Sometimes people just don’t get me… or they don’t understand why the things in my life are the way they are. Or why I like/do certain things. So most of the time, I have to explain myself to people (because people — simple, simple people — expect everything in the world to be just linear. Especially when it comes to names. White people (especially in South Africa), stand up. You are guilty of this a lot. You butcher the most simple African names, put non-existent accents on the vowels, try your hand at messing up how the consonants are pronounced. And one thing a friend of mine pointed out, you LOVE to put smooth r’s where they don’t even belong. For example, my surname “Makatu” falls victim to your English ways: mah-kah-tuu becomes mar-car-too.
I’ve met a lot of people with very interesting names and have (I have!) wondered why they were given those names. Nobody can give their child a name just because “ooh it sounds so nice and unique!”. Unfortunately, there are those that do, names that may have no meaning at all or have a meaning that isn’t so positive. On the other hand, there are people who give their children names that are just downright EMBARRASSING. Naming your son Humphrey in this day can cause some problems, and don’t be surprised when your son doesn’t become Homecoming King.
I believe in bestowing names upon children that has positive meanings and “just seem right” so that the kids can go out and be the kind of people that their names stand for. Or giving your baby girl or boy a name that describes how you feel having him/her in your life. I’m yet to have a baby, but I have a reserve of names (for both sexes) that I can look to when the time comes.
I’ll be talking about the issues that come up when I introduce myself to a stranger and they ask me what my real name is because “Chilli” is not realistic. Also, I delve into the small tidbits about the names of my family members, and the way me and my sisters have had to appease our multi-cultural classmates and acquaintances all the while never losing meaning of our names.
The first thing I always have to explain to some folks is why I have the name I have. I can’t answer that because I didn’t plant the idea in my mother’s head when she was giving birth to me almost 21 years ago. It’s not like I whispered to her from the womb, “Pssst, Mummy, listen… to make this easier for both of us when filling out my birth details, I got some names you can give me…”
Tlholohelo Tshilidzi Makatu. <—- That is why I ask everyone I go to class with to just call me “Chilli”, for their sake, because Tshilidzi (especially in the original tshiVenda pronounciation) is too cumbersome. And Tlholohelo… that name is almost non-existent to me except when I have to open up my ID book or log into my student email account. Or check my fee statements. Or if I have to check my name on the class register.
People ask me “what does your name mean?”. The same people who, if I asked the same thing with genuine interest/just to get on their tits, wouldn’t know what their name means. I know my middle name means ‘grace’ and my surname means ‘will’. And on some occasions, when I tell them that part of my name means ‘grace’, they’re all like “oh. okay.”. I don’t know if that’s supposed to mean “your name means something rather boring” or “huh, it doesn’t look like you’ve lived up to your name”. I don’t have much grace.
When I was younger and starting to go to school with white kids, I was frustrated at how they couldn’t pronounce my name (for children, it’s excusable that they don’t understand African names — a small person sometimes can’t comprehend seeing three consonants next to each other), and I wanted to have an English name. I wanted to change my name, I actually asked some kids at school to start referring to me as Grace, and when my mother found out, she was way more livid than she had to be.
However for most of my high school years, I knew that my name was coming up next if the teacher paused and squinted at the class register, which would then be a cue for me to step forward and clear the air. This became a joke, especially with substitute teachers. But only ONCE in my entire life did a sub (a white man) pronounce my name right. I wanted to kiss him but refrained because student/teacher divide and he had mad wrinkles!
My sisters’ names
All of us daughters in the family have three names, each with meaning. Well, there is one sister who has four, and around the time she started attending high school, the white girls she went to school with must’ve had problems with her name (Tiisetso) so she asked them all to know her by her one of her middle names, Terry. My mum didn’t object for it was her name anyway. But to me, she’s Titi, even when I’m mad at her.
Then my other sister has the biggest problem: if you leave her middle name out for a moment, her nom and prénom are the same: Makatu Makatu. And to explain to people (regardless of race) that “no, actually her name is the surname” and deal with these poor people’s perplexed looks. I wonder, out of my two parents, whose idea was this. Katu (as I know her) has asked her friends to call her “Katz” and in some cases, “Katie”. My mother hadn’t objected to that either.
My last sister doesn’t have much of a problem at all with names. Sure hers is the longest of all of us (Farelanani Tshwaranang), and it took some practice for me to pronounce it (and spell it) right, but my mother has shortened it to a cute little name that fit her from the day she was able to sit up by herself without falling over. Fari is what she is to our whole family (except my mother who calls her “pumpkin” when she’s feeling good — after Pumpkin Patch, a show that used to show on South African television wayyy back in the day). But I imagine when she hits her teen years, she’ll be looking for alternatives, perhaps pick another part of her name to capitalise on (Nani…okay maybe not… she might get teased and called “Nanny”) on follow the “middle name trend” and ask to be called Tshwaranang.
