An honorific is a term that prefixes or suffixes a person’s name and shows honor and respect when addressing that person. Most, if not all, of the honorifics we use formally today were inherited from the west. However, in our African culture, we had our own honorifics which are still in use today.
I traveled to the USA sometime late last year before corona virus disrupted global travel. My travel was business related and I had scheduled several business meetings in different cities and with different groups of people. The company had assigned me a chaperone to help me get around easily as it was the first time I was visiting the USA. My chaperone’s name was Alyssa, a very friendly and motherly lady who went out of her way to make my stay very pleasant.
One of the meetings was with six successful business women who were keen on donating towards assisting women get proper business training and mentoring young and upcoming business women in Kenya. The objective of our meeting was for me to sensitize them on the business environment in Kenya, women’s involvement in the business sector and what policies were in place to make it easier for women to go into business.
We arrived for the meeting and I was glad to find that it was in a relaxed setting, on the front lawn of one of the lady’s homes and not in some stuffy boardroom. The women were not alone as their spouses and some of their children and grand children were in their company. It was more like a family get-together than a business meeting.
The setting and audience gave me pause. For those of you who engage in public speaking, you know that you have to research your audience including the number of people, their age range, their education levels and their interest and expertise in the subject. This allows you to package your message accordingly and to anticipate the questions that they may ask.
In this case, I found myself completely thrown off by my audience. I had only researched on the six business icons and barely glanced at their family backgrounds. Now I was facing an audience of around sixteen people of both genders, ranging in age from two to seventy-two years and with extremely varied levels of understanding. I took in a deep breath and looked at Alyssa as if hoping that she could save me from this one. Alyssa, however, was a people-person and was excited to find herself among a small crowd.
Our hosts had arranged lawn chairs in a circle with two seats reserved for Alyssa and myself and the rest of the seats occupied by the adults and older teenagers in the group. The younger children were running around and playing games, obviously disinterested in the world of women in business.
After a few words of welcome from Mrs Emma Mason, the leader of the group of business women, Alyssa rose to introduce me and the topic I would be discussing. I barely heard what Alyssa said in introduction for my mind was busy working, finding ways to repackage my message in order to be more engaging to my audience. Furthermore, I had heard her reciting my bio over and over again in all the previous meetings we had attended. I only caught the last part of her introduction as she was saying, “Ladies and gentlemen, I welcome Didi Wamukoya to speak to you.”
“Thank you Alyssa and Emma,” I said, nodding towards the two appreciatively.
In my short visit to the USA, I had come to learn that the people were very informal and not interested in honorifics. They preferred me to call them by their first names. I therefore kept reminding myself to drop all honorifics and refer to everybody by their first names, something that did not come naturally to me because of my culture. For example, back home, I would have referred to the older women in the group as Mrs so and so or, if I knew their children as mama so and so. Failing all else, I would refer to them simply as “aunty.” Same goes with the men. They would be Mr so and so or baba so and so or uncle.
“Excuse me, Mrs Wamukoya,” Emma said, “Before you begin your talk, we would really like to hear about your background. Not your professional background, as Alyssa has already covered that in her introduction, but your personal life. Who are you? Where do you come from? What makes you tick? You, know. That sort of thing.”
The others in the group nodded and I felt nervous. This was a nice trick to get to know someone, especially if you were going to donate your time and money towards their cause. Do not give the person a chance to dust up their story and give you a nicely touched up account of themselves. I had been caught flat-footed and my only option was to be real.
I smiled, to hide my lack of preparedness and said, “Well, you can’t know one’s true identity without knowing their name. As Alyssa mentioned, my name is Didi Wamukoya.”
Everyone was nodding as one of the younger women in the group asked, “Do you prefer using your first name or your last. For example, would it offend you if I called you Didi and yet we have just met, or would you prefer being called Mrs Wamukoya?”
“I don’t really mind if you refer to me by my first name or last,” I said. “They are both my names. However, if you choose to call me by my last name, I would prefer that you drop the honorific ‘Mrs’.”
“Why?” the lady asked and everybody sort of leaned forward to listen to my response.
“Exactly,” one the men seated next to the lady asked. “Why wouldn’t you want people to know your marital status?”
I had to laugh out loud as I responded, “It is not that I don’t want people to know my marital status, it is just that Wamukoya is my father’s name. It is therefore odd to refer to me as Mrs Wamukoya.”
“I should take the blame for that mistake,” Emma said laughing. “Alyssa did not use any honorific before your name but when she mentioned in your bio that you are a family woman, I automatically assumed that you were married.”
“That was very rude of you Emma,” one of the other ladies admonished. “You know that there are very many different kind of families these days, including single parent families and so on. A family person does not automatically mean that you are married.”
“I sincerely apologize,” Emma said again.
“No need to apologize,” I said. “I am actually married and so you were accurate in making that assumption.’
“You see,” Emma said, laughing and winking at her friend triumphantly. “Sorry for prying but why don’t you use your husband’s name. I am sure we are not the first people to make the mistake of referring to you as Mrs Wamukoya.”
“It has happened before,” I said. “I actually do use my husband’s name but it is not part of my official government names.”
“You did not change your name after marriage?” a young lady asked. “Why not?”
