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ICOS 2008 Conference Abstract

Survival by Loss of Identity: The Power of Names among Burundian Refugees in Tanzania

J Ntihirageza
K Duchaj
Northeastern Illinois University, United States

We investigate Burundian refugee names in Tanzania. The first name, in Kirundi (language of Burundi), reflects a person’s future or the parents’ life circumstances. Later, Burundians are given a French Christian name. The original name becomes the surname. Both names identify one as Burundian, supporting the idea that names are keys to identity maintenance (Alia 2007). We classify the 1972 Burundian refugees into two categories. Camp refugees stay inside the camps. Returning to Burundi defines their lives. Keeping their Burundian names allows visibility and unity, to remain a people (Malkki 1995). Meanwhile, town refugees manage to leave the camps, becoming invisible within Tanzanian society. For them, changing one’s name eases challenges/barriers, while disconnecting one from his/her past. It is common to change the Christian name to a Muslim name, leaving the surname. If the surname is too noticeable, the individual may find a Burundian name that passes for a Tanzanian name. This is a break with the individual’s identity as the name presented by the parents must be abandoned. We conclude that if there is a need to change the name, the Christian name is given up first, then the surname, since the latter defines the individual as truly Burundian.

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