Boy, who your peoples?
My first name is Rufus. It is a name that has taken me more than a decade to embrace. I prefer Marundu. I never used to. Growing up I got made fun of endlessly because of this name – manundu, marungu, maundu, matundu, to say nothing of the mispronunciations and condescension, “Ati unaitwa?! Ni jina ya wapi hiyo? Uko sure sio ‘Maundu’ ama ‘Malundu’?”
For a boy trying to navigate a confusing and unfriendly world, you can imagine I detested introducing myself and speaking my name out loud.
In my culture, the term “kurunda” means “wrestle” and my grandfather was quite the wrestler in his day. He has a name, his name, my name, that he never uses, that I use in extremely private contexts, in my mind and, to my recollection, only one friend knows it.
So, as it went, he was called “Marundu,” “the one who wrestles,” “The Wrestler.” I do not know how true this may be. Papa says, with a rakish grin, his father, my grandfather, is full of tall tales. Whatever, it makes for a good story.
I wondered why I did not have a cool name like John or Michael. I would have even taken Kamau or Otieno. When I was about ten years old, I tentatively started using Rufus. My friends and classmates never latched onto it and reverted to Marundu.
My friends and classmates never took to it and reverted to Marundu. I once lied my baptismal name was Richard (Papa’s first name). I remember where I was, with whom and what we were doing. A good friend, Karanja, and I were going home from school when I said this.
He was one of those kids: charming, laid back and social, with a hint of danger and a neat haircut, a Philly Fade. With the shape of my head and the parents I had then (they were different people – younger, energetic and idealistic, hence their often enthusiastic enforcement of mine and my sister’s discipline) I could never have pulled that look off.
Everyone liked him, and I thought by lying about my name he would like me more. He quickly forgot about this and went back to calling Marundu, Marosh (one of my aunts still calls me this), since he was that kid.
There is another name, Dodo. Only my family’s members can call me that. When I was growing up, I would get instantly enraged whenever someone I was not related to called me this.
I have a friend who used to call me that when she wanted my attention, and still does when we are together. She seems to enjoy ribbing me. I have a younger cousin who has now taken it up. Whenever someone calls him and I happen to be around, I answer loudly, much to his caller’s good-humoured annoyance.
I have a complicated relationship with my name Rufus. I do not like it or dislike it. It is a bit cumbersome to say and lacks the je ne sais quoi which makes some names roll of a tongue smoothly.
I tried re-introducing Rufus into my life when I was in Standard Six. Our class teacher, Miss Hafsa Kaley, had trouble with Marundu. She asked me if I have any other names .Yes, Rufus. It is what she used throughout the year.
She also had a problem with my handwriting. All my teachers did. She never let up on making me write better. I hated her constant policing, so I once asked my father to have a chat with her. I was doing my best in school and improving my penmanship. She backed off a bit and held no grudges, none I could perceive.
But, I also had problems with her: her caramel skin, and her hazel eyes. Her smooth face made a portrait by her tightly tied hijab. The way beneath her slightly billowing garb I could see the sway of her hips. How on some days her bust looked unusually buxom, the sardonic smile never too far away from her mouth.
The testosterone had just started raging and rage it did, a slow-burning tightly-coiled violence. During class, I could barely keep my eyes off her. I would watch her every move, pay attention to her delicate yet aggressive movements, hang onto her every word, and ride on her lilting and clipped diction.
She assisted in running the school canteen and every time I bought something, and she happened to be serving me, I would freeze, captured by her playful gaze, pulse running, breathing in her spicy perfume. I really liked her. We eventually came to an unspoken compromise: I would do my best to write more neatly and do well in her class, and she would leave me alone (not as alone as I would have wanted, but alone).
The same year one of my uncles made fun of the name Rufus. I held back the tears as he asked me sarcastically who named me. I was too shy to talk back or stand up for myself and whatever lesson he thought he was imparting was lost on me. I promptly stopped using it until high school during the customary introductions of form ones.
Uko na jina moja kama kuma?
Uko na jina mbili kama Blue Band?
Rufus Marundu Muturi.
He, the ostensible bully would then smirk in satisfaction, at what I cannot fathom, and walk away. I was more irritated by these exchanges than scared. The real bullies were quiet weed heads who spoke in whispers and never did anything in a hurry. They would sneak up on you or beckon you with a smile and a head nod, and you could almost hear your bladder’s sphincter contract.
