Discover more from Carefree Magazine
Why I'm No Longer Apologizing For My Difficult African Name
say my name, say my name
Whew, we made it y’all!
I have a little New Year’s homework assignment for you—I promise it’s actually fun.
Raise your hand if you’ve been personally victimized by one of your teachers who when they got to your name on the roll call sheet, said “I’m going to butcher this,” and proceeded to say some outlandish pronunciation of your name? My American and UK readers know whassup.
We’re talking about our names this week at Carefree, and with that new year energy all up in the atmosphere, I think it’s a perfect time to remind ourselves about who we are. While some of you are contemplating resolutions and questioning what you need to work on to level up, I want to encourage you to remember that you’ve accomplished so much already. The fact that you made it to 2022, when so many others didn’t, is an accomplishment. You are worthy because you exist.
In the iconic Game of Thrones, whenever the Dragon queen, Daenerys Targaryen, introduced herself, she wouldn’t just say her name—she would let the people of whatever kingdom she’s in know who TF she is. As she conquered kingdoms, collected armies, and moved about the world, her name got longer. She is “Daenerys Stormborn of the House Targaryen, First of Her Name, the Unburnt, Queen of the Andals and the First Men, Khaleesi of the Great Grass Sea, Breaker of Chains, and Mother of Dragons."
She takes up all the time and space she needs to let people know where she comes from, who she is, and what she’s been able to accomplish. I want you to do the same; it only takes 5-10 minutes. Pull out a piece of paper or open a Google Doc and remind yourself of who TF you are. Whether you’ve watched the show or not, if you could create your own Game of Thrones name, what would it be? Write down the identifiers that capture your essential qualities. That you define, no one else. And voila, that’s your intro.
I am “Anayo of the House of Awuzie, Mbaise Daughter. Igbo Queen. Creator of Carefree. Slanger of Stories. Connector of Communities. Wanderluster of Cities. Big Sister. Champion of Black Women. Goddess of gratitude. Afrocentric lady of eclectic colors and patterns. Creative Chameleon. Tryer of all things she’s interested in. Mistress of Ambition. The First of her name.”
Who are you?
Happy new year,
EIC of Carefree
Why I’m No Longer Apologizing for My Difficult African Name
by Tabby Kibugi
It was mid-July, a Tuesday afternoon. I was checking in at a hotel in the city center of Manchester where I’d live before moving to the student dorms.
I had just moved to London in pursuit of my economics degree as a foreign exchange student.
“Name please?” Emily, the secretary seated behind the reservation desk, queried.
“Nyokabi Kibugi,” I responded.
She typed for a bit, frowned, before looking up at me.
“Could you spell that? Better yet, let me shorten that to something simpler.”
I was dumbfounded. Why couldn’t she write my name in full? I felt a trifle comforted by the thought of people shortening their name so that it could roll off easily from the tongue—Caroline to Carol, Rothstein to Ro, Christian to Chris, and so on.
Still, why did I feel so offended when she shortened mine?
As a child, I always preferred identifying with my vernacular names. It wasn’t about loathing my English name, but a matter of identifying with my roots and my late grandmother, who shares a similar name. My second name is Kenyan, Nyokabi, which means the chosen one who hailed from the Maasai community.
Whenever the priest at our local church in Nairobi asked me to introduce myself, I would boldly state my vernacular names. In most cases, doing so would end up with a strict reprimand. Christian names were saintly names, he’d say. Failing to identify with them was akin to being an infidel.
Didn’t I want to go to heaven? Was I trying to defy God?
Despite my attempts to wrap around this strange notion, I could not comprehend how identifying with a colonist name would make me right with God.
In school, our teachers pressed this argument by giving examples of Kenyans who had dropped their English names. Most ended up as activists and rebels—Wangari Maathai, an environmental activist, and Wambui Otieno, a political activist and writer, to name a few. If we were to be socially accepted by society and the world, it was better to identify with our English names first.
Africans having English names dates back to the colonial era. Before the English, Dutch and French stepped on African soil, Africans went by vernacular names like Wanjiru, Wangari, or Kimani. British colonists gave Kenyans Christian names because they claimed African names were either too long, too difficult, and sometimes too clicky. Mount Kenya, for instance, was originally Mount Kirinyaga. English names, therefore, came to be seen as a sign that an individual had become modernized and no longer a part of the prehistoric era.
After acquiring independence, the Kenyan government renamed some of the landmarks and streets to something that resonated with the citizens. This was a way of renouncing the colonial regime and all its ideologies. Despite this, Kenyans became powerful guardians of the Christian religion and everything that came with it, including the names.
Two years ago when I was a resident of London, I developed the tendency to apologize whenever someone experienced difficulties pronouncing my name, even though its pronunciation was phonetic. My roommate, who hailed from New York, once joked that Africans should do away with their African names since no one else in the world was able to pronounce them.
Perhaps if she had made the same comment to me a few years prior, I would have retorted with a chastising remark, but at the time, I couldn't help but agree.
And it wasn’t just her—my Economics 101 professor had misspelled my vernacular names on my score-sheet, the patron at the bar had made a snide remark at how strange my name sounded, and the cashier at the supermarket only input my English name in the electronic scanner.
When I finally decided to do away with my vernacular names and just go by my first name, my roommate was ecstatic.
“We could call you T!” she quipped. I nodded in agreement. After all, what was in a name, anyway?
In Mavis Himes’ book, Power of Names, she says that names have certain implications. Family names, she claims, often announce ethnic affiliations as well as cultural roots. They are an ethnic marker, a second layer of skin that reveals both ethno-religious and geographic origins. “How do we honor our heritage without being yoked by it?” Himes asks. “Can we ever be free of our name?” For Himes, our ancestry, as well as our inter-generational past, is “a prison for which we wish to escape.”
By identifying by my first name, I wanted to escape from what pegged me to my cultural roots. I wanted nothing to do with what was viewed as weird, strange, and sometimes primitive. However, what I didn’t realize was that this move was not only a great injustice to myself but also a great disservice to my identity.
A few months down the line, I joined a social group, Kenyans in the UK. My first interaction with the members over barbeque and champagne shocked me. When doing introductions, nearly all of them introduced themselves with their vernacular names such as Maina, Atieno, Kamau. I waited for one of them to introduce themselves with a 'Christian' name but it never happened.
After conversing later that evening, I realized most weren’t apologetic if someone felt inclined to associate their name with difficulty or strangeness.
If a stranger unknowingly mispronounced or misspelled their name, they would willingly spell it out for them. Didn’t black people have to learn how to pronounce Jacqueline or Kennedy? So why wouldn’t they learn to do the same?
Apologizing for my name was not only a double standard but also negated white convenience.
Chinweizu Ibekwe, a Nigerian essayist, poet, and critic, says in his book, Decolonizing the African Mind, "Africans around the world must stop being mealy-mouthed and uncompromisingly claim their African identity."
They were a part of my culture, heritage, and a reminder of my African roots.
Now, whenever I introduce myself, I start by stating my vernacular names before my English name.
My roommate also started calling me Nyokabi.
She said it sounds much cooler than my first name.
I couldn't agree more.
Tabby Kibugi is a Kenyan freelance writer. Her work has been featured in Insider, Metro UK, Buzzfeed, Inverse, Episodes, and more. When not writing, she likes to catch up with dark fantasy fiction, medieval romance novels and psychological thriller films. She is an avid pet-lover and genuinely believes that cats make better pets than dogs. You can read more of her work here or find her on Twitter.
Enjoyed this week's storyletter? Tap the heart & share it! 😍