For several annoying logistical reasons, when the three of us finally entered the US we all three had different last names. At the time that was simply not a priority to fix.
However, by early 2019 I had already been feeling the angst about it when my boys each started coming to me saying they wanted our names to be the same. I had already been silently wrestling in my heart over this for some time.
Considering the epic, harrowing Valley of the Shadow of Death we had just survived, giving us my last name felt ridiculous.
In some ways that old me no longer existed. She died a thousand deaths over the previous two years. Definitely not keeping this last name OR passing it on to my children. 🙅🏽♀️
And in other ways, I am still very much the same person, just a better version. Which still calls for a new name. For all of us.
It had to be a Zulu name. My resolve around that was strong. I had intended to raise my boys there in the Motherland, in their community among kinfolk who look like them. That was no longer an option. So they need a deep, tangible, kinesthetic connection to the land of their ancestors, to the indigenous language that belongs to at least one of them.
In many ways, Zulu is a piece of home to me, too. It is the language I was learning throughout my ten years in Soweto.
Zulu was the hand with which I could reach out and touch the soul of a fellow Sowetan. It was me approaching an indigenous world not my own, and then being invited in.
As Madiba once said, “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart." I found this to be overwhelmingly the case.
Learning a language often tells you a lot about the culture, too. Things you may never notice otherwise. A simple example, in Zulu there is no word for “aunt.” If your mother has a younger sister, she is called, “Mamcane,” which literally means “Little Mom;” or her older sister would be “Mamkhulu,” which is, “Big Mom.”
This sheds light on the centrality of familial bonds, the deep interconnectedness of them, and what high value is placed on them. It also demonstrates just how much some of the deeper boundaries in roles that we understand in the Western world are minimal, at best, in this context. I learned this, first, from the language.
Zulu was not just a practical way to build trust with my neighbors, it taught me many idiosyncrasies of its beautiful culture. In fact, falling in love with this language was the precursor to falling in love with the community.
So, back to the name. Early last year the kids and I finally had a sit-down talk about this last name dilemma. We decided together that it would be a Zulu name.
Over several months we began combing through lists of Zulu last names, most I knew well. We talked through names and their meanings and narrowed it down to 10 possibilities.
But throughout this process something did not sit right with me.
Names are sacred.
Going through lists of names that were passed down from one generation to the next in a culture from which I was not born, cherry-picking what we liked felt entirely too close to our own mini colonizing.
It just felt like theft.
I could not shake the feeling that we were stealing the sacred from an already exploited people.
Somehow, even though I immersed myself in the community for nearly a decade, it still felt like theft to just pick and take.
Presumably these names had outlived the empires of indigenous rule, had persisted through the pseudo-colonizing of the British, had endured through the Dutch oppression during Apartheid, emerging now in the millennial generation who are referred to as, “The Born-Frees.” That is the legacy of these names.
They are sacred.
I couldn’t do it.
We narrowed down to three names, despite the pit in my stomach.
God, we just need a darn name! It really does not need to be this difficult.
We voted and narrowed it down to one. We liked it. Americans could pronounce it. The meaning resonated.
But I couldn’t do it. I scrapped it.
We were on a quest – the significance of which cannot be overstated – and I had no idea where it was leading.
We just wanted a new name... for a new beginning. I felt deeply in my guts that it needed to be Zulu.
But I won’t participate in thievery.
Names are sacred.
We’re getting a new one.