“Huh? Can you repeat that?” is a phrase most people with uncommon names have heard before.
Names are something I have thought about for years. My name, Fiske, five letters in length is pronounced as Fis-ye, with the k blending into the -ye. People have mispronounced and misspelled it all my life. My essay, Naming Rites, was born from the internal dialogue I had each time someone said I should consider a name change. I wondered if there were people outside of my family with unusual first names. Did they have a similar experience as me? I did not know that I knew a person with an uncommon name for years.
I first met Tukupasya Ally Kasongo when I was around five years old when she and her family moved into our neighborhood. Twenty years later, I started to visit her at work. I noticed that people around her called her Ally.
I asked her about her uncommon first name and she had this to say, “Ally is my second name. It’s easier to pronounce and means friend. I prefer it to my first name because Tukupasya doesn’t have a good meaning. It means to doubt.”
“I don’t like it when people cut my name short to Tuku or anything else, so I prefer to be called Ally.” I asked her if Tukupasya has been misspelled on any of her official documents, she said, “My national registration card has Tukupashya instead of Tukupasya. I don’t know where the person got the H from.”
After talking to Tukupasya, I decided to dig deeper and talk to someone I have never met before. A friend recommended her friend. This is how I met Jinjimali Mpopwe. Her surname is not uncommon in Zambia, but it was my first time hearing of her first name. I explained to her why I wanted to interview her by giving her the history of my name.
“My name is Jinjimali Mpopwe. It’s a mouthful I know. But most people call me Jinji. Because my full name is long.” Jinjimali is a Tonga tribe name that means a lot of money or an abundance of good things. Jinji was proud to point out this meaning to me. She said her name is not that common in her tribe too. “I was named after my grandmother, she was Jinjimali. For a long time, I was the only Jinji in my family but now more people in my family are naming their child Jinji.”
I asked her if she was ever bullied in childhood because of her uncommon name, she said, “Actually I was. When I was growing up and in school, a lot of families were naming their dogs Ginger for some reason. Kids in my school would call me Ginger Imbwa to make fun of my name.” Imbwa is a Zambian word for “dog.” “It’s funny now as an adult because how does Jinji turn into Ginger? But back then as a child, I used to feel bad.”
When I asked Jinji when she started to embrace her name, she replied “when I was 17 years old, just after my grade 12 exams I asked my mother why she gave me such a mouthful of a name. She said, ‘you know Jinjimali means a lot of money. It also means abundance. When I named you, I envisioned abundance for you. I envisioned that you would succeed in your life, not just in monetary form but I envisioned that you would have the best kind of life. Wealth in terms of love and family.’ From that day I was sort of reborn,”
“A few days later, my grade 12 results came out and I did so well. Now I always remember that conversation with my mother whenever I feel down. I am fearless, I try out things. My name carries me, it pushes me to do more.”
Like Tukupasya’s name, Jinjimali’s name has been misspelled on official documents. “There’s always someone who puts an extra letter or letters in it. N before the first J is a common one. Njinjimali,” she laughed. “Then others will spell it with Gs when my spelling is right there. That has happened for several documents, for example when I was getting my voter registration card, the guy misspelled my name and I had to go back to correct it. For other documents like my driver’s license, I let the misspelling go because it wasn’t an official ID.”
Names are very personal and usually have a story behind them, especially in non-western countries. I did not like my own name until I was well in my twenties because I felt it was too heavy for me. It wasn’t until my mother told me she named me Fiske because I was the perfect completion to her motherhood journey and I would take it further. As a child, before I started school and seeing more of the world around me, I thought my name was easy and straightforward. When other people told me otherwise, I started to feel like them: my name became hard. It took years to go back to being Fiske but I am glad that I came back to Fiske.
One thing I have noticed coming from a family filled with uncommon names is that people are less concerned about getting a name’s pronunciation and spelling right when presented with an ‘ethnic’ name. You might struggle with pronouncing a name, but it is important that you spell the names of people right when you are handling their documents. It serves paper and everyone’s time. I wish that I had been comfortable with my name throughout my life. As an adult, especially if you are in a job that requires you to work with children, help children with uncommon names by leading by example. Learn how to pronounce their names. They will thank you one day.