Home
Democracy in Many Tongues

Democracy in Many Tongues.
The South African Constitutional Court building bears its name in the country’s eleven official languages.

One of my dear relations through marriage has, for the last three years that Dan and I have been married, consistently misspelled my name. Dan and I have tried to gently draw her attention to the fact a number of times (by signing my full name at the end of emails or Dan posting a P.S. about this issue in communications with her directly) but she just hasn’t seemed to get the message through our not-so-subtle hints. I finally decided to write her an email specifically about this issue and tell her that my name is Sindiso with two i’s – not Sindeso with an “e”.

I am confident that she doesn’t mean to offend me by persistently getting the spelling of my name wrong. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if she has even gone to great lengths to try to remember to spell my name accurately, though unfortunately ultimately wrongly each time. Dan’s family are just very deliberate and try to be awake to these kinds of prejudices embedded in ordinary life – not meaning that they always get it right, but who does?! Previously, my father-in-love was so keen to master the pronunciation of my name that, for a few months, he would write my name phonetically, SinDIso, to remind himself that the emphasis was on the second and not the first syllable as he would have naturally thought. I thought this was cute. However, as I had to explain to this relation, despite my best efforts, I still can’t help but be stung by the fact that she keeps spelling my name incorrectly.

As I reflected on why this issue bugged me so much, I came to a couple of simple reasons.

First, I come from a culture that highly values names. Names carry a lot of meaning for us – whether because one is named with prophetic intent or named after an important relative, heroic figure or historic (series of) events. My natural instinct, when learning people’s names for the first time, remains to ask what the person’s name means or why they were given that particular name. I often have to repress the urge when interacting with western folk because most don’t know what their names mean and there might not be a story of significance behind why they were named what they were.

Derived from the Nguni noun (and thus found in the Zulu, Swati and Xhosa languages), ‘insindiso’, my name has a weighty meaning: ‘redemption’. It is grounded in a significant story for my parents and me: namely, that I was born shortly after my parents had become ‘born again’ – that is, embraced Christ’s gift of redemption as their own – amazingly enough, in a tent revival hosted by a German apostle, Reinhard Bonnke. They gave me that name as both a celebration of their life-altering decision and a prayer over my life that I should myself embrace this redemption and maybe even help bring it to others.

Names really do mean a lot to us. They carry the weight of history and tradition and can form the basis of an immediate rapport with a stranger who suddenly becomes a relative because, as one man aptly captured while I was collecting data in my research fieldsite, “my mother is a Mnisi, so it means that you are my mother”. For instance, my maiden name, Mnisi, literally means ‘rainmaker’. Our family got that name because they were the rainmakers in what is now known as Swaziland, which made them kings at the time (over four hundred years ago). After all, water was highly coveted then as it will be when it comes into ever more severe shortage in future. Those who could produce it by making rain were immensely powerful.

To this day, nothing makes me feel at home on arriving back in South Africa after travelling or nostalgic when about to depart the country like the fact that invariably some member of airport personnel will make mention of my first name and/or maiden name (which I have deliberately kept as my middle name) and its meaning. Sometimes people even comment on the personal significance of my first name’s meaning for them.

Second, I come from a country where white people have historically (and, I’m sorry to say, often still presently) not given much regard to African people’s names – so much so that in the past white people felt at liberty to simply rename black people with English or Afrikaans names in order to make it easier for their Anglophone (or Dutchophone?) palates. Most non-caucasian people are familiar with the phenomenon of having a “home” name and a “work”/”school”/”good”/”Christian”/English name. Depending on who’s asking, a different name is given. Hence, in my family, people have names like Benjamin, Elizabeth, Jacob, Johannes, John, Mirriam, Semete (the vernacularised version of Smith), etc. – alongside African names.

I grew up being called “Sindi” – and often enough even “Cindy Lauper” or “Cindy Crawford”. (Yes, I grew up in the ’80s! :) This anglicised version of my name was easier for white folks at school to handle. (I went to a school where, at least for my years in primary school, black kids were not permitted to speak their vernacular languages on the school premises.) Since my family had called me “Sindi” from long before I started school, I assumed there was nothing wrong with it. Hence, I was a little confused and very annoyed when – on returning home a few years into my school career with a certificate bearing the name, “Sindi Mnisi” – my mother insisted that I return it to my school and tell them that that is not my name.

It was only in 2005 that I consciously made the decision to stop anglicising my name for other (that is, white) people’s ease and comfort, and chose to really own and live into my full name, in all its Africanness. The person who gave me the permission to do so, so to speak, was my boss at the time – the Constitutional Court Judge for whom I was clerking, Dikgang Moseneke – who simply asked the question why I didn’t use my beautiful name in full. (I had never before thought my name was anything special, let alone that it might be beautiful.) I had also made the decision to accept Christ’s redemptive gift for myself in the previous year and a half so the meaning of my name bore new personal significance.

I started experimenting with signing my work emails using my full name. When, a couple of months later, I moved to England for grad school, I embraced the opportunity to introduce myself to a whole new set of people using my full name. Now that I am in the US, there’s immense temptation to make the lives of others easier once more (after all, Americans are notorious for not being very culturally adaptable or linguistically accommodating) and therefore simplify my own life by accepting people’s repeating back to me, “Cindy”, whenever I introduce myself as “Sindiso” – but I’m holding out!

The point is that this change in orientation to my name was a big deal for me and results in my being particularly attentive to what people call me. This is why my marital relation’s misspelling my name matters so much to me. It is also why I don’t like people abbreviating my name to call me “Sindi”, even when they earnestly tell me that, because they are not calling me “Cindy”, they are not anglicising my name, just giving me a nickname while still respecting my name’s African roots. Because the choice to abandon “Sindi” was so deliberate and symbolically significant for me, I am very invested not only in being called by my full African name but also in not being called anything else.

6 thoughts on “What’s In A Name?

  1. Food for thought hey! I have two African names and they are the only ones by which I’m called but the funny thing is I realise that I have chosen the easier one as first name and the other as middle…Self introspection… and new introduction, my name is Kutlo, Sindiso.

    • Nice to e-meet you, Kutlo! :) And, thanks for sharing! I hadn’t thought of that application but it totally makes sense. I’m glad the post resonated with you :)

  2. I really enjoy your blog, Sindiso – please don’t stop writing!

    I thought you might be interested to know that my name, Gail, is the diminutive of Abigail, which means “source of joy” in Hebrew. My partner’s name is Thabisa, which means… “source of joy” in Xhosa. This fact brings me joy in itself!

    • Thanks, Gail! :) That is so cute! I love it :)
      I also love that you know what your name means! I can see how you bring joy too!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s