I was born Muyembe Sophie Tahila Mwanza in Mufulira, Zambia.
I remember the first time I came to the UK and introduced myself. The first reactions I was met with were giggles and the now-familiar request to repeat my name. It didn’t bother me when I was a child (or so I thought) apart from embarrassment, but the more I grew older, the more aware I became of the implications of such things.
I often felt ashamed of the name I had, and I questioned it. I had no pride in the history that came with my name. I still tried to teach those around me, but it got up to the point that I’d physically dread my name being read out in class or at the pharmacy. I started becoming used to the question, “Is there an easier name I can use?” among others. Every mispronunciation brought laughter. In one situation, the teacher stopped trying and only looked at me from across the room to register my presence.
I felt irrelevant. It was the stripping away of my identity—of what makes me who I am. It was the equivalent of being told that I was not worthy because of something beyond my control. It was the degradation of everything I believed made me unique and beautiful. It was someone else deciding the worth of me.
A part of me refused to blame those around me for not being able to pronounce my name; after all, it was my name that was causing the difficulty. I had gotten too good at burying my feelings, and so I carried on as if it didn’t matter. I made sure I would make the change. I took on my nickname, which was Mumu.
I changed my identity—the one thing that makes me who I am. It wasn’t until I was older and started a new job that my belief was challenged.
I introduced myself as Muyembe, but as always, I said, call me Mumu. My boss, who was white, refused to call me that. He strived to learn a name that he wasn’t used to, and the only reason he gave me was that Muyembe was my real name.
He was right. Mumu was not my name, it was a nickname given to me by an auntie, and I took it on as it was easier for people to pronounce. It’s a nickname that is rarely used by my parents.
Now, of course, I can understand language barriers and cultural differences, and it’s also partly my fault. My thinking was I didn’t want to make someone uncomfortable if they were struggling to pronounce my name. So I was fine changing it to make sure other people were comfortable.
As I grew older, I started to recognize the importance of my name. I questioned how if I could make a conscious decision to learn names that were not native to me, why couldn’t others around me do the same? The name “Muyembe” means a lot to me. It is my name. It is my history. It’s a reminder that no matter where I go, I remember where I come from. While I understand for some it can be difficult, unfamiliarity shouldn’t justify ignorance.
I remember moving to Wales and being a stranger to its history, culture, and names. But I strived to learn about the new place that I would come to call home. Yet when I asked for the same, it was only given to me by the few.
Hundreds of years ago, that is exactly what they did. They broke people like us down through the changing and disregarding of our cultural and ancestral names. Such acts are the stripping away of identity, and it might not even register with us until it is too late.
It’s an unconscious bias: the refusal to give me what should not be a privilege but a right.