close photography of red and pink rose

What is in a name?

What is in a name? A rose by any other name smells just as sweet. 400 years ago, a little known playwright mused on the importance of a name and the weights that names carried. It seems that playwright and I share more than just a birthdate. My name is Nyameko Ishmael Bottoman; son, brother, partner, teacher and writer. Having lived in Asia for 15 years I have met people from all over the world and it is always an interesting thing watching people’s reactions when I give them my name.

There are two reactions a) painstaking three – four minutes of trying to get the pronunciation down along with a couple of questions around its origins or b) instantly asking for a nickname as my name is too difficult to pronounce. On the surface it is just a name, a slightly difficult one, but just a name. What they don’t get is what that name carries and the various crucibles I have gone through to be able to say it proudly without fear of judgement, othering or denigration based on my Africanness. Before I plummet into painful pontification let me just say this is not a black piece, merely a ponderance of purpose and plight.

Traditionally Xhosa names are given to us by our grandparents when we are born, well in my family at least. Our names are supposed be aspirational, inspirational and some might say prophetic. People are named Phumelelo (success) or Khanyisa (light, light bringer, illuminator) because that is what our predecessors want to us to bring to ourselves, our family and our world. Don’t get me wrong, sometimes it doesn’t go that way. My uncle is named Zanoxolo (bringer of peace) and he can be one of the most cantankerous people I have ever met. And yet there is a peace he is always chasing which has always been fleeting even in his most Zen state. 

My grandfather gave me Nyameko (patience or perseverance), Ishmael (either first man or the abandoned one) depending on who you ask. I have another name given to me after my initiation into Xhosa manhood, Jongikhaya (he who looks/guards the home).

I have a love-hate relationship with all my names. On good days they are a proud stamp of cultural authenticity, the first gifts I received in this world and the only thing I truly own.

On bad days, they are an albatross around my neck. They are indelible indicators of my Africanness and blackness, which comes with its own connotations, opportunities and drawbacks. But that’s another story completely.  My names sometimes feel like the first weights my family put on my shoulder. They can sometimes feel like leaden anchors too heavy to carry and still move forward with.

“You must be patient for you are the first to be abandoned. If you don’t persevere how will your brothers?”

As a South African, there is a huge historical element to names. There is a huge historical reason why I have an English (read white) sounding name. An ironic point that has never left since the first day I walked into a Korean classroom and Su Mi told me her English name was Sue because her Korean name was too difficult for foreigners. That particular bit had me wondering if Asian English as a second language (ESL) wasn’t just another extension of colonialism. That’s a sour irony I do not as yet have the power to confront.

Xhosa, as it’s spoken now, is an old language with Bantu roots stretching all the way up to North Africa and time immemorial. However, it feels like less and less people speak it nowadays. Language is forebearer of culture. I am afraid one day our names will be keepsakes of a treasure turned to sand and gone. Is a name still a name without the language that it comes from? And who are we without the language, culture and history we come from?

I used to only tell people my English sounding name under the auspices of making it easier for them to pronounce it. I would completely ignore my Xhosa name choosing acceptance over othering. I wonder if that was the full reason or was it a way to protect myself lest they come after my Xhosa-ness. My Xhosa-ness has always been a sore point starting from my first English lesson. In 1992, English had more opportunities than Xhosa. So, I have always felt…watered down. An interesting point to talk to my therapist about.

Now I introduce myself as Nyameko. I do this with the patient stubbornness to differing result. Some people take it as an opportunity to learn, while others think I am being difficult. I don’t know which it is but if you can say the ñ in señor, then you can say Nya. If you can say man then you can say me and if you can say con you can say ko.

And after all of that, most Asians think my name sounds Japanese.

The journey to loving my name has been one of self- indulgence (like this piece), understanding and growth. It has been one of catharsis and ridding of trauma. It’s also been about facing up to what is expected of me.

I don’t know if I’d be as sweet but there are many days that this rose would happily be a potato.

Click here and here for more from Nyameko.

Nyameko Ishmael Bottoman is a South African author and teacher. After graduating from the University of the Western Cape, he moved to South Korea and subsequently other parts of Asia. This was where he reignited his love for the written word. He helped develop the first South African online magazine in the role of editor.  He has published two books, a children's book and book on South African Folklore

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