There’s a distinctive sound that Shangaan men make as an exclamation of surprise. It’s a multi-voiced explosion, equal parts a man’s gut-punched grunt and a woman’s cry of pleasure. I’ve tried imitating it, but so far I’ve only succeeded in sounding like a woman faking an orgasm for the first time.
In Xitsonga, “Wa hemba!” literally translates as “You lie!” In practice, however, “wa hemba” covers “you’re kidding,” and “get out of here!” Little kids yell it as often as they cry “Wa penga!” [You’re crazy!].
Generally, I hear laughter, “wa hemba” and the Shangaan cry/grunt, all for doing nothing more than introducing myself.
Nearly every Peace Corps volunteer takes a local name when they reach their village. Casey becomes “Refilwe,” “Jillian” becomes “Xongile,” “Meghan” becomes “Nyeleti.” In the unlikeliest transformation, I go from “Mordchai” to “Hlulani.”
Taking on the name isn’t an attempt at assimilation. As I walk through my village, the child who starts hopping from foot to foot, screaming “Mulungu! Mulungu!” [“Whitey! Cracker!”] is a solid reminder that I’ll never shed my capital-O Outsider status.
So why take the name? There’s the practical benefit of going by “Hlulani;” I spare myself hours of watching my neighbors struggling to wrap their tongues around the phonemes of “Mordchai.” If it was simply a matter of expedience, however, I could just as easily switch to “Bob.” It’d be glib to dismiss the new moniker as a heavy-handed attempt at integration. Taking a local name is a deeply transformative action.
“What’s in a name?” Juliet opines to Romeo. “That which we call a rose/By any other word would smell as sweet.” Whether I introduce myself as Mordchai, Hlulani or Mr. Montague, Juliet tells me, I’ll be just as white, just as American, with a nose that is longer and thinner than the noses of my neighbors (people are consistently and persistently excited to tell me this).
Juliet’s not wrong, but she’s right in a narrow way. Study after self-satisfied study has shown that when people are given piss-poor wine in fancy bottles, they rate the wine more highly. We are creatures of language, and our experience is mediated by the names we use for things. If I hand you a rose and tell you it’s a special strain, genetically modified to smell less sweet, Juliet is correct in objective terms. No matter what I say, the same particles are striking your olfactory receptor neurons. You would never know it though — the name transforms your perception.
In his seminal paper On Sinn and Bedeutung, the late-nineteenth-century linguist and philosopher Gottleb Frege wrestles with the question of how proper names are used meaningfully.
Ancient civilizations made many remarkably accurate observations about celestial bodies. One particularly bright body can be seen most clearly shortly before sunrise; it was, reasonably enough, dubbed the “Morning Star.” Another can be seen shortly after sunset – the “Evening Star.” And then, at various times, astronomers in various civilizations recognized that the Morning Star and Evening Star were in fact one and the same – what we now refer to as Venus.
Frege notes that if we were only interested in the objects that words refer to, saying “The Morning Star and the Evening Star are both Venus” would be no different than saying “Venus is Venus is Venus.” And yet when Pythagoras pointed out that the two stars are single body, he was presenting a radical observation. In everyday exchanges, we treat proper nouns as simple signposts; they are tags, and casually used to discuss the objects with which those tags are associated. The signposts themselves, however, are significant.
And so when I choose a name, I’m giving more than a tag, more than a sound to which I’ll turn my head, canine-like.
My name, “Mordchai,” is historically derived from Marduk, a supreme Babylonian god who came to power through the murder of another god. The name “Mordchai” is taken from the tale of a Jewish man working in the royal Persian court. He refused to bow to one of the king’s advisors, prompting the advisor’s wrathful plot to murder all of the Jews within the empire; through political machinations, Mordchai succeeds in averting this disaster. I am named after my grandfather. It was his name, and the affiliated identity, that redefined the trajectory of his life. Mordchai was once again marked for destruction, not by the Persians but by the Nazis. Once again, Mordchai triumphed by surviving.
When people here in my village learn that my name is Mordchai, all of this encoded information is generally missed. People learn, however, that I’m not local, not Afrikaaner. Occasionally someone will recognize the name as being Hebrew, but with the absence of Judaism in the region, that usually leads to me explaining that I’m not a descendent of Jesus (unfortunately, perhaps, since that could make me some sort of great-grandson of God).
When I introduce myself as Hlulani, however, I’m making a statement and beginning an argument. It’s understood that I was not given the named Hlulani at birth.
