Vividly remember this like it was yesterday, seated or rather resting on a bed in an apartment complex on the 3rd floor overlooking a clean street that led to UBahn 4 station in Vienna. It was approaching the end of our Study Abroad tour in Europe (Fall, 2013) as I got a time off to relax and reminisce thinking through what had been a delightful experience. I was t.h.a.n.k.f.u.l in every sense of the word! Something suddenly struck out tho, most of my travel experiences especially on border or airport check-in points, authorities had been quite unpalatable the least to say. I believe some of the Africans or perhaps Blacks have had similar or worse scenarios at border or airport check-in points in western countries than I’m about to elaborate henceforth.
Travelling in our group of 19 college students, and I being the only black and African student in the group always meant that at Airport check-ins, my passport and VISA had to be tripled checked with sensors while being evaluated by at least two security officials. In my opinion, this was all done just to make sure I was no illegal immigrant entering European territory or (on the bright side) perhaps most of these security officials had never heard about Rwanda and conceivably took this as an opportunity to ‘amazingly’ glance through this Rwanda-n passport with extra vigour and care. The first time this happened, we were all standing in a line of 19 at Heathrow Airport in London, I being the 6th in line, it so happened that all the American students who were ahead of me took approximately a minute or less each for checking their passports, kandi when it was my turn, it took between 4 – 7 mins perusing through my passport. Again, the rest of the American students behind me only took approximately a minute or less. Basically, my passport was some kinda bottleneck that somewhat slowed down (or actually increased) our total check-in time. This being the first time it happened, it never struck me at all, for all I thought this could have been anyone.
It wasn’t until it repeatedly happened at several airport check-ins in Vienna, Ostrava, and several occasions while using the euro trains in Paris, Frankfurt, Edinburgh etc. This struck me hard as I began realizing the perceptions of people (in this case in Europe) about Africans or Blacks in general; that they were some sorta illegal trespasser and therefore had to carefully be scrutinized never minding the fact that an American or white person could as well be an illegal trespasser. On the other side tho, perhaps most the Africans or Blacks they’ve encountered before have mostly been illegal trespassers and thus conclusively assuming that nearly most Blacks or Africans were some kinda illegal immigrant. the only recommendation for a person with the latter perception should be to watch this TED Talk “The Danger of a single sided story” – By Chimamanda.
For the most part, I had easily gotten accustomed to going by my first name ( English or religious name). It had always been easier especially for my American friends who always found it onerous to pronounce the last name. Just for anyone needing clarification on how naming is done in Africa; up until 1886 when the scramble and partition of Africa began; most of the Africans co-existed peacefully and all had both names (first and last) African; like Chinua Achebe (from Nigeria), Kahinda Otafiire(from Uganda), Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o (from Kenya) among many others. After the scramble, partition and invasion of Africa by the Europeans, missionaries and other religious invaders included, Africans had to be identified as either Catholic, Protestant or Muslim. This was accomplished by giving Africans a ‘religious name’, and this meant that people like Kahinda Otafiire turned into “Umar” Otafiire or “John” Otafiire depending on the religion they were induced into. With time, it became the norm for African parents to always give foreign names as it had become the common thing. Anyone born had to be given a foreign name or religious name so as to be identified as Christian or otherwise, neverminding the fact that no-where in the bible one has to have a religious name to ‘qualify’ as a Christian. Besides there were African names like Dufitimana that very well depict one as a believer in God. Only a few ‘rebellious’ parents who stood their grounds still named their children both names African. The Likes of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Nigeria), Yoweri Kaguta Museveni (Uganda), Kwame Nkrumah (Ghana), etc.
As all these thoughts and memories ran through the little mazzard, standing right next to the window still gazing through its glass on a chill evening day. it just then dawned on me that it had been a while since i had spoken to my dad, goodthing was the time difference between Vienna and Kampala was just an hour. Right then i made the call and while catching up about how the tour was going so far, I got to ask my dad few questions that had initially baffled my mind. I explained to him how I got to the conclusion that it’s better for Africans to have both names purely Africans because it clearly identifies who they are and also is a basic way of reclaiming our identity and preserving our culture. Awaiting his point of view, i inquired how and why they came to give us the names we had; ‘Robert’ Rugamba for example. At this point, he told a story that i knew nothing about. He said, “… when you were born, we named you Mihigo Rugamba. However, your mum wanted you to have a religious name as well, so we agreed to drop off Mihigo, hence naming you Robert Rugamba.” At this moment, I was both happy and sad, happy because my original names were all African, but sad that i nolonger used them not even on my kindergarten report cards.
During the European study abroad, I had already began going by the last name because it identified me more as an African and particularly a Rwanda-n. While still on the call, I kinda went hyper immediately telling my Dad how I strongly considered having my names changed back to the original Mihigo Rugamba. He, however, cautioned me on the legal ramifications and how long of a process it would be. By then I was still in Vienna travelling on VISAs and a passport with the old names. It was wise to not consider changing names right there and then. I took his advice and didn’t rush my idea of a name change.
Recently while reading a couple blogs, I stumbled on one that exactly had this same idea of strongly reclaiming African identity through names, title “Reclaiming our identities through names: from Inès to Amata” – by Amata. it was a great read. Also, just a few days letter while scrolling through my feed on twitter, read this tweet;
The only question left is how does one get in touch with these group of young pan-Africanists, and encourage them to keep that same direction right. good stuff! Knowing who Muhammed Ali was, very much considered the G.O.A.T >> Greatest Of All Time. Later after becoming a renowned boxer and moving around the world, especially during the 1960 Olympic Games in Rome, he found it in himself to know his roots. After a deep insightful search, he saw it wise and changed his name from Cassius Marcellus Clay, Jr. to Muhammed Ali. It must have taken alot of knowledge, courage to understand and change (respectively) his names. I believe this is something most of us need to understand, that names have great value and indeed carry our identity, culture and heritage.
Being a Rwandan who spent most of my childhood in Uganda meant that I grew up in a culture very different from a Rwandan one. Everything from the kindergarten, high school education, and most memories were all in Uganda, at most times, Rwanda felt so distant and the only thing that I had left that could never change was my last name – Rugamba. it always reconnected and reminded me of my Rwandan heritage. Growing up I didn’t even speak Kinyarwanda, and as I continue to learn it, I believe its the name that kept me tied to my roots as a Rwanda-n, and continues to impel me into learning more about my cultural heritage. if it wasn’t for this name I would’ve easily lost my Rwandan heritage and soon origins too.
A quick throwback to the movie Roots where Kunta Kinte was forced to change and drop his original African names. The Masters knew very well that changing their names, besides making it easier for them to pronounce, also meant the slaves lost their heritage and culture thus had no sense of identity, which made it easy for them to be ruled. its very easy to manipulate someone who has no sense of identity, heritage or roots.
My plea is for Rwanda-ns (and Africans) to embrace our identity – have Agaciro, understand the value of History and the value attached to names, or naming a.k.a ‘nomenclature’. I hope this young group of pan-Africanists achieves the dream of having all new-born children with Names all Rwanda-n. One Step Towards an Africa reclaiming its True Identity.