“What is your name?”
Every person above the age of one has probably answered this question repeatedly. I have too. My name is Fiske, pronounced as Fisk-ye. The k is soft sounding, blending into the ye. But as a child, I pronounced it as Fi-thea because of my baby lisp. From the first day of kindergarten to the first day of university, this might be the most common question. And in my school years, it has always been about its pronunciation.
“What is your name?”
The tone of the question has shifted now that I am in my 20s. People ask me, “What does your name mean? Where does it come from?” Having an African first name was boring when I was younger. I envied the Lisas, Ashleys, Nathans, and Owens on the school playground. But now, I wear my name proudly. I explain its etymology carefully until my audience is captivated. When I narrate this story, I can hear my mother’s voice telling my younger self what it means. She is with me.
Sometimes, when starting a new grade, teachers would need time to familiarise themselves with my name. I often had to repeat it to them over and over again. With a class register in their hand, they looked at my name and couldn’t imagine it pronounced the way I said it. They either called me a liar – and for some reason that would most likely happen if it was a public school – or, they would say that I was unintelligent and went about pronouncing my name the way they saw it on paper. Some would even improvise and use the closest insult in their language that resembled my name. The most common insult was futsek, a word imported from South Africa, used to shoo a dog or an unwanted person. Between grades eight and nine, my Accounting teacher loved to taunt me with this word. I hated the subject because of it.
I learnt how important my name was to my family as soon as I learnt how to write it down, since it is pronounced differently. My parents made sure that I knew how to pronounce it right. And when my mother called me – Fiske – she did it so effortlessly. It sounded like an answered prayer, each letter bent and flowed like honey from her lips. Sometimes I wanted her to make my teachers pronounce it the right way too. My classmates and teachers taught me why names are important when they bullied me.
I have lived in Africa my whole life. I attended schools that were predominantly Black. But most people outside of my close-knit family who know me use my second name, Serah. It is a good English and Christian name, uncomplicated, that doesn’t come with follow-up questions. But I don’t feel attached to it as I am to my first name. As I grew older, I started to envy some of my classmates’ popular and simpler African names. Names that made them fit in and stand out at the same time, not the way mine made me stand out but never fit in.
At 16, I overheard a conversation between my parents. My mother asked my father if he was thinking of changing his surname back to his father’s. What did she mean “change his surname?” Did it apply to my surname too? I was intrigued by this new information and got the courage to ask my mother days later. Although she seemed surprised that I was aware of this, she gave me the child’s version of events. It so happened that my father’s surname was his mother’s. He changed it sometime between his seventh and eighth birthday. She did not give me any further details.
From that day, I craved for a surname that was passed down from a man. I questioned why my father would want this. Wasn’t it against the laws of nature for him to have his mother’s name? What would his father’s reaction be if he were alive? All at once, some things started to make sense, like how my father’s younger sister, Aunt Muwoli had a different maiden name. I used to think that they had different biological fathers, even though this was refuted several times. With this revelation, I wanted to unravel the mystery of the two siblings, one with her father’s surname and the other with his mother’s. I was advocating for my sekulu’s honour even when I had never met him.
The elders in my family are now much more receptive to my questions, especially when I bribe them with chocolate and sweets. It is like unwrapping a gift each time they share a little detail of our ancestors. Each name is saved in my subconscious, each story makes me smile. Although I learnt later that my father’s history is muddled, I have not given up. I will continue with my mission to try and complete a hard-level puzzle from the little information I have.
My paternal grandfather, sekulu, was a wealthy man in his prime. Like most wealthy men from the Tumbuka tribe in his generation, he was a polygamist. My grandmother, gogo, was his fifth and last wife. She was the most favoured and loved. So as the story goes, the other wives and members of the extended family hated her. My father and his siblings were thus hated by proxy.
My father was only five when his father died. Sekulu who died of old age had been married for 10 years to my gogo. Sadly, she passed on a few years after her husband. But since she was over 40 years younger than her husband, her death seemed mysterious. The elders who told me this are convinced that she was poisoned by the other wives because they were jealous. How could she have moved on with her life? They expected her to suffer after their husband was deceased.
