With a shy laughter that I hope does not give any hint of my shame and discomfort, I will be the first one to say “you can just call me Mo. My full name is complicated.” And that name is Moseni Musukunya. I grew up in a town where Smith, Johnson, Hill were common last names and spent most of my adolescent years wondering why mine always made teachers, professors, and friends fumble. The only people that didn’t care were members of my family, and my father who was so proud of his last name that he wouldn’t object to spending hours on the phone, in supermarkets, or at events to give a mundane lecture on the right pronunciation.
I kept reminding myself of the popular Shakespeare Romeo and Juliet line “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet?” This gave me the confidence that it was perfectly appropriate to change my name. After all, it would make life so much easier for everyone else, and I could be a Johnson, Smith, or a Hill without any hesitations.
Being the meticulous person that I am, I decided to give it more time and thought, and rather embarked on the journey of understanding the meaning and significance of my last name.
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From conversations with a few of my African friends in the area, I discovered that I was not the only one “suffering” from having an unorthodox last name. While some were like my father and didn’t give a jack, others expressed frustrations over how much they hated their “typical” African names.
My quest became less about “Musukunya” and more about “typical African names.” Do our parents purposely decide to make our lives a little bit harder by giving us these names? Are they lacking the understanding that this is the 21st Century and things should change, including names? Do they understand that we live in the United States and must assimilate with the American culture? Where do they see a “Musukunya” in the “American dictionary?”
After several Months of committing myself to learning more about Africa, our ancestors, my country, my family, their struggles and journey to where they are today, I discovered that the best gift my parents could ever give me was my name in its entirety, Moseni Musukunya. With this name I carried my past, tradition, and lineage, and it is through this that I inherited beauty, prosperity, strength, and determination. It did, in many ways, define me, and as much as I love Shakespeare, he was wrong.
My name told a story that nobody could ever write, and that story lived vicariously through my existence. It represented images of glory and greatness that no artist could ever attempt to illustrate. My name kept the memories of the victories of my past and the triumphs of my future. How dare I even think of changing my name? This is no different from removing the soul of a person, and expecting that individual to continue being human.
As we live in a time that mainstream media and social norms have made it extremely difficult for young people to hold on to their roots, it is critical for parents to begin having conversations with their youths. This problem is not particular to Africans alone as other immigrant groups such as the Hispanics or Asians may also have similar experiences.
Specifically, African names are a window into a particular ethnic group or relation to some form of African culture or geographical region. They hold meaning and significance that no other name could substitute. The name given to a child at it’s birth is that child’s name. Whether it be Nnamdi, Nneka, Dirrha, Afua or Ikechuku, a name is to be prided upon and admired. Sadly, honor and pride, in reference to names, have become common lost traits within the African community.
There are people who abandon “Nkechi” and demand that everyone call them Nicki, like in my case. In doing so, they are concealing their roots and heritage for the convenience and acceptance of a western world that does not understand the roots from which such a name sprung.
Just as it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a great sense of culture and history to name one. African names possess a sense of unity within the community- although there is still that ability to recognize the distinction and variety amongst African people.
I have been overwhelmingly pleased with the insurgence of African Americans trying to discover their African roots. I have friends searching for African names online in an effort to find what we Africans already have but are willing to dispose.
The time is past due for us to understand the significance of being an African. Rather, it is time for us to be ready and willing to help our brothers and sisters who want to discover the history, strength, power, and potential within Africa. By embracing every bit of our “African-ness,” we make the process much easier for everyone else.