The European Soft Power Through Names in Africa.

The European Soft Power Through Names in Africa.

What is yours but is mostly used by others? Your name.

Depending on where you live, your name can be an accurate indicator of your gender, your ethnicity, your social class, your family history, your religion. Some would argue that a name can, to some extent, determine one’s personality traits. In a nutshell, names play a crucial role in our identity and constitute a bridge between the world within and around us, as well as how we interact to one another through social constructs.

This is something companies have understood. Multinationals like G.A.F.A.M (Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple and Microsoft) are worth billions of dollars, partly because of the intrinsic value of their branding names. In the same regard, African philanthropist and entrepreneur, Akon said it right, Africa must brand itself; as part of the solution regarding controlling back its narrative and healing psychologically from the remaining (un)conscious generational trauma its children on the continent and worldwide are currently going through.

What is soft power?

“Soft power” is a political term that refers to the ability to attract and co-opt, rather than coerce. In other words, it involves shaping the preferences of others through appeal and attraction. A defining feature of soft power is that it is non-coercive; the currency of soft power includes culture, political values, and foreign policies. (Wikipedia)

Let’s take example from the long-lasting effects of European colonizers who have meticulously drawn the lines of Africa in Berlin in 1885; constructed frontiers and names that are still used and accepted in people’s mind. Indeed, it is not rare to encounter individuals proudly highlighting the fact of being from Cameroon, Cote d’Ivoire or Congo-Brazzaville. However, it is worth reminding of several facts:

  • The colonial Portuguese are the inspired ones to name Cameroon as such because of the abundance of shrimps (“camarão” in Portuguese) on its coasts.

  • Côte d’Ivoire is even entirely written in French; similar to the then-Portuguese super power, the colonial French must have been astonished by the natural resources they faced, namely ivory.

  • As for Brazzaville, the city has been named after Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza, an Italian/ French settler whose role in the Congo’s history is questionable.

Soft power is subtle because less obvious than hard power such as economic and military power. However, in the long term, it can be argued that soft power, especially when remained unacknowledged can be lethal because it operates from within the mind.

Why does it matter?

As social animals, it is natural for us, human beings, to name things as we want to make sense of elements around us. Throughout time, we created labels and constructs to connect, relate to one another as well as comprehend each other. However, renaming lakes, cities and states to something that is not in line with local culture, custom and belief is culturally and psychologically dangerous.

On the one hand, culturally because that latter can be replaced by a dominant one and eventually lost. On the other hand, psychologically since, instead of serving as a bridge between the in- and outside world, wrong names can become a barrier to one’s true self as individuals and at large as a community.

Remember that “History is written by ‘victors’ ” and ”if you repeat a lie often enough, it becomes the truth”. Additionally, there is a question of self-image, ownership and sovereignty issues when it comes to such misuses.

Look at the biggest lake in Africa for example, which is still commonly called ‘Victoria Lake’, in honour to Victoria, Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, completely ignoring the beliefs and history of local natives dealing with the lake since the beginning of human time (literally).

Instead, it would be wiser to follow Congo-Kinshasa example that got rid of its previous name: Leopoldville, in reference to Leopold II, King of Belgium who only committed grandiose atrocities in that particular place. Other great examples include:

  • ‘Gold Coast’ was replaced to become Ghana.

  • ‘Rhodesia’, in reference to Cecil Rhodes, became Zimbabwe.

  • Thomas SANKARA renamed a French colony to Burkina Faso under his presidency.

What’s next?

Once those names are changed by and for its citizens, the psychological shift toward self-cultivation, esteem and love, as well as a sense of ownership will begin for a greater good internationally. Outstanding individuals such as Mohamed ALI and El-Hajj Malek EL-SHABAZZ have done it on a personal level by changing their own birth names. This can be replicated and amplified by correcting and rebranding lakes, cities and states among others.

It is worth mentioning that that colonial soft power remains omni-present through different forms such as the use of imported languages, religions as well as colonizers’ statues. Keeping on seeing monumental statues of one’s oppressor certainly play a key role in the mental welfare and warfare. For example, Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza’s statue is still celebrated like in “Brazzaville”.

To conclude, it is crucial to understand that the words and names we used are dynamic, potent and influential, which is the reason why global citizens must acknowledge, embrace and use their power purposely.

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