Cruel nicknames tell many tales

Thursday evening caught me shooting the breeze in my living room after a hectic day at work. I was listening to my sons’ holding an excited chatter.

Jimmy was narrating an incident at school that day. A boy named Mato had been accused of stealing a classmate’s lunch.

Mato had denied the claim, culminating in a heated exchange between him and his accuser, a boy whom Jimmy called Cobra.

“Who is Cobra?” Russell wondered aloud, looking lost. At this, Jimmy developed a wicked grin, and in the next few moments describing this Cobra character. Apparently, Cobra is a known bully.

“Ooohh...Now I know him,” Russell conceded at last. “Si ni yule jamaa mnono mwenye mapua inakaa kama firimbi?” he asked, to which Jimmy nodded. He then went ahead to narrate how Cobra had wrestled his adversary, prompting a boy named Supuu to intervene in Mato’s favour. Russell seemed to know this particular boy.

“Ah, I think know Supuu,” he said. “Isn’t he that boy who wears tight trousers and walks and talks like a girl?” he said, and Jimmy agreed.

The boys then prattled on about their day’s events, dragging in more characters with even more curious names. From their conversation, I learnt that Jimmy’s Agriculture teacher has been christened Monocotyledon, a name that he earned due to his overuse of the word.

Another teacher goes by the name Cactus because he never seems to comb his hair. The head teacher is famously known as Ashium because of the way he pronounces assume.

I could not believe this conversation was happening right under my roof, but there it was.

“Boys, it is very cruel of you to refer to people in such ways. How would you feel if they did the same to you?” I challenged them.

Over the years, the boys have coined all manner of ingenuous pseudonyms for everything around them. There have come up with cheeky names for our house help, their teachers, friends, girls and whatever else they can see.

I wish I could tell you that I have been spared in this nicknaming business, but that would be a lie. Under normal circumstances — that is whenever I am within earshot — they call me daddy. But immediately I am out of sight, my official titles are mbuyu, buda and maze, while their mother’s titles range from mathe to mthama, mnyaka, mokoro and moda.

But on this particular evening, I found it detestable for them to describe their peers in such mean ways. I also found it rude of Jimmy to use such mean expressions as “so-and-so has grown really fat,” as if he was describing an animal.

However, Mama Jimmy disagreed with my position. “Don’t spoil the boys’ fun,” she said. “Nicknaming is a normal part of every child’s life.” She then sensationally declared that almost every normal adult in this country has had a nickname at some point in life. “Most of my acquaintances have been given nicknames at some point in their lives,” she went on.

Despite my reservations, I could not help but agree with her argument, given our propensity to give our friends, acquaintances, neighbours, bosses and anyone who is worth talking about, nicknames.

Anything from your personality, physical appearance, stature in society, or career can inspire people to give you a nickname you might love or live to regret. Anything goes in this game.

Even a minor goof or silly remark can easily provide the perfect raw material for a tear-jerking nickname.

Tall men in my neighbourhood seem to attract the name Mrefu, while petite women are often nicknamed One GB. A man who knows his way with women will likely be branded Senge, while the one who keeps badgering his colleagues and neighbours for soft loans might just be christened Madeni.

In a nutshell, it seems no one is above this nickname phenomenon. Keep in mind that we live in Kenya, a free and democratic land where people can nickname anyone, including their president.

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