I forsook alien name to avoid taking on nonsensical identity

Recently, I wrote about why I “murdered” Robert, which was my so-called Christian name. I got a rich kaleidoscope of responses from readers. Some of my interrogators took offence and charged me with hypocrisy. They wondered why I would attack European names in English. Some told me there was nothing in a name – that it was simply an identifier, a meaningless moniker that only serves to distinguish one person from the next. The same way a cabbage is named to isolate it from other vegetables like carrots. But a gutsy few told me they were dropping their imperialist names. I regard all those comments with respect. Today, I continue the debate by telling you why I dropped “Show.”

Upon my birth, I was given two names. The first was Mulla – my paternal grandfather’s name. This was “natural” traditional practice since the first-born male child among the Akamba is typically named after the paternal grandfather. The other name was more stunning, and frankly, flummoxing. I was named “Show” after the Kitui Agricultural Show. It was a very odd name but I didn’t appreciate just how strange it was until I grew up. The locals – Akamba natives in Kitui – have difficulty with the pronunciation of certain English names. That’s because Kikamba, like other indigenous African languages, is a linguistic family group distinct from European languages. Certain letters, intonation, or inflections are either missing or entirely foreign.

Butcher the names

There’s nothing strange here – all language groups have distinct features. That’s why native English speakers usually default to writing my surname as “Matua” as opposed to “Mutua.” Similarly, they get tongue-tied trying to pronounce “Mwalimu” or “Lumumba” – the names of two of my sons. They will usually “butcher” the names, or sheepishly stumble their way through. The more cultured will apologise for the gaffe or politely ask how to pronounce the names. My sons are native English speakers but don’t find anything strange in their names. That’s because these are the only names they’ve known. Nor do their close friends. The inclusion of their African names in the American cultural lexicon is the essence of multiculturalism. To them their names are American.

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Some European names can be extremely “difficult” to pronounce. Often, early European immigrants to America “murdered” their names before arriving at Ellis Island, the port of entry through which America received Europe’s “huddled masses” as they fled war, discrimination, or economic privation. The young American republic – which was dominated by white men of English descent – was decidedly Anglophone. As such, many European immigrants with “difficult” names stripped those names before the border and took new English-sounding names. There are contested stories of forcible name changes at Ellis Island. But many American immigrants anglicise their names to “integrate.” These acts of self-denial and self-loathing aren’t as common today although they still happen especially with first names.

Back to Show. It didn’t take long for the Akamba native speakers in my youth to corrupt the name “Show.” The “sh” sound doesn’t come naturally in Kikamba. That’s how the name Show quickly degenerated into “Soo.” Those who were educated in English would correctly pronounce it, but the bulk of the masses would simply butcher it as Soo. For some reason – perhaps because the name was peculiar – many people gravitated to it rather than Mulla. Personally, I preferred Mulla but not the amorphous Soo or Show. Then I was baptised and “forced” to take the Robert. Strangely, Robert dominated both Soo, Show, and Mulla. Soon, people forgot Soo, Show, and Mulla. I wasn’t sorry to see Soo/Show die. My story isn’t unique. Most Kenyans with European names under the guise of Christianity can’t properly pronounce those names. There’s a fellow named Livingstone. Livingstone is normally a surname in its native culture. But this fellow uses it as a first name. However, he pronounces it as two distinct names – “Living” and “Stone.” His uneducated grandparents are unable to pronounce the name and so they’ve given him a nickname. I knew fellows who couldn’t pronounce “Robert” when that was my name. They would call me “Lovati” or “Rovat.” I have seen an African tell a native English speaker their European name and the latter can’t make it out for the mispronunciation. It’s painful to watch.

Duke University is world-renown for its basketball team although I personally hate the Blue Devils. Its outstanding basketball coach has an “impossible” name. He’s Mike Krzyzewski. You will have a very hard time pronouncing it unless you are Polish or you’ve heard it spoken. Most people have given up and call him Coach K. He didn’t forsake his “difficult” family name. I forsook Show/Soo because it was a strange alien name and made no sense – I didn’t want to take on a nonsensical identity.

- Prof Mutua is SUNY Distinguished Professor at SUNY Buffalo Law School and Chair of KHRC.  @makaumutua

makau mutuaname