People who have ever worked at the front office or a public relations desk where verification of identification documents is part of the work process carry stories with them: an encounter with a combative client or an over-friendly one; a memorable, other times forgettable, photograph.
They carry names too. A basic, but key tenet of PR encourages workers to remember the names of those they come in contact with in the course of duty, the premise being that no matter how privileged or indigent, every human owns a name. Hardly anything in human interactions engineers esteem than recognition — or hearing your name called, especially when pronounced, correctly.
A lifetime away, I worked at the front desk where the company preferred Customer Experience to the traditional Customer Service office desk. It really was an experience — the work, a conveyor belt, arrivals, departures, a story book, even.
One morning, a middle-aged man appeared at the desk and dutifully presented his identification card. There on the card, beneath the man’s younger visage, was the most unusual of names. The card announced: Hitla Njirimani. Say that again with me. My face betrayed no emotion, but we made little talk, which eventually led to the man’s atypical name.
The science and craft of names
Turned out the man’s father had heard about a war raging across the seas. The old man had heard on the radio the name of the man in the boil of that war; a little man with a tuft of a moustache and an outsize ambition, which included the presidency of the Earth. The people who knew about the ways of the world said the man’s name was Adolf Hitler from a place called Germany.
The name was distant, strange, but it carried some aura of greatness and invincibility, and so when his son was born, it felt proper to gift his boy with prominence. The spelling ended up skewed, but not the spirit and sincerity. Hitla Njirimani, the clerk at the register typed.
I imagined what the man with the strange name must have endured in the various stages of his life; endless ribbing from his peers on school playgrounds, curious looks from teachers, unspoken ridicule wherever he had to present his papers. And most sad, the man had no control over a decision made for him, and which he had to schlep his life through.
There’s some science, a craft that goes into arriving at a name. The continuum includes culture, pedigree, entitlement, history and the weather. Nowhere is this more central than in Africa.
Europeans’ arrival in Africa altered the order of life that had been part of the narrative for centuries. To the foreigners, the native names were now branded frivolous and dark and carried no meaning; in the new nomenclature, a ‘proper’ — meaning European name, had to precede the ‘inferior’ African’s.
The new order brought with it humorous, calamitous results that still reverberate today. An elderly friend I have known since my childhood goes by the name Ignatius. The choice of the name was someone else’s decision; a church decision, one that the Vatican would not find felonious at a time when the church carried outsize sway in most of life’s affairs.
Pronunciation is local
This man had preferred a different name, but things changed when he was presented in church for the sprinkling of water.
The priest was an Italian named Father Gino Giacosa, and in keeping with tradition, Giacosa was of course Jakotha to the parishioners. He was also known for being an impatient, at times tetchy man.
When the man of the collar read the name, the story goes, all colour fled from his face.
Right there a compromise was reached; top of his mind, Fr Giacosa picked the name my senior friend has worn since — Ignatius. In the telling, the name has not been an easy load to be hitched with.
In itself, the name is innocent, even saintly enough (Ignatius of Loyola); the problem is that down home, the pronunciation is local, and retooled to suit heavy tongues. The name hardly comes out as it should. So, Ignatius is Inyathio.
I thought about my friend — a decent, quiet man — while pondering the choices made for us by others. Obviously, it is required by law that parents or guardians file in the child’s name at the registrar of persons. The signature holds until one turns 18 and is declared an adult.
Perhaps the most publicised and controversial incident involving the transaction of names in recent memory occurred in 2014.
It involved Nderitu Njoka, founder of the men’s rights movement Maendeleo ya Wanaume. Njoka wanted his infant son christened ‘Jesus Nderitu’, arguing that he wanted to express his commitment to the Christian faith by naming his child Jesus, who in Christendom is considered the Son of God. The hospital where Njoka’s son was born would not sign the birth certificate, nor would his church — the Presbyterian Church of East Africa (PCEA) — baptise the boy, an affront that led Njoka to sever membership with the church.
Some trace of meanness
While the name Jesus (pronounced Hey-suz) is common in South and Central America, it hardly carries with it hints of deity. But indulge the thought of a boy playing in a schoolyard, his friends yelling, “Hey, Christ, pass the ball!”
There are thousands of people who question the motives behind the choice of names made for them: Were the parents trying to live vicariously through their progeny? Or was there some trace of meanness? Given the chance, some would trade their name in a heartbeat.
Should there be a clause allowing some wiggle room permitting one to overturn a name without the hassle and maze of red tape that someone has to navigate to get a new identity?
But the humour stays; if not to the name holder, at least to others. Where I come from, Priscilla is Birithira; Michael is Muikairi, and so on. I have on many occasions, courtesy of my middle name, been accused of appropriating a female name.
What man carries the name Ruthi, one woman wondered in a letter. For some reason, the ‘i’ was invisible to her. No, I do not know the meaning of my admittedly unusual name. The curiosity doesn’t end, but I wouldn’t trade the name for anything.
We carry burdens; some light, some heavy, some right. It’s part of the unknowable and the knowable.