What's In A Name? Writer Sifiso Maposa keeps getting questions about her Ndebele first name, prompting her to explore the real value of what we are called.

What's In A Name?

Published on Sat, Oct 26 2013 by Sifiso Maposa
By Sifiso Maposa

Tuareg women gather around bowls of macaroni for a child's naming ceremony. Photo credit: Brent Stirton.
Everyone has a name. This is an assumption, of course. There may be other ways of identifying people in different parts of the world that I may not be aware of. However, for the purposes of this short piece, we will stick to the assumption that everyone has a name. Yes?
In African culture, almost every name has a meaning. There is some kind of deliberate motive to give children names that will speak something into their lives. Some names have a positive meaning. Some names are negative and tell a story surrounding a child's birth — ridicule, sadness and sometimes even disappointment.
It is also common for children to be named after a member of the family, usually after a grandmother, grandfather, aunt, uncle, mother or father. It’s a sign of respect and legend has it that children become like the people they are named after. Which is not entirely a bad thing, right? Except if the fore name bearer has a penchant for bad habits which would in this case be transferred via the name (yes!) , to the new name bearer. A little risky if you ask me.
I was named after my Aunt Sifiso — an Ndebele name that means ‘a wish’. Isn't that beautiful? I was my parents' wish, except, if I was named after someone, then that wasn't entirely the reason behind naming me ‘a wish’. But that is okay because you know how each family has a 'rich aunt' with a vet for a husband, intelligent, well-groomed kids and a big house with many dogs in the backyard? Aunt Sifiso was/is the rich aunt. So if the African lore that you become like the person you are named after holds true, then I am going to be rich. I am bound to be generous too because to this day, she is the most generous person I have ever met.
Being named after someone also means you have some kind of guardian angel. Someone who watches out for you, in addition to your parents' watchful eye. This is comforting.
Fast forward to the current moment. Location: South Africa. The 109th person asked me this morning about my name. I started keeping a rough count recently, 100 is a gross understatement. The script plays out this way: I say my name or give my ID to a person. The person looks at me, and out comes the question, “Are you Sifiso?? But that is a boy's name!”
In the beginning I would get embarrassed. Now I politely assert that in the country I come from, this is a unisex name. They usually ‘fully’ believe me when I mention my aunt, who I am named after. Then comes the chuckle, a sort of “Oh, it’s ok, I guess you can be called Sifiso for now, but next time I see you I will ask the same question again.”
The question! I have never had this question asked of me anywhere else in the world. My name attached to me, a female, is normal everywhere else. The South Americans changed it to something they could pronounce, like Zafira, the North Americans chose to shorten it to Fifi, while others practised until they got the full name right (something to do with the American belief that Bill Clinton was successful because he remembered everyone's name). The Europeans couldn’t pronounce it and Fifi sounded too much like a French Chihuahua name to them.
Fortunately, I don’t have a second name. I say fortunately because, this has forced me to love my name. To teach people to say it as I learn theirs (Drajvovik isn't too easy either). Travelling has opened me up to see that there are all kinds of names out there. Mine does not even fit in the difficult and wierd category.
So what's in a name? Our identities, our pride and sometimes our family heritage. Our names distinguish us. Our names colour our lives, even if that colouring means in one country we have to explain over and over why we have a male name but inhabit a female body. Everybody loves the sound of their own name. I certainly do!
I would love to hear what your name means! Let me know in the comments section.
Safiso wants to connect with you! Follow her on Twitter (@SifisoMaposa) and on her blog, AfriMosaic.


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