For the earlier parts of my life I had two identities, two names.
The first was ‘Mish’, which is what my family called me. It was…familiar. My parents called me this. My siblings called me this. A large number of our numerous relatives called me this. Every house help that we had called me this. Mish was a girl. An ordinary girl. She liked to eat sausages and ice cream. No, not together. She enjoyed going to town with her family on Saturday mornings when her parents had errands to run. She complained and moped when, after those errands, they would pass by Kenchic on their way home and in response to requests for chips and chicken, her mother would say ‘Kuna ugali kwa nyumba’. She loved watching TV. She made up games with her younger brother and sometimes- many times- fought with him. Mostly over the remote. And who got the bigger half when they had to split a queencake. An ordinary girl.
Then there was Michelle. Not just Michelle but Michelle Korir. Now she was a whole other story. I was Michelle Korir in school. Nobody seemed to want to use just the first name. No, the two went together. Michelle Korir was that girl. The serious-faced one who didn’t burst into laughter along with the rest of the class when somebody was accused of farting in class. She was the girl who got all her spellings right, and stared at you with a cocktail of disappointment, frustration and horror swimming in her eyes when you didn’t. The teachers’ pet. She didn’t sign up for the role; some things just come your way. The education system favored girls like Michelle Korir- the ones who could memorize stuff and reproduce it on an exam paper. The ones who could be trotted out as exhibit A when it was time to remind the girl child that maths and science are not for boys.
Two identities. And for the first few years they remained.
For some reason, I did not really know what my second name was until I was 9 years old. In Class Three I decided I needed a makeover and started going by Michelle Chepchumba. I decided I liked it better that way-it was more difficult to say and it filled more space on my exam papers. It didn’t quite catch on in school. People got to know it, but it appeared that Michelle Korir was a brand that everybody but me was happy with.
My name wasn’t a big deal to me. I liked it because I thought it was pretty. I was grateful that I wasn’t burdened with a name like Phelgona. And Michelles weren’t that many anyway. So I kind of felt the way I imagine people like my classmate called Tanisha must feel…knowing that their names are something quite special, pretty, unique.
“Hi…My name is MaryAnne. We’re in the same class…?”
“Oh, hi. Yeah, we are. Kuloba’s class, right?”
“Yeah, that one. And you are?”
“What?” Eyes widen in surprise. Maybe they even hesitate in their step.
“Tanisha. My name is Tanisha.”
Nnn. Tanisha. With an N.”
“…” They look a bit lost. They have never heard anything like it. Especially if they are umm…ahead in their years. The ones who grew up with friends called Jane, Mary, Sarah, Rhoda, Salome…They don’t know what to make of it. It sounds so…exotic. Like the women in African American movies with names like Shaniqua or LaShona. Always with a sh somewhere.
So you decide to spell it out. “T-A-N-I-S-H-A”
“Oooooooh. Tanisha. That’s such a pretty name! What does it mean?”
“Uh…I don’t know really.”
“Oh. I’m sure it must mean something though. So pretty. And I was the lucky one who got MaryAnne.”
Under your breath you mutter, “Yeah, you are,” feeling smug as hell. But you are a decent human so you say, “MaryAnne is pretty too.”
“Yeah right. Would you exchange Tanisha for Maryanne?”
“See. Didn’t think so.”
‘Michelle’ was okay when we were younger. Here in Kenya it could make the list when pretty names were being mentioned. But it wasn’t much more than a name. It was just something they called me. Something my mother could yell out when she wanted her handbag from her bedroom upstairs but she didn’t want to get up. I was very particular about the spelling though, and would get pretty riled up when somebody decided they didn’t want to go through the trouble of writing the ‘l-l-e’. Because though I couldn’t be bothered to find out what it meant, it was mine. So spell it right or not at all.
Of course it rubbed many people the wrong way when I insisted that ‘Michele’, or ‘Mitchelle’ was not my name. But why? It wasn’t. It still isn’t. There was this time Caroline Mutoko was answering questions that people had about her on her YouTube Channel and one of them was ‘Why can’t I call you Caro?’ And I thought, “Why the hell would you even want to do that?” and when she said that it’s because that’s not her name, I said, “Exactly,” and a bunch of people went on to use it to confirm their opinions that she was snobbish and proud. We don’t give much thought to our names, do we? For most people, for the most part, they are simply tags. Our first form of identification in a world that is more interested in groups than individuals. It’s not that we think them inconsequential; they just are what they are:Names.
