Family names and husbands’ names are western influences for Abarundi. Or did I get that wrong?

Wasn’t it that before colonialism, before Christianity, a person only had one izina ry’ikirundi and that was it? People were called Nyandwi or Zaninka. If Nyandwi were a child he would probably be referred to wa mwana wo kwa *insert father’s name* or even as umwuzukuru wa *insert grandfather’s name*. If Zaninka were somebody’s wife she would be Muka *insert husband’s name*. But their actual name would just be that one given Kirundi name; giving rise to the infamous “Uri uwo kwande?” question we love to hate.

Then we got converted, and the priests didn’t think names like Nsengiyumva (I pray to a God who hears) were Christian enough …. So people were given Jean aka Yohani or Marie aka Mariya as first names added to their often super-Christian given last names. Yet, they even gave family names as a condition to baptize a child in certain parishes.

Did I get the history wrong here? Or is that kind of what happened?

In any case, why do I hear some of my fellow countrymen-and women- say it is feminist to want to keep my last name or that I would rather my children have given Kirundi last names (if their father is Burundian or Rwandese) then their father’s last name. Why do many object when I say si umuco wacu!

Don’t get me wrong, I know some people have father’s last names as their last names and I respect those family choices. Anyone that knows me knows I am not an extreme traditionalist, but don’t look at me like I am some feminist revolutionary weirdo when I just want to keep things as they are in my culture – name wise at least. I mean it is our culture right? Like really, if your name is Gahungu or Sebageni do you really think that name was meant to be given to your daughters? Am I the only one who thinks a girl called Gahungu or Sebageni is totally off? I mean if you want to stay close at least call that child Mugeni or something!

My point is not to rant out Burundians that have family names. By the way, if I may point out, if you don’t have the same name as all your cousins, it’s not a family name!

But to remind those who forgot that given last names are a little thing we have, that is ours, and that I find amazingly awesome! I mean isn’t it great?  That my name has a meaning, that is chosen for me, that it is in my language, that it might mean what my parents (or whoever else chose it) wished – or did not wish – me to become. Many names are a testimony of the generation, the era and sometimes the things our family is going through at the time when we are born. The names sometimes reflect if we are male – Mugabo – or female – Keza – or if we are twins – Bukuru na Butoyi – or the 7thNyandwi – or 10thBucumi – born in the family. I also love how it gives me value as an individual.

From meeting people from across the World, their names often carry their ethnic, tribal, regional, religious background, even their caste in societies that have them. I mean, even hundreds of years after the US first colonies, you can often still tell a person’s background (except for African Americans, where you could maybe tell the background of the owners of their ancestors) just by their last name. 200 years after the French revolution, you can tell who is of aristocratic descent. In India, I heard you could tell a person’s region, religion and caste just by their last name. For us you can just tell that the person is Burundian. Grant it, we have names in common with some of our neighbors, but that is it.  I love how our names do not lock us in the shackles of the past but often give us wings for the future like Terimbere or Komera, or even just Ndanga.

By definition, cultures change; I really hope we will be able to keep giving last names in our culture for long, because it really sets us apart, in a good way…

Yours truly,

(Photo by Arnaud Gwaga Mugisha)

MRG lives and studies in Toronto, Canada