames are important in that they help identify from where one comes from, says they are an extension of the colonial legacy.

“Before compulsory registration of births came, our people had their own way of identifying themselves. With the coming of formal registration different people understood it differently” explains Diana.

“You find some people adopting their father’s name and not necessarily their clan name, and in some areas you see elderly women being called by their father’s first name,” highlights Diana

“Now clan names are used as a point of reference informally, to identify where one originates from. We are going to continue seeing people named Diana Joseph or Diana George because the consciousness of what is in a name is not there among the people, especially the surname.” Diana highlights how most people put emphasis on the first name rather than on the surname.

Another school of thought is of the view that the use of the surname is a foreign concept therefore is not very important in the African concept. Prof Eginald Mihanjo from the department of History at the University of Dar es Salaam explains how this concept was imposed on the African societies in days before colonisation only someone’s first name sufficed. “It is merely a state function, in the African context the surname is not there and never used to serve any purpose”, says Professor Mihanjo.

However one wonders whether all things brought about by the colonizers were bad. One can argue that back then surnames were not important because people lived in small close knit clan and rarely interacted with the outside world.

Dr Iddy Magoti is of the view that there is more to defining a people’s identity than the mere use of the surname. “Tanzania is a dynamic nation with more than 100 ethnic languages, it is easy for locals to identify themselves by using just the accent. By simply opening my mouth one can tell whether I am from the Tanga region or from the Lake region.” But is this enough to define a Tanzanian regionally or internationally?

Dr Magoti says the naming process is complex as it takes into account the individual, their culture, religion and also dictates of the state. “There is still a tug of war in what constitutes one’s identity especially when we look at all the facets that influence an individual,” says Dr Magoti.

Yes although the period of colonization was a dark period for the continent- not all aspects brought about by the colonisers are to be condemned. A static surname passed down from one generation to the other goes a long way establishing family identity in the micro sphere and national identity in the macro sphere.

As this reporter has observed we now live in a global village, uproot a born and bred Tanzanian and plant them across the globe, who will be able to identify which nation they are from?

A fellow reporter at The Citizen Newspaper, Salome Gregory who is a native of this nation also added her voice. “I don’t like this name at all. I grew up knowing nothing about names and identity. Just to realize I have two English names and I asked myself why they didn’t give me an African name. Having an English surname doesn’t make me less a Tanzania but I feel like I missed an opportunity to carry my African identity”, laments Salome.

The seasoned journalist explained how given a chance she would change her name to Salome Sumbya, a surname which identifies her as being from Tanzania and Africa. “Whenever I attend international events and I introduce myself as Salome Gregory I get that quizzical look people asking themselves -an African Gregory?


Tracing lineages for one to know their roots is made easier when there is one main family name to start off with.

Nowadays with the growing use of the internet, bringing long lost family members scattered across the world has been made easy. Because of the search for greener pastures, whole generations are born in the diaspora and maybe only come back to Africa in their old age. One such was an uncle of mine who was in England for 29 years. About a month after he came back he wanted to reconnect and reunite with the family.

The extended family in most African societies is still very much recognised. Uncle Booker, was my mother’s paternal cousin brother. Although the Tavengwa clan is very big, it did not take him long to locate almost all of the family members who carried the Tavengwa blood in their veins. He simply posted on Facebook asking for all those carrying the Tavengwa surname to inbox me. The response was amazing and nearly every family was represented at the get together gathering. It was all made possible because of the one single common denominator- the Tavengwa surname, which could be traced back to our great great grandfather, the family patriarchy.

Food for thought

A popular American name in politics is the Bush family. Where George H.W Bush and George W Bush both father and son were presidents of America at one point in time. The patrilineal line in the Bush family can be clearly traced as far as 1510 to John Bush Snr. Tracing this lineage is made possible from the fact that all the offspring from 1510 have been assuming one family name.