Such was their power and the fear they inspired, and this might explain my somewhat uninformed beliefs surrounding cannabis. I hear it is not all bad. I have tried it a few times and have found it more hype than substance.
In high school, Rufus stuck. I felt disconnected from it. It was a name used for convenience. It was more like a ticket number, something to get my attention, not something with which I identified. Again, the boys I made friends with ended up calling me Marundu. By form two even my maths teacher had taken this name up.
In this way, my love for my second name was refreshed. As an impressionable teenager, it was easier to accept this name, by seeing others receive it first. Somehow, I was never made fun of because of it. I still find this odd. I expected high school to be meaner than primary. Kids can be such shits.
This trend continued to university. Rufus was the walking stick I used to navigate the world when I felt crooked, to navigate a twisted world. Marundu is the embodiment of what is good and bad within me, what is me. After university, when I started looking for a job, because all good boys who finish college have to look for jobs, using Marundu became a bit of a challenge.
However memorable a name it is, it bruised a few too many ears and tongues. For the sake of professional courtesy, I re-adopted Rufus. And, make no mistake, it was an adoption. I spent as much psychological and emotional energy agonizing over whether to pick it up again as I did writing. Re-Writing, editing and sending out application letters and CVs.
It was a decision that paid off and over time, the name Rufus has become part of my professional identity, like the ugly orange Lumia phone from the company for support I was the custodian of. In the funny way the universe works, my family now calls me Rufus.
My parents only use it when they are sarcastic. Cool peoples, them. When I introduce myself, “Hi! I’m Rufus!”, I feel like I have given you my contact card. It is not the name I pick when I want to make a profound and meaningful connection, although I have established such by using it. It is the shirt I wear to work which makes you feel at ease.
When I was submitting my passport application documents, I got into a nice chat with the lady at the counter. I had been turned back and asked to bring proof “Rufus” is one of my names. It is on my ID card but not on my birth certificate. I come from a religious home. Mum brought us up Anglican.
Even if I was given my first name when I was baptised (we all wailed inconsolably during our baptisms), I had to go for catechism classes and finally get confirmed, after which I received a confirmation certificate from the church as proof I am the holder of the name. I explained all this to the friendly lady.
She then asked me what “Rufus” means. I said I do not know, but proceeded to tell her its provenance. Remember Simon of Cyrene, the guy who helped Jesus Christ carry his cross? I am not sure he should be celebrated, considering he was pivotal to his crucifixion, but I get the feeling he is regarded highly.
He had two sons, Alexander and yours truly. She seemed thrilled, and we talked a bit more, whether my parents have been out of the country, a bit about my Mum, how she likes cookies. All this time the was a flurry of paper before her was coaxed into neatness and returned to me.
I have never used my name here before. I made this decision after reading one of Alice Walker’s responses to a lady who had written to her concerned about her reaction to the criticism the character Mister in The Colour Purple received. The woman and her husband had adopted African names despite being African-American and it got me thinking of how we, I, have an English name I use more than my African one.
The reason is a professional courtesy, as I have mentioned. But, it has more to do with inertia. How am I going to get people to call me “Marundu” organically, without convincing, like how it just happened when I was younger? The bigger question is why I would want to be called Marundu. A way to stay in touch with my roots, to cement my identity? Perhaps. Maybe I am just not very fond of Rufus.
One of the characters in a book I read ditched his given American name when he saw the light when he woke up and recognized the presence of what he calls black noise. I am not sure something as radical as changing my name would get me closer to my ancestors or my history. It is not something I have thought about deeply.
My real reason is vanity. I love the name Marundu. I love how it rolls around my mouth before tumbling out, the slight almost drum sound it makes on exit. It feels more authentic than Rufus. We do not care about first names, which are often English, in my family. Some of my cousins do not even have theirs on their ID cards. Some of them out and out refused their English names. My feelings towards mine could be an expression of this implicit conditioning.
So, what about my name? What is in a name? What is in my name? It is everything, and it is nothing. It does not capture the person I am and never will; it cannot carry my struggles, my stories, my fears and hates and longings and dreams and realities. But, it is here, with me, I have it. Nothing more, nothing less.