There are various sides to this; things that can confuse us in the western world. Let’s try to bring a little light to it all.
First of all – the family name (the surname) as we know it in Europe is not part of African tradition. Children have a given name, often Christian or Muslim. Far more important though is the clan name, and there are more than 50 clans within the Buganda kingdom. Sponsors will have noted that on the school reports this appears ahead of the western-style name.
What we find strange for instance is that two sisters may have totally different names. A clan is like an extended family, but even so this name is also a given one, traditionally chosen by the child’s paternal grandfather. The name might also have specific family importance. For example the name Babirye can signify that the child is a twin and Kizza suggests a child born after twins. KIbuuka is a brave warrior. It is rare for people within a clan to intermarry.
A clue to gender can be seen in the first few letters of the name. If it starts with the two letters “Na”, you can be sure that she is a girl. The equivalent for a boy is “Se”.
That is the formal side – but there is another aspect that often puzzles our sponsors.
You may find that the name of your child is different this year from last year. This is often simply a matter of pronunciation, especially when it comes from the oral tradition. The sound of the name can dictate the spelling and it gets varied as the child grows. Sometimes it is a matter of preference. Names can be a moveable feast in Uganda. So Phoebe can be Feibe; Sharon becomes Shalon; and so on. In fact in Bantu languages, of which Luganda is one, the letters “l” and “r” are often interchangeable.
We understand, and often joke about, this identical situation among our Chinese friends. If you do not hear the difference, you will write it as you hear it. When we lived in Zambia, a neighbouring town was Mufulira – even on the radio, the “l” “r” question meant that we heard it pronounced in at least four different ways. Later, when we lived in northern Uganda, we were among people who did not always hear the difference between “p” and “f”. Our own children learned to count: one, two, pee, pour, pive!
There also seems to be a trend among the youngsters themselves, as they get older, to change their own names – to something they find more “in” or “with it”. We receive school reports for students we don’t seem to know! The same child; a different name.
Tubagaliza omwaka omuja ogwemirembe.
Happy New Year