My resolve has been deep to give my boys a Zulu last name; for them to maintain a tangible, kinesthetic connection to the land of their ancestors and to the indigenous language with which we were already acquainted.
And yet as we searched and chose and narrowed down our list of Zulu names, I just couldn’t do it. Deep in the pit of my stomach it felt like we were stealing the sacred from an already exploited people; like our own little *mini-colonizing*. (See part IV)
My resolve to give my boys (and therefore myself, too) a Zulu name is steadfast, and yet I will not resort to thievery.
Despite the pressing I felt to solidify our family name, we abandoned all efforts.
For three months I sat with the angst of knowing it was to be Zulu but refusing to steal the sacred, and having no idea how to reconcile those mutually exclusive convictions.
An agonizing three months. I looked through American last names and couldn’t get with that either. Nothing connected. This is not it.
Another two months passed.
And then one day I was reading an article from South African news and a pop up about indigenous names showed up. Whoa. I opened it.
There were a handful of names for each of the nine national languages that are indigenous. I jumped down to the last one, Zulu.
As I scanned through the handful of names, I’m pretty sure my heart LITERALLY stopped and my eyes might have popped right out of their sockets.
For a moment time stood still as I was instantly catapulted into a vivid memory that had somehow been pushed to the periphery of my brain.
Just a few months before the cosmic tsunami that left my world in ruins, I spent a week with some locals in what would turn out to be an epic adventure.
Now here’s the necessary backdrop you must understand to grasp the enormity of the moment. As a foreigner moving into an African community, one of the greatest honors that can be bestowed is to be given an ‘African name.’
What else you must know, however, is that I was not just a foreigner coming to Soweto. I was a foreigner perceived to be entirely WHITE by our entirely black sprawling community of five million beautiful souls.
Having grown up a woman of color and then suddenly perceived to be white in the most racially polarized country in the world was a dynamic that I did not plan for. Understatement.
The labor of building rapport and deepening relationships in such a polarizing climate often felt like moving boulders uphill. Distrust toward me was so deep, and rightly so, considering what my skin color represented.
Now back to that week with the locals. There were twenty of us sitting in a big circle and had just taken a break from our discussion. Some went outside for some air, others went to the bathroom, some were huddled around the snack table, and the handful left sat in their chairs having a chat with their neighbors.
It was a perfectly normal, somewhat mundane moment, almost nine years after my arrival.
Just as I was about to get up for the bathroom, my conversation was interrupted when someone sitting across the circle called my name. Its resonance in my ears did not sound like the casual calling to grab someone’s attention. It was commanding, yet gently so, an undertone of authority permeated with tender affection. There was a pointed intention I felt just by the way she called.
The sound of her voice stopped my conversation dead in its tracks.
As our eyes met across the half empty circle busy with other conversations, the mundane instantly turned to profound before a word was even spoken. As though the sun, the moon, and the stars had just lined up.
With that gentle, commanding, singular intention, she said from across the circle, “You are a remarkable person.”
It felt like there were marbles in my brain rolling around trying to figure out what I must have just misunderstood.
“There is something very special about you. Everywhere you go you shine. And the shine is so brilliant that the people around you have to stop and look.”
I felt like I was having an out of body experience. My brain was so confused. Such pointed words came out of nowhere and I couldn’t seem to get them to register. For me as a foreigner, I found that the hardest in the community to win over were often the older women.
And yet, this commanding, gracious, gentle voice of strength was that of an older Zulu woman. She went on to speak about the suffering I’d endured over the years, and yet I had stayed. She spoke about the way I loved her people as if they were my own and how much effort I put into learning and using her language.
Years of feeling not known or understood washed away in that one moment of being seen. Deeply seen.
In that unmistakable beautiful Zulu accent, she concluded with words I will remember for the rest of my days.
“And that is why I am today giving you your African name, Nkhanyezi, because your light shines bright like a star.”
I gasped and thought I might spontaneously combust. My tears flowed and she made her way across that half empty circle – in which all conversation had now ceased – and embraced me. She was, in many ways, the picture of an older generation African mother, slightly heavy set with her long draping skirt brushing the top of my sandaled feet.
This memory had erupted from the confines of my back burner with such clarity and such force that I had been instantly transported. My mind lept from weeping in her arms to a fast-forward replay of the 3 years of utter hell since then.
I knew in an instant that I. Was comin’. OUT.
God had known what catastrophic typhoon was coming for me, when I had no idea. Even before the pieces fell and fires ravaged, He had already spoken into being who I was made to be on the other side of it.
In these three years of struggling to just breathe, deep in that place beyond words I thought I would never recover the joy and love for life that had been so trademark of who I am. In the graveyard of losses, the stadium of accusers, in the horror of betrayals, the death of the future I’d planned, and the loss of nearly every earthly thing and person I held dear, I was not sure resurrection would be possible.
That ocean of doubt was so forcefully interrupted by this memory it felt the seas of my barren wilderness had just parted.
The name stared back at me from the computer screen: Khanyezi.
What?! I didn’t know! I didn’t know there was a last name version of my Zulu name!
My boys and I – we were made to shine like the stars! We were made to reflect the glory of the One who called us.
No judge and jury of humans can hold a candle to the shine that doesn’t come from us anyway.
SHINE unashamedly in the den of lions or the fiery furnace.
SHINE when everything you know has been burnt to ashes and leveled to rubble.
SHINE when you feel smaller than the ant on the bottom of a shoe.
My beloved friends, SHINE IN THE FACE OF YOUR GIANT.
He gave us our new name. It had been there all along, I just didn’t know.
Isn’t that just like our God to make provision for a need that has not yet even arisen.
Khanyezi, because our light shines bright like a star!