The African name game

What's in a name? If you're Bill Clinton's family and friends, a whole lot of other names.

Last month, trying to make sense of the legal situation of Bill's sister Neema, who's separated from her family in Tanzania, I sat down with his mom Dawami and her friend Minnick Lenge. As we waded through old paperwork, I asked about discrepancies in Neema's name.

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What's in a name? If you're Bill Clinton's family and friends, a whole lot of other names.

Last month, trying to make sense of the legal situation of Bill's sister Neema, who's separated from her family in Tanzania, I sat down with his mom Dawami and her friend Minnick Lenge. As we waded through old paperwork, I asked about discrepancies in Neema's name.

This, it turns out, is a can of worms. According to her mom, the 20-year-old can be known as any combination of Gorethi, Helen, Neema, and John - or "MamaBriton," in reference to her motherhood. Her birth certificate, and the United Nations refugee agency, know her as Gorethi John. Dawami gave her daughter the name Helen, but thinks of her as Neema.

I was drawing diagrams of this in my notebook when Minnick said, "That's nothing. My father had seven names: Mwami Lenge Rugaza Kabale Rampat Romain Ghislain III." (The III, it turns out, is decorative.)

"You go to Africa, all people have like this," Minnick says. A child starts out with two or three names, she explains, then friends and relatives come along with nicknames, and kids are baptized. Suddenly, you can find yourself with a whole string of them. Her name, she says, has stretched to Minamo Minnick Lenge Henriette Esperance Nanzigama.

Dawami's is just as long; and every family member, it seems, had a say in it: Dawami (given by her sister) Donata (chosen by her mom) Mukasafari (given by her dad) Lenguyanga (her dad's first name) John (his main last name) Biro (another name he liked). Minnick calls her simply MamaBilly.

"And Bill Clinton?" I asked. Not him, Dawami said. In her husband's Congolese tradition, a firstborn son is his father's to name. Her husband didn't embellish much on the US president: just added Hadam, or Adam, on the theme of famous guys with lady troubles.

The greatest surprise of the afternoon came when I asked Dawami what her husband Hassan's other names were.

"I don't know," she said. To friends she calls him by his last name, Mwanasumpikwa (son of Sumpikwa). To his face she calls him Bwana (she translates it as "husband," but according to "Lonely Planet Swhaili," it means "mister" or "sir.") [Editor's note: In the original version the definition was not clarified with "Lonely Planet's" translation.]

"Wait, you've been married to him for 12 years and you don't know his full name?" I asked.

Minnick jumped to her friend's defense; she didn't know her husband Felix Mulamba's litany of names either. It was no big deal, she said: Two was plenty.

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