Foreign Names Versus My Grandmother's African Name
Writer Arao Ameny
Ms. Ameny wrote the piece 14 years ago while still in High School
Do you remember those names, those names missionaries insisted we use, that our mothers and fathers received like unexpected gifts and then, when it was our time, tag them unceremoniously to our own names?
That is now your name. Use it in school when you speak to your teacher and your headmaster.
Make sure you stand when your teacher walks into the classroom. Is your uniform clean? Dust off the red dust from your shoes. Make sure you do not speak your local language in school.
Only speak English and make sure you use the name you are not used to hearing at home. In primary school, we would proudly sound out and point to our names on the blackboard to show you we were indeed good Christians.
We unknowingly mispronounced some of these names until you came into town one windy day and laughingly sounded out the correct way to say your names, while strands of your hair blew towards the Nile. We listened carefully to how you rounded the vowels with your mouth and spat out the consonants, curling your tongue in a way only you knew how.
Our throats, tender and unscratched, would itch for days, sometimes weeks with words and sounds foreign to us, with names foreign to us—but we would embrace them in exchange for salvation. We would leave behind the names of those who came before us, fearing that our fate would be like theirs. You didn’t need to tell us our way of being was obsolete, we would say it to you before you opened your mouth and even speak better English than you while we told you.
We held on tight to Bibles and gazed fondly at photographs of a pimple-less man with smooth skin. You said he would save us. But there were many in town who wore necklaces with crosses in the daytime and took off those same necklaces at night when holding hands with prostitutes with no breasts, small girls would follow them into the darkness behind the trees to bargain their bodies for food.
Is that salvation? Who is going to save those pimple-less men who buy beads in the daytime for their wives and at night, walk with our daughters under moonlight? Who will save those men with thin strands of hair that blow easily with the slightest gush of wind?
Along the way, I found out that there is no god that requires that we abandon our names. There is no god that keeps quiet when these men’s feet break sticks on the carpet of grass which become their beds. There is, on the other hand, a supreme being and we knew him before you introduced him to us, who is so big that he bears many names, in many languages, in many dialects, even your own. I used to sit by the river, counting ants and calling on the Creator over and over, sometimes, until the rain fell from the sky and soaked the banana trees.
Your introductions were not to any god I did not already know. I knew him before I saw your reflection, before I emulated you, before I praised you, before I embraced you— before I lifted you up so high that I didn’t know where my spirit ended and yours began, even though I knew that I had painfully given birth to you.
You were comfortable with listening to the sounds of your names, the ones you were familiar with, names that you were comfortable with, names that did not beat your tongue. But I’ve grown tired.
My shoulders are tired. My back is tired. I am tired of carrying you. Keep your names. My grandmother’s name serves me just fine. Learn to pronounce it properly.