William Shakespeare’s famous Romeo and Juliet poem, asks, “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose, By any other name would smell as sweet… .” As some watched the grueling three-day US Senate confirmation hearing on Judge Ketanji Onyika Brown-Jackson, the first female Black nominee for the highest court in the land, her name captured attention on the continent. Of West African origins, her name means ‘Lovely One’. Judge Ketanji’s parents bestowed the name as a show of pride in their African ancestry, interrupted by slavery. Some may recall the 1977 jarring series, Roots, with main character Kunta Kinte, who rejected the name Toby imposed on him by his “owners” choosing to suffer verses succumbing. Judge Ketanji, if confirmed as Associate Supreme Court Justice, will not only add color to the court but broaden the roster of names of powerful people, with African names serving America, the first and most significant being President Barack Obama.
In Africa one’s name is tied to a host of factors including birth day, ancestor’s names, place and circumstances of birth, aspirations, divination, social station etc. There are naming ceremonies to announce, celebrate and welcome newly named infants and adults alike; signifying pride, joy and hope. Naming differs in Africa and in Ghana the ceremony for infants is called “Outdooring.” Kpodziema in Ga and Abadinto in Akan, is when 8 day-olds receive their day name which shares clues as to their relative characteristics. Ethiopia’s naming systems are as diverse as the culture, but typically the second and third name are father and grandfather’s name, respectively, indicating genealogy. Myriad examples, continent wide, demonstrate the significance of a name and ties to culture and heritage.
There is also power in names which are meant to alert, alarm, or even disarm. Ethiopian names like Damtew, translated as “crush” or Haile, a Gee-ez word, translated “the power of” are two examples. It is the power of culture and tradition, essential tools, which may wield the soft power needed to address some of the external problems plaguing Ethiopia and Africa in a wider context. Soft power entered the political vocabulary in the late 1980’s, coined by Harvard University Professor Joseph S. Nye and US Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Affairs 199-95. Not to be confused with diplomacy – managing and influencing foreign governments policies and practices – Nye opines, soft power as “…a form of power that lies in attracting others willingly to your position by fostering in them empathy or envy, self-identification or aspiration.” He further writes in Bound to Lead: The Changing Nature of American Power, “when one country gets other countries to want what it wants might be called co-optive or soft power in contrast with the hard or command power of ordering others to do what it wants.”
Three decades of this clever concept, has culture been a tool used to help realize convergence and collaboration for mutual interests between governments? Museums and cultural institutions are said to be the best proponents with great “…potential to broker international soft power…in partnership with institutions and governments to influence broad-based, positive change. By harnessing…soft-power resources and embracing their latent influence on the international system, museums have the potential to be powerful agents of change, using their unique strengths and comparative advantage to address the most daunting global challenges” writes Marcie M. Muscat in The Art of Diplomacy: The Museum and Soft Power. She further asserts, ‘Museum displays offer interpretation, yet visitors decide their level of engagement… The narrative is dictated by the objects shown and display, the prescriptiveness of the story is made less perceptible through careful curation. Thus, the museum emerges as a consummate agent of soft power-that is, a subtle peddler of influence, promoting an agenda of its own devising.” Note: Many major museums are attached to governments. Hmmmm.
In Ethiopia, institutions such as the decades old Alliance Ethio-Française, British Council, Italian Cultural Institute, Japan Foundation, Russian Cultural Center and USA Art in Embassies should indeed be substantial spaces and platforms for soft power, through culture and the arts, to grow mutual understanding and benefits between nations. Afterall, the pulse of the people are to be found in the arts. Art in Embassies (AIE) website states art is used in “…a leading role in U.S. public diplomacy through a focused mission of vital cross-cultural dialogue and understanding through the visual arts and dynamic artist exchange.” President John F. Kennedy formalized AIE in 1963 through the State Department, the same year he hosted and toasted Emperor Haile Selassie I saying, “… Ethiopia and the United States are separated not only by geography but by history and culture, but I think that they are bound together by necessity, and that is the necessity for all sovereign free countries to maintain the most intimate association.” While idealism and politics may be the “twain which shall never meet”, culture and art as tools within the framework of the soft power paradigm should be reconsidered. Dare I say, people in high places promoting sanctions are not utilizing soft power.
Dr. Desta Meghoo is a Jamaican born Creative Consultant, Curator and cultural promoter based in Ethiopia since 2005. She also serves as Liaison to the AU for the Ghana based, Diaspora African Forum.