The Importance of Being Agatoni.
Ngugi wa Thiong’o is a revolutionary. Whether that resonates positively with you or not is going to depend largely on your bias to the word and its connotations. Ngugi né James Ngugi, chose to denounce his Christian name in later years. His decision was influenced by the exaltation that English got at the expense of his native Gikuyu; corporal punishment was guaranteed those who broke the ‘English Only’ rule and a nod of approval was bestowed those who acquiesced to it. Beyond this, Ngugi is renowned for being at the forefront of those who hold that African literature ought to be written primarily in the authors’ native language—for the purposes of telling a more ‘authentic’ African story and acknowledging the inherent value of our mother tongues.
Perhaps you applaud Ngugi or perhaps you fear his radicalism, either way his underlying concern for the devaluation our native languages has merit. At an early age, we are sent into an academic system that perpetuates the punishment-reward system, a remnant of colonial rule. Years after Ngugi’s experiences, children in schools are still forced to bear the shame of speaking one’s arterial language in the form of dilapidated vernacular cards, corporal or some more creative shame-inducing punishment. Students who associate their native tongues with chastisement are bound to repeat this culture-eroding cycle of placing their own languages echelons below English, French et al.
To different degrees, we’ve all made our peace with the inevitability of cultural assimilation. The relative ease of travel and reach of the media have seen to it that Camus is no longer a stranger, that Rumi is accessible and that books such as Le Petit Prince have eventually become Mwana Mdogo wa Mfalme. It is no longer about denouncing all foreign languages but rather embracing our own, hastily and greedily. I would be reluctant to forego the wealth of knowledge that English has afforded me yet that wealth proves meager in light of losing one’s own language. After all, language and identity are inextricably linked.
Like many of yours, my identity is individualistic but also largely tied to family and country; our given names are made to reflect this. I have always thought it remarkable that in places like Rwanda, our names are more often that not, uniquely our own — the first is ‘Christian’ and the second, Rwandan. Of course some do chose to carry their family name but even then, our second names are usually the names that reconcile us with our motherland, a cultural umbilical cord of sorts. Yet by our choice or reluctance to demand otherwise, we almost unfailingly go by our ‘first’ names as our second names are unceremoniously brushed under the rug.
My names are Sarah Agatoni and I unequivocally prefer my second name to my first. Both my names distinguish me as an individual but my second has the added advantage of placing me within context of Rwanda. The importance of being Agatoni is demonstrated to me every time someone else has to say my name; they might or they might not ask where I am from but either way, their slight bewilderment always reminds me of my otherness. It reminds me that my otherness is a good thing; that roots have always come before branches.
My most pitiful inadequacy is that it would take me at least twice as long to write something in Kinyarwanda as it would in English — not accounting for the two hours of self-doubt and erratic editing. I begrudge my tongue the ease with which it lets these other languages flow from it and the way Kinyarwanda constantly needs to claw its way out of me. My lack of mastery is a product of a number of things, one of which is the deflated value with which we tend to associate our own languages. We need to take responsibility for our languages and for the way we allow the world to interact with us. When a continent’s economic and even political voice has been muffled throughout the course of history, it becomes imperative that its cultural voice thrives. Without cultural sovereignty, we are twice enslaved.
Of course, picking up your silenced name is an act of vanity if unaccompanied by a shift in attitude. You’ve heard it all before — agaciro urakihesha. It is not naive to think that the journey to self-ownership begins with such a small step…after all, what is more intimate, more sacred than one’s name?
Wear your ‘not-so-easy-to-pronounce’ names with stubborn pride and give your children only names that taste like home.– Agatoni