To decide the fate of the orphaned children, the family had a meeting after my gogo was buried. Everyone in sekulu’s family said they could not afford to keep them. After all, who wanted three children of a woman they despised? So, it was up to my gogo’s relatives to agree on who would look after them. That’s how my granduncle, my gogo’s only brother, took them in. But before he left his dead sister’s house, he cursed every person who might have been involved and vowed that he would change the children’s names. He kept that promise. Aunt Muwoli is the only one who reverted to her father’s name when she was older and the only one who has visited her father’s home village.
When you ask someone what their name is in Africa, there is probably a story behind it. It could hold family secrets and pain; a sign of division or unity; bearing the marks of trauma or the invasion of colonists under the guise of religion; a name that has opened doors for them or closed them. Although no family is devoid of scandals, my mother’s side has a family tree that is easy to trace. No one has changed names, even though some family members have passionately hated each other in the past and at present. I can count four generations back on both my maternal sekulus’ side. Perhaps, a result of the wealth and leadership roles that they have had in all generations.
A name is as enduring as a person’s position in their community. There has only been one ancestor in the four generations who had more than two wives. The marriage did not even last long since the wife ran away after a few years, taking with her their sole child and never to be heard from again. Not to say that polygamy is a bad thing, but I’ve seen the negative consequences in my father’s family. It has brought tension, family members not knowing each other and inheritance squabbles. For my father and his siblings, it caused a displacement that has followed them into old age, a trauma that is hard to get rid of.
My mother’s family assimilated into Christianity earlier than the rest of the people in the far Eastern part of Zambia and Northern Malawi region. It cemented their place in the communities they inhabited because white people also traded with them. The change in names was apparent in that generation. They all had Christian first names, but their surnames remained the same. You are far more likely to find a Eunice on my mother’s family tree than you are to find a Towela.
We attach great importance to names in Africa. We even have naming ceremonies in some cultures to introduce a baby to the extended family and the community at large. A name determines a person’s social mobility, their livelihood, who they marry and so forth. What is in a name is either what breaks them or builds them up.
So, what is my name?
My name is Fiske Serah Nyirongo. Fiske is a shortened form of the Tumbuka word Fiskani (pronounced as Fis-yani) which means ‘take it further’. My mother named me. It was chosen from the events surrounding my conception and birth. In mid-1991, my mother had her perfect family – two daughters and three sons. The second girl came after the three boys, which she says was a huge relief for her. She did not want her daughter to be the only girl. She went ahead and booked for a tubal ligation at the Lusaka University Teaching Hospital, but she was told to come back weeks later because they had run out of anaesthetic for non-emergency surgeries. The hospital called my mother back about two months later and she successfully had a surgery. When she started feeling ill days later, she thought it was a side effect of the surgery. She was wrong. She was pregnant with her sixth child – me. I had literally made the cut. Hence the name Fiske. It was her way of telling the unseen force in her life: “Let Your Will Be Done” – ‘Fiskani, Ciuta’ You can take it further, God. Serah was chosen for me by my mother and the midwife who filled in my birth certificate. My mother chose Sarah because of the biblical meaning – princess. Then the midwife freestyled the spelling. My surname, Nyirongo, was chosen for me by my granduncle. It is also fully mine because it was my gogo’s name.
From my ‘difficult’ name and my gogo’s surname, I have found an identity that is mine. My name is mine. I have grown to love what it means to my loved ones, especially my mother, and how it sounds on tongues learning to pronounce it. My naming rites are complete. I am Fiske Serah Nyirongo.
Fiske Nyirongo is a Zambian author based in Lusaka, Zambia. She was shortlisted for the 2019 Kalemba short story writing prize. Her work appears in online spaces such as Kalahari Review, Brittle Paper (the Go The Way Your Blood Beats anthology), Writers Space Africa 2019 magazine Love issue, Boldly Mental, and Unbound magazine. Her first children’s title was published in Cricket Magazine’s Holiday-themed issue in 2019. She has co-created two children’s books for the South African Book Dash model. Her fantasy novella, Finding Love in Betrayal, was published by Love Africa Press in 2019. Her short stories ‘Aftermath’ and ‘When We Breathe’ were published in the Sister Wives and Exhale Anthologies by Myaambo Writers Cooperative and BlackBird Books, respectively in 2020. Her non-fiction work in 2020 was published by Urban Ivy coffee table books, Meeting of Minds UK, Our House LA, LAPP magazine, Nashville Scene, to name a few. She is a 2020 PenPen Africa Writers Resident.
*Image by Mòje Ikpeme