When I introduce myself by a local name, I make a declaration of investment. If I were passing through the district to make a survey of mango production, I probably wouldn’t bother with a local name. That I am a white man taking on an African name has additional significance in South Africa. In his hefty memoir, Nelson Mandela writes the following,
On the first day of school, my teacher, Miss Mdingane, gave each of us an English name and said that from thenceforth that was the name we would answer to in school. This was the custom among Africans in those days and was undoubtedly due to the British bias of our education. The education I received was a British education, in which British ideas, British culture, British institutions, were automatically assumed to be superior. There was no such thing as African culture. Africans of my generation — and even today — generally have both an English and an African name. Whites were either unable or unwilling to pronounce an African name, and considered it uncivilized to have one. That day, Miss Mdingane told me that my new name was Nelson. Why she bestowed this particular name upon me I have no idea. Perhaps it had something to do with the great British sea captain Lord Nelson, but that would be only a guess.
To say that many South Africans remain sensitive to race is like saying that a rabbi might notice if you run into a synagogue dressed as a ham sandwich. When I introduce myself as Hlulani, I’m not breaking from the past – an impossible task, no matter how common the phrase – but I am rejecting the previously dominant structures, and the beliefs upon which they were founded.
The moment of introduction by local name is a jump, a jitter, a shaky blast of static. In South Africa, all relations are race relations, in a way more fundamental and immediate than anything I’ve ever experienced in America. Claiming an African name doesn’t magically wash away that lens. It creates a moment of confusion however, an opening in the doors of perception just wide enough to jam your foot into before they slam shut.
Ultimately, the name change affects me more than anyone else. When I first began introducing myself by a local name, it was with a wink and a nod. I’m not from here, most would say I don’t belong here, give a guy a break.
Every time that I use the name Hlulani, or respond to it, I am reasserting that I have come for more than consulting work, for more than a job in any conventional sense. No native son, but more than a long-term visitor.
When I introduce myself as Hlulani, I continue to get a laugh, a cry/grunt and a “wa hemba!” Six months later, however, my response has changed.
“I’m not lying,” I respond in Xitsonga – “a ni hembi.”
“Rintiho rin’we a ri nusi hove” [A single finger cannot grasp].
– Xitsonga proverb
Every society has its margins; even a Möbius strip has its edges. Most often the political and social margins discussed are drawn along economic lines, with the wealthy at the center and the poor falling off the rim. There are margins drawn along ethnic lines. There are the margins drawn along racial lines, an ever-raw nerve here in South Africa.
The most literal margin is among the least discussed. And yet the spatial, the geographic rural/urban divide is hugely significant.
It is also hugely visceral. About a week ago, I was taking a public taxi back to my village. One of the van’s windows was out; in its place flapped a half-taped cardboard square. As we rattled down the unpaved dirt road, dust blasted its way through the hole. Dirt caked on sweaty skin, and formed a fuzzy orange skin on shoes, clothes, and belongings. One man twisted about in his seat, trying to shield his open can of beer, with little success. With the acrid taste of dirt in your mouth, you can’t forget you’re far from city center.
Living in the margins means limited or no access to all kinds of resources. There is no semblance of a public library in my village, nor in any of the surrounding villages. The closest is in the nearest township, about 50 kilometers and a sixteen-Rand taxi ride away.
I’ve worked for the past couple of months to gather a committee to plan and create a community library, to serve residents of all ages. The committee is comprised of representatives from the local schools, the local churches, the village clinics, the tribal authorities, the municipal authorities, and other organizations.
As a first step, we are participating in Books for Peace. The program is a partnership between United States Peace Corps Volunteers serving in South Africa and the US-based nonprofit Books For Africa. This project will distribute 22,000 books to 30 schools throughout South Africa.
In order to receive books for our library, people in the village are raising 1,500 Rand, to partially cover shipping costs. In addition, I must raise another $300 before the end of June.
About fifty years ago, sitting in a Birmingham city jail, Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote:
I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states… Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.
When King wrote this, he was putting a physical pen to physical paper, decades before global markets would dive-bomb and buoy in time units observable only by a machine’s unblinking eye. Decades before a blog post could leap from a dusty rural village to any major metropolis, with nothing but a tricked-up telephone.
“Rintiho ri’new a ri nusi hove,” goes one Xitsonga proverb – a single finger cannot grasp. We in the village are working to raise money to bring a much-needed resource. We need your help, however, to reach our goal.
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