What’s in a Name
My name means rain. That shit that falls outside and threatens Nairobi, clogging its roads with vehicles, driving mud into any place you want to step upon, allowing men to be vulnerable enough to share an umbrella. Rain fell all night long when I was born. In the morning, when it was still drizzling, my grandmother came to Memorial Hospital, Eldoret from Sergoit, ever so glad to have met “the belly of her belly.” My grandmother had strove to live as long as she did, just to meet me and rub millet over my forehead, saying that my name would be Tirop. It was raining so hard that my mother heard Kiprop instead, and that is what she wrote on my birth certificate.
My mother, and all of my people, say my name the proper way — the Ki is soft and surprising, like the patter of rain as it begins in the west, deceiving humans that it is just the rush of the wind, the P that follows is even softer, like the lull before a downpour, the Rop is glottal, burst out from the abyssal depths of the throat, coming out like the sudden clash of lightening. When my mother says my name it is with a verve and rhythm in harmony with Elgeyo Marakwet, with its history of our lineage, with its stories of discomfort. When she says my name, I know I belong to a people, to a place, to a tribe. This is only when she says it softly though. In my childhood, she would shout my name and the sound would graze my skin.
“Kiprop, take care of the cows so that they don’t enter the farm?”
“Kiprop, where did you put the pliers?”
“Kiprop, why did you not shut the windows and you know mosquitoes will get in?”
“Kiprop, why are you quiet like that?”
“Kiprop, you cannot bring the visitor bread just like that. Ensure that it is placed on a plate. And put some jam on it.”
“Kiprop, stop smiling like a chepsoya.”
All these statements, without a doubt, sound absolutely terrifying when said, and shouted, in Kalenjin.
Adulthood has robbed me of the privilege of having my name called out aloud. Also, even when uttered softly, it is never with the softness of my childhood. It is with a new found respect, which says I am now a man, a man with a long, luscious beard and who owns his life. Though this is an oxymoron. Culturally, I would have had to let go of the name Kiprop. It is a childhood name. A name that one drops as soon as they stop drinking their mother’s porridge and go for initiation. A hundred years ago, I would simply be known as Arap mutai, or BarDoonholm, BarHurlingham, BarParklands, that is if I chose to raid cows from Doonholm, Hurlingham and Parklands respectively. The fact that I now retain a name inscribed to my identity from childhood means that I get to keep my childhood with me. I get to imagine just as I did as a child, now by typing away on Microsoft Word, then by lying on the grass, staring at ant hills, imagining them as the ancient kingdoms of Mali, Songhai and Benin.
Adulthood has stripped me of other names. There was Dodo and Mod. Dodo, I believe, stuck all the way to my university years and was used by my sisters. It was always said with emphasis and with concern, in instances where I had been cheeky. Dodo was said with the D’s hard, with the stress on each syllable. “Aki Dodo you didn’t take for me clothes from the line and now it has rained!” “Aki Dodo why did you tell Mama that I hang out with Caroline after church!” “Aki Dodo how can you say that!” “Aki Dodo at times your heart is so dirty!” Mod petered out by the time I was five. It had more power. I used it when I put my foot down and refused to listen to authority, such as being told not to touch wet paint, or dashing home each time the nursery school teacher dared to leave the classroom door open. I would actually stomp on the ground, my hands in a flurry of despair, declaring “Mod, Mod every day! Mod, Mod everything! You people leave me alone. I am a human being.”
I did try to hold onto Mod. I would watch a German detective series called Derrick through our black-and-white television, the series being run by our sole television network provider, KBC (Kenya Broadcasting Corporation). Derrick would begin with a scene of a pleasant-looking, perfectly-manicured and surgically-clean suburb, somewhere in Germany. Then the camera would go inside a fabulous house, where most often than not, a man and a woman would be kissing after drinking champagne. It was during the love-making that one would kill the other. Or a mysterious gun would appear in the doorway and kill them both. Though at times the show would begin with a man riding a horse through the woods. Or with a woman singing an opera piece so well, drawing tears from an audience who only put on long, luxurious gowns and tuxedos. The death of the loved one (there was always a murder) would be reported to the family. Surprisingly, the family would not wail and scream like they would in Iten. Instead the camera would focus on their eyes, showing us how the grief was quietly sinking in, reaching its crescendo through a single fallen tear on the left eye.
Stephan Derrick would drive to the murder scene in a sleek BMW, step out in his traditional tweed jacket or a pea coat of some non-decrepit color, his soft eyes looking bored. I admired how Derrick was taller than everyone. I admired how he intruded people’s lives with the most personal of questions, without licking his fat lips in anxiety, without the parabolas below his eyes quavering. I wanted his audacity, so I quietly and deliberately named myself Moddy Derrick. My siblings laughed off the idea and left me in a reduced state of reality.
There is a name that every Kalenjin child is given, which would have been their other self, if they were not named Kiprop for example. For me that name was Cheruiyot. Named so because I was born at night when everyone else was asleep. I would often wonder how my life would have been if Cheruiyot was registered on my birth certificate as opposed to Kiprop. I imagined another me that was more buff and quick with the tongue, who could somersault in the sand and kick football so high that everyone in school would look at me in wonder. Cheruiyot was Kiprop without his inadequacies. Cheruiyot talked where Kiprop was selectively mute. Cheruiyot had many friends while Kiprop, when asked by his class five teacher to write a composition about his best friend, simply wrote one line. I have no friend. Cheruiyot knew how to drive a tractor and clear his throat so as to spit out in the distance. Cheruiyot was brave enough to drink busaa for lunch and walk back to school. Cheruiyot would piss on the school fence without care that girls could see him. Cheruiyot could slither up the school pole to free a Kenyan flag vanquished by the wind.
The name that would make me think of the past was Maritim, given to me because I was born just five months after the death of my paternal grandfather. His brothers came with his tobacco pouch, held some of his tobacco to my nose till I sneezed, then said that their brother had not stayed too long in the spirit world, but had come back through me. My grandfather, Arap Abei, never took a single photograph in his life. The only memory that was preserved of him was his large coat which was made of some material as hard as tarpaulin. It had never been washed and smelt of him. I would take it out when the sun was high and lie on it, thinking of him as this man who lived in the shadows, who ran free and wild with hyenas as dead people were wont to do, but who would once in a while come back and lie on his coat, next to me.
The name that never felt fully me was Timothy. It is the name that is on my passport, my birth certificate, my academic records. It is the name that shows up whenever you M-pesa me money. Try it. The distant between me and the name is not because it is of an English origin. But it is simply because no one who has ever truly loved me has called me that name. It seems a name placed as a wall between me and the world, a name for some necessary formality. A name for the cashier at the bank, the teller stamping my passport when I travel. A name that spills none of my secrets.