27 June 2012

Guest Post: This Too Shall Pass (or) UNFAIR and STUPID

I've known Andrew Jenner since 9th grade when he first re-landed in the U.S. after an eight-year stint in Kenya.  He was fascinating then and now.  Lucky for Mama Congo, he's also a real writer.  

Here a little something fancy for your Wednesday.  Thanks, Andrew!

According to family lore, my parents were going to name me Adam until a second cousin of mine was born a few months before me and his parents stole the name. I then almost became Christopher, and I’m told my dad was partial to some of the B-list O.T. names like Noah and Ezekiel.

But in the end, they settled on Andrew. And so I happily began my life, sharing a first name with the patron saint of Russia, Scotland, throat ailments and fish mongers, not one but two relatively obscure U.S. presidents and an enormous number of other American males born during the late Cold War era.

For the first couple years, my name presented me with no real challenges or heartache. Then my parents moved to Kenya in 1989. Andrew, it turns out, causes non-native English speakers enormous difficulty, both with its lead-off aggressive American “AEH” and the tricky “dr” bit that comes off more as a “jr” in U.S. English. A couple of the more common Kenyan attempts:

• “EN-jel”
• “AHN-duhr”
• “AYN-jew”
• “AHN-too-roo” (about the closest they ever really got)

I don’t really hold it against Kenyans, either. I certainly inflicted a great deal of violence on Swahili grammar, syntax & pronunciation during the seven or eight years I lived there, and they were nothing if not gracious and kind as they went about butchering my name.

The issue arose, though, in the Kenyan custom of referring to mothers as “Mama X,” X being the name of her firstborn child (or maybe son; honestly, I don’t remember, and it’s not like all those neat & wonderful “cultural traditions” that we sort of expect from quaint, poverty-stricken societies are really ironclad anyway, and regardless, I was both firstborn and a son). Janice Jenner should have been Mama Andrew, but the Kenyans just couldn’t swing it.

They could, however, nail my sister’s name: Hope. They could easily, on the first try, every time, hit it out of the park. Hope: one syllable with a nice long Swahili “o” and two straightforward consonants. And so, Janice Jenner – who, as I believe I may have already mentioned, was supposed to have been Mama Andrew – took the nom de mère Mama Hope.

To an eight-year-old boy, this came as a grievous, wretched injustice. My younger, hair-pulling sister gets all the glory just because my name is hard to say? It was a seriously UNFAIR and STUPID situation. When I brought my perspective on the matter to the attention of Mama Hope, she just kind of smiled and said something trite about life not always being fair. Which was doubly UNFAIR and STUPID because Mama Hope was the one that gave me my STUPID name in the first place and then showed no remorse or sympathy or anything. Do you remember the book Alexander and the Terrible,Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day? At least he wasn’t stuck with a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad name FOR LIFE.

I don’t remember much else about how this played out. I may well have gotten a little too mouthy about it a time or two, and ended up being unfairly sent to my room by Mama Hope. Sister Hope may well have goaded me about it, causing me to hit her or pull her hair, and then get unfairly sent to my room yet again. But then I got a little older, and the grievous, wretched injustice of the Mama Hope situation became a little less grievous and wretched. Kenyans never really got my name straight, but this became less and less of a bitter pill, until eventually, the experience coalesced and settled in my mind as a lesson about how extremely shitty life circumstances sometimes arise, and how sometimes they are unfair and stupid, and how making an issue of this inherent and immutable unfairness is usually counterproductive, and how sometimes, you just need to give things some time.

Andrew totes Elias around during a Virginia summer dusk walk.  Photo by Jill Humphrey

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