Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Solved -- the Name Mystery!

Solved! - the Name Mystery

When we first heard the names of some of the siblings here in Uganda, we were confused why their last names were different from each other, and thought they had different fathers.  After seeing a number of siblings, all with different names, we guessed that there was some different naming custom, but didn't know what it was.  I think I have finally pulled together all the pieces and solved the mystery!

Most people in Uganda have two names.  In Kampala, most people are from the Buganda tribe and use those naming practices, and I get the idea that nearby tribes have similar but not exactly-the-same ideas, and I will write about the Baganda way.  Basically, these two names are more parallel to our first and middle names, not our first and last names.

I will use Paul Bayiira as an example.  I have no idea who he is, but his name is on a building nearby, so whatever he is honored for can be continued to be honored into this writing!  He might just as easily be called Bayiira Paul, as it doesn't seem to really matter which name goes first; I see the same name written opposite ways on different papers all the time.  One of the names is his religious name, so in this case Paul is the Christian name. I don't know Muslim names as well, but many of the Christian names really do seem to be Christian names taken directly from the Bible, or about Biblical things such as Immaculate.  Non-Biblical names seem to be of the type that were popular in America in our grandparents' generation.  Paul's parents picked that out for him when he was born, just like American parents pick out what used to be called Christian names as well.

The other name is his clan name, and this is where it gets interesting.  There are about 45 clans in the Buganda tribe, such as the Cheetah and the Lungfish and the Lion and the Grasshopper.  You cannot eat your clan animal nor marry another person of your clan, and all clan members are considered your relatives.  (On a side note, it is possible for someone from anywhere in the world to become Muganda and join a clan!)  The children take the clan of the father, but the wife does not take her husband's clan, so children and their mothers continue to belong to different clans.  

There are many names for each clan, and the parents pick any one of these names for each of their children.  I believe each of the names have a certain meaning as well, so parents might choose something significant for the child, or name them after an older relative.  There are also apparently a few names with a very significant meaning that are available for any clan, so if your child was born right after a major battle was won, children might be named "Victory," or if it was a very bad year for weather they might be named "Growth After Big Storms" or something like that.  I don't know exactly what those names are, either in English or Luganda, but they refer to significant events like that.  Those children wouldn't have any name that signified what clan they belonged to, since their second name was available to all clans.  But most people have a name that identifies them with a particular clan.

I am told there are "many, many" names for all the clans, and with 45 clans that is a lot of names.  The number is small enough that other Muganda recognize the names when they hear them, and that they sometimes recognize what clan it is, but large enough that they can't always identify the clan when they hear the name.  I am sure people would recognize names from their own clan or close relatives' clans, so if you met someone at a business meeting you could immediately ascertain that you were "cousins!"

(In fact, there is no word for "cousin" in Luganda.  "Baaba" means a sister or a brother or a cousin, and there is no further differentiation.)

Children belong to their clan, and since clan is passed on patrilineally, they are considered to "belong" to the grandfather or the patriarch of the clan.  Therefore, traditionally, it was the grandfather who selected the clan name.  I am told that now the pregnant parents might respectfully ask, "father, we need a name for our child," and he would give them three or four clan names to choose from.  The parents then pick a religious name and one of those clan names for the baby.  Children are often named after other family members with their clan name.

This means that each of the members of the immediate family have different names.  I find this interesting on a couple of counts.  First of all, it means that culturally, organizing people by the large clan which they belong to is more important than organizing them by individual family or lineage.  Secondly, it implies that the community is dealing with a smaller number of people.  I think the system of having two names, each semi-randomly chosen from a large group of names, would not hold up to classifying the number of people in the US or a similar large country.  (As I think about it statistically, I could be wrong as there could be a similar number of combination of names... but they can't be sorted down into small groups.  They would only be able to divide into the 45 groups, whereas we have hundreds of family names in any community.  Hmm, I wonder how a phone book would be organized?)

From what I can see, most people in daily life are called by their religious name, but sometimes they use their clan name as their daily name.  

Apparently, if the family does want to be identified together, the modern solution is for the whole family to adopt the father's clan name as a "last name," in which case everyone has three names.  But unlike our three names, all the names are used all the time, since both of the first two were extremely significant.  From my observation, this father's name system is mostly used by political families, or those who travel or have connections abroad.  Children may use the father's name "if they choose to," which perhaps also means in honor of the father for some reason.  I am told that some families use the father's clan name for the children, but this is related with a sour face and shaking head --  children need to each have their own clan name!  

So this explains the names that children have, but leaves a mystery for what to call people.  This is a very respectful society, where it is important to show respect at all times (and behave respectfully!), and yet they always use what seems to use to be "first names," and it was hard to find the equivalent of Mr Smith.  Mr Bayiira is not at all the same, since essentially Bayiira is his alternate first name.  

First of all, everyone is addressed generally as Sir or Madame, or Ssebo and Nnyabo.  Each phrase to a vendor in the marketplace or a plumber in your bathroom should have its "Ssebo" at the end of it.  An interesting variation on how this type of address is used in Italy: in both places children must certainly use the respectful address with adults, whereas adults can use a more informal one; but here it is also appropriate for adults to address children as "Ssebo" or "Nnyabo," if they so choose.  It might be half-joking, or it might be acknowledging that the child is trying very hard or doing a good job of being polite.

If you know someone better, you address her respectfully by her family title.  So to be both friendly and polite, my neighbors would call me Mama Emerson!  I absolutely love this, because American moms often get together and remember all the children's names but forget the other adults' names, so say so apologetically "Jacob's mom, I'm-so-sorry-I-forgot-your-name, could you please hand me the cup?"  It would be so much easier if we just used that as an honest and respectful form of address!  It also explains that when vendors want me to buy something and call out "Mama, look here" they are using the most respectful form of address they can, since they don't know my son's name to put in.  I have heard the orphanage staff call me "Mama Buttercup" as well, and at first I thought they didn't remember my name  but now I realize that they called me that because we weren't first-name-friends yet.  Come to think of it, that's probably why in every greeting, the person asks Emerson's name but rarely asks mine.  I had felt like they were being more friendly to him as a little child, but I see that if they knew his name, they would also know how to address me properly.

If a woman doesn't have children yet, or you don't know the names of her children, it is also acceptable to call her by her husband's name, so if our example's wife was childless she might be Madame Paul or Madame Bayiira.  That sounds like a secondary choice, probably because having children is still of prime, central, defining importance in a woman's life.  In western culture, it is getting married that changes a woman's status (changes her name, Miss to Mrs, etc), but here becoming a mother is more important than merely becoming a wife.  

And now that I think about it, I don't know how to use a title for a man, so I guess I will have to come back to poor Bayiira Paul again later!

I find the whole subject of names and titles absolutely fascinating.  I think it reveals so much about a culture, and a whole way of thinking, to understand their names, and then the subtleties of language!  But I think I would have to study here for a decade before I can grasp a great deal about the language, so we shall settle for a discussion of names at the present!

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