Some people are named following cultural traditions and some after people in the bible, because at some point that was almost a guarantee that your daughter Deborah would most definitely grow up to be just as brave and wise and generally as admirable as the warrior judge of the Old Testament. And some are named according to their parents’ fancy. I had a friend in high school who, by Form 4, had worked out a list of all the eleven children she had decided she was going to have. That’s right, eleven. In this economy. And one of them was to be named Hyacinth. Hyacinth. Like you, I wanted to ask, why Hyacinth? But I couldn’t, because I was a Form One and she was a Form Four, and you have no idea how good it was for your self esteem to be friends with a Form Four. Your classmates would peep at you through the classroom windows, watching you walk with a Form Four on the corridor and they would whisper among themselves. And later at prep time they would ask you questions about the Form Four with a certain admiration in their eyes and in their tone, and you could tell that they wish they were friends with the Form Four too. What, in Form One just about everything is awe-inspiring and fascinating. I was not willing to give up that kind of ‘street cred’ over a weed so I just remarked on the loveliness and creativity of the list.I did not voice my concerns over the possibility of that child growing up feeling like a weed; being made fun of in school and wondering whether it was because, like hyacinth on Lake Victoria, she was an infestation, unwanted, and like the plant, they were trying to rid themselves of her and getting frustrated at their failing efforts. I did not ask whether she settled on the name because she thought hyacinth was a beautiful plant, or because the word hyacinth rolled off the tongue quite nicely. I also kept to myself how disturbing the idea of having eleven children was to me.
The point is, shouldn’t our names mean something to us? If a rose by any other name would smell just as sweet, would I still be who I am if I were a Risper or a Crystal? I’m not saying that we should all have names like Patience and Blessing and thereafter try to cultivate those very values in ourselves as much as we possibly can… just, when you see your name, shouldn’t you feel something? Empowered in some way? Shouldn’t we be excited about the idea of making our names a brand? Allowing people to see who we are just from hearing our names? What if we don’t need new names, but just need to take the ones we have a bit more seriously? I mean, what would you want people to think or feel when they hear your name?
Now when I hear the name Michelle, other than feeling resentful after turning and finding out that it was another Michelle whose attention was wanted, I don’t think of it as just another decent name. There are so many of us after all. When I hear my name I think: strong femininity. Girl power. A soft kind of authority. I’ll admit that the outgoing First Lady of the United States is part of the reason why. The other part is that my mother once bought us all cups that had our names on them, as well as brief histories and (supposed) meanings, and mine had something to do with the word power. But that’s not important right now. Michelle Obama gave so much more meaning to my name for me. The name now holds me up to a kind of standard in some weird way. And I’ve embraced it fully as a deep and legitimate part of who I am.
I mean what’s not to love?
The woman is a perfect mix of warmth and reserve. Warm enough to make you feel like you matter, but distant enough from you to make sure you do not forget just who she is. She is elegant and graceful; just a few good steps from stately. She is not stiff; her nose is not in the air. It’s rather hard to be stately when you have so much warmth, I think. When she walks, it is neither a strut nor a swagger, but it is a confident walk nonetheless (do women swagger?). The type done by women who are sure of themselves and are not as bothered as the rest of us about cellulite and uneven skin tones. Women who seem to be fast approaching self-actualization when the rest of us are awkwardly clambering up the lower levels of the Maslow pyramid. Compassion and strength glide on the waves of her voice and you know that you’re not listening to some average-type chick. And my God she is lovely. With the mahogany skin all dark and rich and shimmering. It may well be make-up, but even so I daresay the impression management is working quite well. Michelle Obama is the type of female that makes the words ‘woman’ and ‘lady’ mean the same thing. And I admire her for it.
The woman added layers to the meaning of my name for me like I never thought could exist. She made me feel like I had to live up to it. That I could no longer think of it as just another name, as just another label or tag.
So I hold on to my name. I value it and immediately have a heightened sense of respect for anyone I meet who goes by it too. In my own quiet and personal way I have slowly began to develop a brand around my name. ‘Michelle Chepchumba’ has got to mean something, if to no one else then at least to me. She needs to be someone that I can respect. Someone that I would like to meet and get to know. And who knows, maybe it will finally catch on and I will have that third identity.