My mother’s name
My mother’s name is Nthabiseng (say tahbi-seng, but then add a prominent “nn” sound to the beginning) Thabitha Makatu. With my mother, here is where you understand that in African names, whenever you see “th”, you disregard the “h” and say that “t” hard. I remember arguing with my mother a while ago as I was trying to show her that her middle name is western (Tabitha, derived from the Bible), just spelled in an alternative way. She was like “nuh uh, my mother made it up”. Can’t win with this woman. My mother’s middle name, I feel, is just there to deliver some kind of meaning, but not for her to call herself by. I think the only time my mother sees her middle name is when she opens her ID book or looks at her old school reports.
My father’s name
Thivhilaeli (just look at it, don’t bother trying to sound it out) Eric Makatu. My mother calls him Eric (always has), but my father wish it wasn’t so. My mother told me that many years ago, my father decided to “go back to his roots” and ask people to use his African and not his English one. My father is a fiercely proud Venda, and sometimes on business cards I’ve seen him write “Thivhilaeli Eric wa ha Makatu”. I believe it means “blahblahblah of Makatu”. Are we a clan? I should ask next time I speak to my dad… just casually slip into the Whatsapp conversation…
I won’t lie that when I was discovering what my father’s first name was (for the first five years of my life, I knew I had a father named Eric and just that), I got my tongue twisted a lot. I was very tempted to go up to him and ask “why do you have such an odd name?” But then I’d have got a hot slap across my face. I’m an African, I can’t just talk to my parents any way I like.
What I’d like my first daughter to be named
Because of the obvious pattern of the XX chromosome in my parents’ procreation campaign, I’m hoping for a girl first. But then there’s a chance that God might give me a son as a way of saying to my father “sorry about not giving you an ally, but here’s a grandson! Don’t be selfish!”, so I’m going to hope for both, to avoid disappointment… but let’s say it’s going to be a girl! I’ve already thought of names (yes, I have time, time better spent doing a lot of other shit than thinking up baby names), and in order to get a list going, I wrote down some keywords to help find names that might shape the kind of person my daughter must be, or just the way she makes me feel or what she is to me.
Look at me… speaking like this child is already here.
Anaïs - this has the same meaning as mine (grace), and though it will be hard to have a name like that in the South African context where girls are either a Lerato or Palesa or Ayanda or Thando, I love it. It’s pronounced an-ah-EES. But I fear this can spin out a nickname like “Nice”.
Alize – This name is an alternative spelling and pronounciation of the Alice we all know, which is a German name for “noble”. Alice is too plain and simple and is the name given to a girl who had a trippy daydream about being in Wonderland. Alize has some kind of power in it.
Alika – this is name from somewhere in Africa (forgot where) and it means “most beautiful”.
Dalia – not sure the etymology for this, but it means “gentle”. I have thought about combining this name with a middle name that has strength to create a sweet contradiction. A girl gentle yet strong in might. I think I’m reading a bit too much into this…
Brigitte – I like French names that aren’t obviously “boom! out there!” French, so this one is cute to me. It means “strength” (merges flawlessly with Dalia). Also a little tough to have as a name in South Africa where people are known for mispronunciation, so Bridget may have to suffice. I don’t want my girl to be called “brig-it” by some child in her class who doesn’t know better.
Reabetswe – this is a seSotho name meaning “we have been provided for”. Can be shortened to a cute “Rea”, and means something that I believe stands for what all baby girls are. Babies are gifts that we have given, sometimes at times when we don’t think we need them, but they are there to live, to teach and to be taught.
I’m not biased to girls, okay? It’s just that I’ve had more experience with them…
And the last one is Kamohelo – another seSotho name, that means “acceptance”. Acceptance of this child, acceptance of the life you have, acceptance of the responsibility you have to raise this girl/boy (the name is unisex) to the best of your ability.
That’s all I have at the moment. I haven’t drawn up a list for boys yet, because honestly I’m betting my money on having a daughter first. My father’s implicit hopes for a grandson can wait.
- Baby Naming – No Regrets (momshar.com)
- Chosing a name…the legal complexities of cross-cultural naming (tacodelenguas.wordpress.com)
- The Birth of my Unusual Name (ctipon93.wordpress.com)
- My surname (modigsvoice.wordpress.com)