Names

Kijungumoto is almost entirely populated by people who identify as Kisambaa, which is the tribe that lived in the Usambara mountain range, which is the range surrounding our valley. Originally, the idea of tribes was a little more fluid than it seems to be now. If you wanted to become a Masai, for instance, you could go and live with the Masai, and then after you learned the Masai way of life and lived where they lived for a while you’d be a Masai, even if you weren’t born one. Tribal identity is a bit more hereditary now, but it still displays a certain amount of flexibility.

We learned this week that the Kisambaa women here all recieve a Kisambaa nickname/name upon getting married. There seem to be a set number of these names, so we’ve met multiple women with the same Kisambaa nickname- I’ve met at least two women named Kide, for instance. Others, like Maimouna, Monahowa, Maki Langu, or Maki Hio, seem slightly less frequent. It’s mostly older women who go primarily by their Kisambaa names, but when women here have their first child, they are forever after “Mama ,” so once they leave their families, they may rarely hear their first name.

I find it interesting that their names change after those significant events in their lives. It seems a little different than in the US. While women might be known as Mommy or Grandma, that’s a title, not a name; and they aren’t primarily identified by that title outside of a specific circle. With the exception of something like “Mrs. Thomas Smith”, which is becoming less and less common, women in the US don’t entirely replace their names when they get a new title. But in Tanzanian and Kisaamba culture, women are designated by their role in the community/family, by what they have done and produced- their names come from the way they live their lives.

I’ve had occasion to think about how it feels to only be labeled and called by my role in the community, because very few people here actually call me by my first name. Instead, I’m defined by the stereotype of a white foreigner, more palatably by the identity of a guest, and (my favorite) by my very own Kisambaa nickname.

Because very few people here can actually pronounce my name, it’s harder for them to remember it, so I get a lot less shoutouts from the side of the road than Lizzy (“Elisabet! Elisabet!”) or even Kate (“Kati!”) do. I thought for a while that it was the L’s that were giving people trouble- like in Japanese, there’s not a very clear distinction in Swahili (and probably other Bantu languages) between L and R. So I get called “Kerry” or “Kelry” a lot. However, I think what throws people off even more is the “eah” sound of the “e” in “Kelly.” It doesn’t really appear in Swahili- instead, they have “eh”, sort of like like the “e” in “eight”. So I’ve also been called “Carrie”, “Helen”, and, hilariously, by the name of my little sister: “Karen.” It cuts both ways, too- Kisambaa has an “e” that I can’t pronounce for the life of me, and it shows up in the most common greeting. It sounds something like a long “a,” but I think the sound stops sooner than an English-speaker is comfortable with.

So anyway, I don’t get called by my actual name when I’m out in the village very often. Instead, I hear “Mzungu!” which is similar in meaning and offensiveness to “Gringo!”, but that mostly comes from children who I haven’t interacted with much, and I hear it less and less (thankfully.) More often I’m referred to under the title of “Mgeni”, or “guest”, particularly in the third person plural “wageni”. It’s sort of the equivalent of “Mama “, I think- I’m being identified by what I have given to the community. But most often, people use my Kisambaa nickname, Mama Lugu (or Mama Rugu). That’s my favorite, because it was given to me by our neighbor. By giving me a Kisambaa nickname, I feel like she inducted me into the community- in effect, that I’ve been brought into the Kisambaa culture and way of life, and taken on a new identity and label in doing so. Just like a Kisambaa bride, I’ve left most of my friends and family and gone to live in my new family’s house. I’ve lost my old name and life, and gained a new one.

Of course, the transition is less complete- even though I can do Kisambaa dances with the best of them, I only know a few sentences of Kisambaa, and the most basic Swahili, and right now I’m planning to return to America after this is over. Lakini sasa, jina langu ni Mama Lugu, ninakaa Kijungumoto, na na ninafurahi kuwa hapa. (But for now, my name is Mama Lugu, I live in Kijungumoto, and I am happy to be here.)