According to my mother, when I was born my paternal grandmother named me Gatwiri. In my mother tongue, Kimeru, Gutwira literally translates to “cutting grass (or thara, as we call it) to feed the cows or the goats”. My mother, on the other hand, named me Kathomi, which translates to "the educated one" or "the one who loves to read". Both of these names have had literal relevance in my short life. Yes, I have fed the cows and I have read the books.
My Christian names, Glory and Joy, reflect much of my personality. I find it easy to find joy in the most random things. But my names also reflect my staunch religious upbringing that dictated that my native names were to be shelved upon my baptism. The version of God introduced to us by missionaries did not like African names much. He preferred Western names.
I assume African names were a bit too ‘tribal’ or a little too complicated to pronounce than the easy- smooth on the tongue names like Nebuchadnezzar and Bartholomew. I was taught that an English Christian name was a solid sign of commitment to my faith. Of course I wanted to show that I was committed to the faith, so I ceased being Kathomi Gatwiri and I became Glory Joy. I innocently and unconsciously started wearing a colonial tag as part of my identity as my Africanness was being erased bit by bit.
In what’s in an African name?, Bwesigye bwa Mwesigire argues, “The pre-colonial, pre-Christian methods of naming have evolved and taken on influences from the colonial, mission-building historical periods, creating contemporaneous realities.”
When I asked friends on social media what their names meant to them, I read reflections of Africans who had started to consciously reject colonial names as part of their identities.
My first step to reclaiming my identity as an African was to understand the meaning behind my first identifier: my name. As I slowly started recognising the many ways in which my name symbolised my colonised mind, I decided to change it from Glory to Kathomi on my social media and, soon to follow, my professional space. It's the first step to reclaiming something I haven't yet been able to fully articulate.
When I asked friends on social media what their names meant to them, I read reflections of Africans who had started to consciously reject colonial names as part of their identities. Maloba said, “I stopped using my colonial name […] my parents did not [even] think to give me an African name at all. That is the extent of the violence [that was perpetrated] against our ancestors – that we find it normal [and more acceptable] to have the names of our colonisers [rather than our own].”
Another respondent, Muthoni, said that she has never liked her English name and as she grew older, the disconnection between her and her name widened. “I could not relate with it anymore” she said. By reclaiming her African name, Muthoni was choosing “to embrace herself and her culture”.
Phushaza, from South Africa, similarly reflected that reconciling with his African names has been “a journey that has proven to be fruitful.” After wondering for many years who he really was, he decided that “using Phushaza as a first name and not Jacob” – as he was known previously – felt more authentic to him because he “could not connect with Jacob as a name.”
With the erasure of my name, a significant part of my history was obliterated too.
One thing that stands out in these responses is how people may lack a connection to names that do not reflect or represent their stories, their culture, their way of life or their identities. As Mike Garry posits in The Importance of Names, “Throughout time and across all cultures, the notion of name as it pertains to identity has long carried with it heavy weight, a weight for some which propels them forward and gives them momentum toward greatness in their given milieu. For others, the name is a malaise and the weight it imposes [impedes] growth and stifles the spirit.”
The New Yorker article Why Your Name Matters purports that names can influence choice. Names can also determine if “we are accepted to a school or are hired for a particular job.” In particular, minority-sounding names can complicate job search due to bias. As a result, people with ethnic names may choose to whiten their names to increase their chances of success in job-seeking efforts. However, the implications of names extend beyond the professional space. Kaleigh Bradley argues, “Names act as mnemonic devices, embodying histories, spiritual and environmental knowledge, and traditional teachings.”
One thing that is true for me, though, is that with the erasure of my name, a significant part of my history was obliterated too. The story of my grandmother's relationship with animals and nature as translated through my name was gone, and the dreams of my mother that one day I'd read my way out of the circumstances into which I was born was never told. I want to "unerase" my story. I still want to be the cow feeder who reads books! And to reflect on Garry’s statement – I want to crawl from beneath my colonial names and stand upon my African names
Have you ever thought about what your name means? Does it have any social, cultural or political significance to you? Does it tell some truth or indeed any truth about you? If my mother did not name me Kathomi, would I still love reading books?