Omugurusi Festo Karwemera, who died 13 months ago at the age of 95, has been on my mind. Karwemera, the finest researcher, documenter, author and custodian of the language and traditions of Abanyakigyezi, was one of my best lifelong teachers, a source of knowledge and wisdom that he dispensed very freely.
One of the sweet stories he told me was that when he took his granddaughter for baptism at St. Peter’s Cathedral at Rugarama, Kabale, he asked the priest to name her Katesi. This prompted loud grumbling in the congregation. However, the priest happily proceeded with the baptism.
When the congregation left the church, Karwemera asked two people that he had seen and heard protesting: “What would you have done had this been my grandson and I had named him Nyakabwa?” “I would have walked out of the church,” one of them said. Nyakabwa means “small dog.”
“Now, what if I had named my grandson Caleb?” Karwemera asked. “Oh, that would have been alright because it is a Christian name,” the person said. “But the name Caleb means ‘dog’” Karwemera retorted. The person’s eyes darted to and from, with obvious embarrassment. The second person, who had been silently listening, said: “This clever old man is just playing with our minds.”
Not one to make baseless arguments, Karwemera, whose home was a short walk down the hill from the Cathedral, invited the doubting duo to go with him and receive free education. Out came the literature, with the meanings of various names, not based on his opinion, but the work of experts in onomatology (the study of names.) The duo walked away enlightened. Caleb was indeed derived from the word for “dog” in Hebrew.
Now, Caleb is a great name. Its most famous bearer was one of the 12 men that Moses sent from the wilderness of Paran to spy out the land of Canaan which the Lord was going to give to the people of Israel. Upon their return, ten of the spies informed Moses and the other Israelites that an attempt to enter Canaan would be disastrous. “It is a land that devours its inhabitants,” they said.
This report terrified the Israelites and induced regret that they had left bondage in Egypt in the first place. “Why is the Lord bringing us into this land, to fall by the sword?” they cried. Thoughts of a rebellion ensued, complete with suggestions that they should choose a new leader and return to Egypt.
Caleb, the son of Jephunneh, and Joshua, the son of Nun, were the only ones who recommended that Israel presses on and matches into Canaan. They were confident of victory because God was on their side. However, their exhortation earned Caleb and Joshua the wrath of the terrified Israelites.
The latter decided to stone the two men, but The Lord saved them from the mob. Once calm was restored, the Lord declared that none of the adult men aged twenty years and above would see the land he had sworn to give to their forefathers. Only Caleb and Joshua would be allowed to enter Canaan and possess it.
So, Caleb was a brave man of faith in God. That is good reason to name one’s son Caleb. However, one needs to remember that, shorn of the attributes of its famous bearer, Caleb is derived from “keleb”, a Hebrew word for dog.
To be clear, what name parents choose for their child is entirely their business. Likewise, I defend the right of individuals to name themselves whatever they like, whether the name is from their culture or from the farthest place on earth.
However, I also urge people to give more consideration to the names they give their children, going beyond what is popular or sounds good to one’s ear. For example, a lovely sounding name that is carried by some of my friends is Amon. Whereas the name can mean trustworthy, faithful, protector, or builder, its most famous bearer, King Amon of Israel whom we read about in 2 Chronicles 33: 21-25, may not be one with whom one wants to share a name.
Amon “did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, as Manasseh his father had done.” Unlike his father who had repented after leading his subjects into extraordinary evil, Amon never humbled himself before the Lord.
We are not told anything good that Amon did during his two years on the throne. His servants ended up assassinating him. So, his beautiful name may not necessarily be edifying.
Other names that have discouraging meanings include Abel (vanity, mourning, vapour), Apollos (destroyer), Benoni (son of sorrow), Cecilia (blind), Emily (rival), Kennedy (deformed head), Lola (lady of sorrow), Molly (bitter), Portia (pig) and Rebecca (to bind or snare.)
One of the most popular and revered names is Mary, and for good reason. Its most famous bearer was the Earthly mother of Jesus Christ. However, the name itself is derived from a Hebrew word for “rebellion” or “bitter.”
The choice of English and other Hebrew or European names for African children is understandable.
The colonial strategy of stripping us of our identity worked. Those names were declared Christian. African names were pagan, heathen, kafiire (Kaffir.)
Six decades after political independence, Ugandans are more partial to these Hebrew and European names than they are to African ones. Unlike our African names, most of those Hebrew and European ones do not speak to me without reaching for an onomatology book.
I know what Zabasajja and Mbwatekamwa mean, but Xaviour and Margaret mean nothing to me. I know what Kenyena and Barungi mean, but Katie and Barbara leave my head blank. Rutendakubingwa and Musisi are beautiful and meaningful, but Robert and Madison are pretty sounding but emotionally unreachable.
Opiyo and Bakibinga tell me their cultural identities, but Oliver and Bernard maintain unnecessary ethnic secrecy. Asiimwe praises God, but probably few people know that Judy means the same.
I know what time of day Onyango, Ochieng and Ajambo were born, but I scratch my head when I meet Lucy, Layla, and Roxanne.
Again, I neither mean to offend nor to tell you what to call your child. It is really none of my business.
However, I invite you to seriously consider African names. They are beautiful and meaningful to us. They tell our stories and affirm our identities. They are who we are. They are who we must be.
Mulera is a medical doctor. [email protected]