Monday, August 15, 2016

learning their names

I make it a priority to learn about names on this trip. I ask names and look hard at faces to commit them to memory. I listen to names and try to understand how people here understand their names by how they use them, by how they respond when called. But whenever I start to ask questions, I feel as if my words come out in a backwards language. Maybe it is because the people here always return questions with a shy smile, which makes me thing they’re amused by me. They likely are, but I know they are also shy, and probably unaccustomed to my direct inquisitiveness.

Maasai are given both English names and traditional names? I ask, even as I realize that it might be more appropriate to call them Christian names, like James and Jemima and Jonathan. Both of those terms carry tricky connotations and I don't know if one is better than the other. Yes, I learn, they have both. The Christian names are easier for me to learn and remember, but I want to learn the Maasai names, too, or at least allow my ear to become accustomed to them. Where do these names come from and what is their meaning? are questions I still have and will eventually learn at least partial answers to. 

During our introduction session, in which my plan is to get to know the students and, yes, learn their names, I decide to have them write their Christian names on one side of a piece of construction paper, their Maasai names on the other. Settled in the classroom, nearly fifty tall, lean students with dusty feet and ankles cram three to a desk with the colored paper before them, a bright contrast to the mostly monochromatic world they live in during the school week: wood beams, brown floors, dark skin, faded and dusty blue uniforms. (A day later, Saturday, I would see them again in their Western clothing – all yellow and red and blue.) When I give them the instructions, they start to write their names small in one corner of the paper, and I realize I should have made an example for them. Bigger, I tell them. Take up the whole page with your name.

Then I tell them that we’re going to line up outside the classroom in alphabetical order by our Christian names. The teachers lend order to the activity, sending out the As and Bs while I indicate where they should stand and shift the line up when we need more room. Then I see it: the line of students holding up their papers with names written across. It hits me that I have spent a few months thinking about these kids and wondering about their names. Call them out, I tell them. I want to hear you say your name loud, I say, because even though I know this is a people who speaks softly, I have been waiting to hear these names.

Ann. Dickson. Elizabeth. Esther. Isaac. Jacklyn. James. Lillian. Titus. I'm still trying to remember them all...

First draft from a longer essay about names and being named.

(photos: learning their names; because I couldn't pick just one) 

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