“What’s your name?”
That could possibly be the easiest question to answer. It’s one of those questions that you don’t really have to think about before replying. For such an easy question, I believe I have an unusually harder time answering this question. My slight hesitation is probably apparent as my mental debate ensues.
‘Should I go with Wanjiku?’
‘I think Lorna would be easier.’
‘Well, they are both my names.’
My struggle may be strange, but not uncommon. Nelson Mandela is known all over the world as a revolutionary leader who played a key role in ending the apartheid regime. Beyond how much his life story has inspired many to be agents of change in their community, a simple but key aspect of his life has resonated with me through the years. The story behind his first name is all too familiar.
Rolihlahla was Nelson Mandela’s African (Xhosa) name. His teacher could not pronounce his name and gave him his now popular name, Nelson, and Rolihlahla became his middle name. This was normal at the time because of the British educational system in modern day South Africa.
During our visit to the Apartheid museum in Johannesburg, I remember watching a video of Nelson Mandela talking about the origin of his first name. It prompted me to think about how a majority of African first names are foreign. How a practice put in place by Christian missionaries and colonialists in order to civilize native Africans is still in place today.
I never truly understood how much names are tied with identities, history and culture until I began to be aware of my surroundings. I couldn’t help but reflect on how much Nelson Mandela’s experience mapped onto not only my experience but also Africans all around the continent. Lorna is my first name. However, I only used this name in school. At home, everyone called me by my African name, Wanjiku. My younger brother, for instance, didn’t even know my first name until he was around six years old. By the time I finished high school, my frustration with this clear distinction had reached its peak. It was distressing how I was conditioned to use my first name in institutions and my African name elsewhere.
As time passed, every time I would introduce myself as Lorna, I would instantly question my willingness to continue legacies of colonialism. Why was it so easy for me to reduce the importance and identity tied with my African name? Why was it so easy to look down on my own culture? Why was I promoting this double identity? One associated with civilization, and another, primitiveness.
It was at this point in my life, when I started to introduce myself as Wanjiku. It’s been a little bit more than a year since I stopped using my first name. However, the struggle still remains. It’s hard to change something that I was accustomed to for almost all my life. So every time someone asks my name, my brief hesitation is perhaps a reminder of how important it is to challenge the history of norms in society.
Lorna is a beautiful name, but I will never undermine how much my name, Wanjiku, connects me to the culture I cherish and African identity I forever wish to uphold.