“Your questions are coming hard and fast,” I said. “Let me step back and explain the honorifics of our culture since you are all so curious. We do use honorifics before our names in African culture but they are not like the English ones. For example, I come from a community known as the Luhya in Western Kenya. In our community, one traditionally never dropped their father’s name upon marriage. Why would you drop it unless you have disgraced him or he has disowned you? We used to retain and still do retain our fathers’ names because we acknowledge that they are and will be our fathers for the rest of our lives.”
“Amen to that,” one of the older men said and raised his glass of juice in a silent toast.
We all laughed and I continued explaining, “You will find that in our culture, the honorific used is in reference the person you are being attributed to. In fact, the honorific is not used in relation to your name but in relation to the referent’s name. For example, in my case, it is okay to use the honorific ‘Omwana wa’ meaning child of when the referent is my father. I am therefore ‘Omwana wa Wamukoya.’”
“Interesting,” Emma said turning to the young lady who had asked me a question earlier. “I will refer to you as Omwana wa Mason from now on.”
We all laughed again and I continued, “Most of the elders in my village will refer to me as Omwana wa Wamukoya or simply by my given name, Didi.”
“This is great to know,” one of the ladies said.
“There is a different honorific used when the referent is one’s husband,” I continued explaining. “The honorific used is ‘Mkha’ meaning wife of. I am therefore ‘Mkha Sifuna’. In my husband’s village, most of the elders and even my husband’s age mates may refer to me as Mkha Sifuna or by my given name. Those elders from my husband’s village who happen to know my parents and have had a relationship with them may continue referring to me as Omwana wa Wamukoya.”
“Okay,” said one of the older gentlemen nodding and turning to Emma. “Could you pass me the jug of fruit punch Mkha Mason?”
There was laughter all round as I continued speaking, “Another honorific used is ‘Mama’ or ‘Nyina’ meaning mother of. Of course in this case, the referent is one’s child. In my case, I am Mama Kay or Nyina Kay. Most of Kay’s age mates will refer to me as Mama Kay to show respect. It is thought of as rude to refer to people who are older than you by their given names. Kay’s friends would therefore never call me by my name Didi. Elders in the village may also refer to me as Mama Kay. There is actually no hard and fast rule about how an elder may refer to you. They just flow with which referent they prefer to use at the time, be it you father, husband or child.”
“What about a man who is a father?” one of the older men asked. “My son’s name is Ethan. How would you refer to me in reference to him?
“I would refer to you as Baba Ethan or Samwana Ethan,” I said.
“Baba Ethan is easier for me to remember,” he said.
“The honorific Samwana actually is a fusion of two words,” I explained. “The word ‘So’ meaning father and ‘Omwana’ meaning child. Therefore, when I say Samwana Ethan, it is actually short for ‘Father of the Child Ethan’.”
“I love this,” Emma said. “We are learning a new language.”
“What would you call me in reference to my wife?” Mr Mason asked. “What is the word for husband of?”
“I have never heard a man been being called in reference to his wife,” I said laughing. “We are a very patriarchal society, hence the reference to father or husband. I must be fair and say that it is perfectly okay in our culture for people to be referred to in reference to their mothers. This is especially so where the father of the child in question is polygamous and the speaker wants to be specific as to which of the man’s wives bore the child.”
“Hmm,” One of the younger men said. “Polygamy. That is something I should consider.”
“Don’t even think about it,” a young woman, who I presumed was his wife, admonished.
I laughed and continued, “In addition to honorifics using your father, mother, husband or child as a referent, we have an honorific known as ‘Inono’.”
“What is that?” Emma asked, curious.
“Inono, is the name used to indicate the clan to which a woman belongs by birth,” I said. “It is usually a term of honor, respect and endearment and anybody may refer to you by your Inono. Your Inono becomes one of your names. Even my own mother sometimes refers to me by my Inono.”
“Give us some examples of this Inono,” Alyssa said.
“Sure,” I said. “I come from the Abashitsetse clan and my Inono is Bwibo. Bwibo means princess, because the Abashitsetse clan are the Nabongos, or kings, of the Wanga people.”
“Wow,” Emma said. “We have a princess in our midst!”
“My paternal grandmother always called my mother by her Inono,” I continued. “My mother is from the Abawino clan and her Inono is Nanyundo.”
“Very interesting,” Emma’s husband said and turned to Emma, a glimmer of naughtiness in his eyes. “What clan do you belong to my dear?”
“I have absolutely no idea,” Emma said laughing. “We may need to come up with our own clan for the sake our children and grandchildren.”
“How about your daughter?” one of the younger ladies asked. “Is her Inono also Bwibo like yours?”
“No,” I told her. “When I said the clan to which a woman belongs by birth, I meant her father’s clan. As I stated earlier, we are a patriarchal society. My husband is from the Abamutiru clan and my daughter’s Inono is Namutiru.”
There was silence all round as if my audience was mentally digesting the knowledge I had just imparted. I broke that silence by saying, “We have one other interesting honorific for first born children or the wife of the oldest son in the family. This honorific is ‘Simakulu’. Any Simakulu in a family is highly respected and their opinion on matters regarding the family valued. They are seen as sort of anchors for the family.”
Emma smiled and said, “I am glad that this topic of conversation came up.”
There were lots of questions and answers after that on different aspects of my culture. I, unfortunately, lost control of my audience as we digressed further and further away from the topic that they had invited me to discuss.