I am informed that it was raining cats and dogs the night I came into this world more than two decades ago. After lengthy deliberations, my elderly kin decided that I shall be called Wafula, a name that was commonly given to children born during the rainy season in my community. Lukorito, a name that has been the family’s surname for generations, automatically became my last name. My father, for reasons best known to him, decided on ‘Jones’ as my ‘Christian’ name.
Growing up, I didn’t particularly like being called Jones, a name that you would be hard-pressed to find this side of the Sahara. Nobody, my very own parents included, seemed to know how to pronounce the name correctly. I answered to a variety of articulations, the most common being “Joh-knees” and “Joh-ness”. I wished I had been given a simpler, cuter name such as Richard, Alex or Eric.
I only came to learn of my name’s correct pronunciation at the age of 12. A classmate chanced upon a news clip on Marion Jones, the then American athlete who was making headlines on the track.
Growing up, very few kids wanted to identify themselves by their surnames. Compared to the Bible characters that we read about and the European names that we heard in Hollywood movies, traditional African names seemed so ‘backward’ and ‘uncivilised’. I did all I could to ensure that my last name, Lukorito, only appeared on my school documents when it was absolutely necessary. My friends made fun of me because my name sounded “weird”, and I laughed at them too whenever their names didn’t quite roll off the tongue.
As a young adult, I wanted to doll up my name and for a while on Facebook, I turned Jones Lukorito into Jay Lukorides. By the time I landed my first job as a columnist for a national newspaper at 19, I was going through a serious identity crisis such that I invented a totally strange persona to use as my by-line. In combining the first letters of my three names, I came up with Jowal. Jowal Jones sounded really cool, or so I thought at the time.
When I’d meet my readers for the first time, they’d often exclaim, “Kumbe it’s you! I thought you were a mzungu (European)!” Such remarks drove me into a soul-searching mission. I questioned why I went to great lengths just to make my name sound as Western as possible.
Why had I never met an American or Briton who gave their child African names like Wanjala, Emeka, Ojiofor, and Gigaba? Why, I wondered, did European missionaries insist that Africans who converted to their religion should also adapt their names? Did colonialists succeed so much in making us feel worthless that some of us are still ashamed of our African names years later?
As I grew older and learnt to appreciate my heritage, I fell immensely in love with my African names. My by-line changed from Jowal Jones to Lukorito Jones. Militant pan-Africanists have suggested that to decolonise my mind further, I need to morph into Lukorito Wafula and drop the Jones altogether. I tend to differ because I am just as proud of the name Jones as I am of my two ‘traditional’ names. Jones might have its origins in Europe, but it’s mine now and I have to own it.
One thing is for sure though: If I ever have kids, the only condition under which I’ll bestow foreign name unto them will be if my significant other is has a foreign heritage.
SHADES OF CULTURE