Reading

My Name

Consider the importance of African naming practices in South African poet Magoleng wa Selepe’s poem about the effects of colonialism on African identity.
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At a Glance

Reading

Language

English — US

Subject

  • English & Language Arts
  • History
  • Democracy & Civic Engagement

Names are an important part of our identities. Our names often connect us directly to our family, our culture, and our histories. In 1652, when Europeans first settled in South Africa, the land was already peopled. Colonial rule had major impacts on the ways that Africans were allowed to express their identities, including the power of naming. Laws, backed up with brutal violence, limited freedom and opportunities for black South Africans and shaped even what they were able to call themselves and what other people called them, one of the most intimate of decisions that we make about our lives. Sometimes the motivation behind this use of power and control was as brutally simple as the inability of white South Africans to pronounce the names of black South Africans.

 

The South African poet Magoleng wa Selepe captures the power of colonialism to shape people’s identities in the poem “My Name.” In the poem, you will find words and phrases in English, Xhosa (a South African language), and Afrikaans (the main language of the Dutch-settler-descended population and of the apartheid government).

 

My Name

 

Nomgqibelo Ncamisile Mnqhibisa

 

Look what they have done to my name . . .

The wonderful name of my great-great-grandmothers

Nomgqibelo Ncamisile Mnqhibisa

The burly bureaucrat was surprised.

What he heard was music to his ears

‘Wat is daai, sê nou weer?’ 1

‘I am from Chief Daluxolo Velayigodle of emaMpodweni

And my name is Nomgqibelo Ncamisile Mnqhibisa.’

 

Messia, help me! 2

My name is so simple,

And yet so meaningful,

But to this man it is trash . . .

 

He gives me a name

Convenient enough to answer his whim:

I end up being

Maria . . .

I . . .

Nomgqibelo Ncamisile Mnqhibisa 3

 

Connection Questions

 

  1. Nomgqibelo resists taking the name Maria. Why? What emotions does she reveal? What does she say about her culture and heritage, and why? Under white rule, Africans were required to have European names at school, in church, at work, and in their formal identification documents, documents they would need to carry at all times. What was the impact of taking people’s names away?
  2. Three languages are used in this poem: the narrator’s Xhosa name, the government bureaucrat’s Afrikaans, and the narrator’s replies in English. The narrator chooses not to reply in Afrikaans, because Africans saw it as the language of the hated government. What do you learn about the bureaucrat’s power as he speaks these few words? What words best capture that power? How does the Xhosa woman assert her right to her name and to be who she is? Is there a part of your identity that people ignore?
  3. Think about US history or another history you know. Which groups have lost the right to name themselves? Are there other groups today whose members feel pressure to take on new names from outside their own culture so they can fit into the dominant society?
  • 1This Afrikaans sentence can be translated into English as a curt “What is that? Say it again.
  • 2Messia is short for Messiah.
  • 3Magoleng wa Selepe, “My Name,” in Explorings: A Collection of Poems for the Young People of Southern Africa, ed. Robin Malan (Cape Town, South Africa: Clyson Printers (Pty) Ltd., 1988, 5th impression, 2004).

How to Cite This Reading

Facing History and Ourselves, “My Name,” last updated April 25, 2022. 

This reading contains text not authored by Facing History and Ourselves. See footnotes for source information.

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