When I lived in Johannesburg in my twenties, I would often travel to Zimbabwe to visit a friend I’d made there named Sam Koffi. One time I asked Sam to translate his son’s name, Donotso, into English.
“I can’t really think of the word, but let me try to explain it, Tim.” Sam described how when it rains in the rural areas of Zimbabwe, it is not uncommon to see children running out of their homes and opening their mouths to the sky, laughing and dancing for the crops they know will finally grow. “‘Donotso! Donotso!’ they chant. The rain has finally come. This is what I have called my son,” Sam said.
“Ahh, I see,” I remember saying. “So his name means ‘Refreshment.'”
“No,” Sam replied. “It is stronger than that.”
“No, not that either. I’m sorry, Tim, there is no word for it in English.”
Years later in California, I asked a Hmong-American high-school student I was teaching what her name, Nkauj Nag, meant in English. She thought for a while and then responded, “You know how you feel kind of sad when it rains, but in a good way? Well, that’s what my name means. How about your name, Tim?”
At first I had no real answer. I told her there was a Book of Timothy in the Bible, and that it probably carried some ancient meaning I didn’t know. (Later I looked it up and found out that the root of Timothy is “honoring God.”) But in the days that followed, I remembered some stories about my name. For one, my parents told me that before I was born, they had a few names on their short list — Timothy, Evan, and David — but that when I came out, they weren’t sure which one to pick. As they deliberated, my three-year-old sister Jenny decided to call me “Betty,” after Betty Rubble of The Flinstones; apparently I held that name for a short while.
My middle name Saunders has some juice in it too. I was named after a great-great uncle of mine, Nicholas Saunders, who was killed by the hoof of a horse that a Pinkerton guard was riding during Pennsylvania’s Homestead Strike of 1892. As the legend has it, Saunders was a young Irish-American priest who supported labor rights. He had traveled to Homestead to aid the striking workers, and in so doing, met his death.
I believe our names have power; they can be an evocation that echoes through our lives. I like to think that Nicholas Saunders’ commitment to social justice explains in part the presence of that in my life. No doubt this is why Annie and I gave Rio “Mandela” as his middle name; we wanted to link him directly to a person we looked up to, to someone who had made an impact on the world. It’s not that we expect Rio to go to prison for 27 years for his ideals and to later become a emerging democracy’s president, but, hey, those ain’t bad roots to draw from.
Back in Joburg, names were complex and political. It was common during apartheid for Africans to have two names: real ones in their home language that usually carried some deep, at times political, meaning, and their Christian names. There was the notion that the latter would be useful to Africans as they navigated a white world they were officially on the margins of, especially because most white people couldn’t (read wouldn’t) pronounce African names. Homes that were more politically radical tended reject the charade, while more traditional folks continued to use both names, or perhaps even only the Christian one.
In the high school where I taught history and English, I encountered the entire spectrum: there was the school janitor who proudly went by his Ndebele name, Sifelani, which meant, “Why are my people dying?” Then there were students with African names that weren’t necessarily political but meaningful: Mpho (Gift) was sometimes given to the only girl in a family, or to a child whose mother had had a particular difficult pregnancy; Ayanda (The Family is Growing) was commonly the name of a first child. And then there were the scores of students who went by their Christian names: Peter, Paul, and Mary seemed to show up in every classroom.
Interestingly, Nelson Mandela’s Xhosa name was both difficult to pronounce and symbolically significant: Rolihlahla is a pretty good tongue twister, and it translates as “pulling a branch from a tree,” or, put another way, “stirring up trouble.”
One of my favorite students was a tall, sassy boy from Soweto named Churchill. I once asked him where he got his name. “My father always liked Winston Churchill,” he said without a trace of irony. By the end of my time in South Africa, as the nation shifted from apartheid to a multiracial democracy, Churchill started going by his real name instead: Itumeleng. It means “Rejoice.”