The naming of things

“Nadia. What does it mean?” our guide, Nhlanhla ‘Lucky’ Mavusa, asked me as we made our way – slipping and sliding – down a steep embankment to a collection of 4 000-year-old rock paintings in Swaziland’s Nsangwini Valley.

“What does what mean, Lucky?” I replied, a little confused.

“Your name!” he exclaimed.

“Oh! Hmmm… well, I’ve looked it up. In Russian it apparently means ‘hope’ and in some other language it literally means ‘nothing’, which kind of sucks.”

A moment of silence from Lucky.

“So, your parents didn’t actually choose your name because of its meaning?”

A moment of silence from me.

“No. As far as I know they chose it because they thought it was pretty.”

In fact, it was actually my brother – three years old at the time – who had the final say, picking my name from a list of pretty sounding names my parents had constructed: Nadia lying dormant among the likes of Irene, Karin and Candice. But I didn’t admit this to Lucky.

“Okay. That’s interesting,” Lucky said. “Here in Swaziland the custom is for parents to name their babies something appropriate. For instance, my parents decided to name me Nhlanhla because they considered themselves lucky to have a first-born son. And Thulani – the guide you met the other day – maybe his family was fighting a lot before he came, but when he was born, he brought peace and quiet.”

Even though our conversation very much happened in passing, while I clung – white-knuckled – to shrubs and branches as stones and soil scattered from beneath the soles of my tekkies, it reawakened something I had once spent a lot of time thinking about:

The naming of things.

Probably inspired by my fascination with languages and the roots of words, I remember going through a phase somewhere in my teens where I would spend hours paging through a ‘Baby Name Book’ on a shelf in our home, looking up the names of family, friends and boys I liked in an effort to unlock the secrets to their souls (or something).

Years later, my dear friend, Jana and I started chatting about our mutual interest in names. She said that she had once read a theory – that whether or not we know their meanings, names held a lot of power. So, every time someone called you by name, they spoke its blessing – it’s very rare for names to carry a curse – over you. However, because of this, a name can also become a sort of spiritual weak spot, an easy target for negativity to creep in.

In other words, say your name means ‘hope’ you will find that you would often be challenged in the field of feeling hopeful.

It made sense to me and made me think that perhaps it wasn’t so silly of my teenage self to feel that knowing the meaning of someone’s name could actually be key to a deeper understanding of their being.

Apart from this spiritual approach, I’ve always wondered how different my life would have looked had I been a Karin or a Candice or an Irene. Surely it would have changed a lot more than just the letters I put down on a page to define myself. Or maybe it wouldn’t have changed anything at all. How would one ever know?

Over dinner that evening, after our adventure in Nsangwini,  I told the other members of our group about my and Lucky’s conversation and asked if any of them knew the meaning of their names. Everyone only had a vague idea.

And then someone came up with a grand (probably relatively wine-infused) plan: let’s ask Lucky to give us each a siSwati name that really meant something. After spending five full days with us – pretty much day and night – he would surely have a good idea of what to call us.

So, on our very last night in Swaziland, following a delicious candlelit dinner at Hlane Royal National Park, we made our proposal to Lucky.

Caught off guard, he told us that he needed a bit of time, but that he would certainly come up with one for each of us. So, as we sipped our drinks and reminisced about our experiences of the few days before, Lucky ‘christened’ us one by one. Sadly I don’t remember everyone else’s (except the ever-bubbly Anel who was dubbed Jabulile, meaning joyful), but my own has really stuck.

“You, Nadia. Hmmm… I think I will call you Senanile. It means ‘all is well’. Because you are cool with everything.”

I didn’t know whether I should laugh or cry, because it connected so deeply with what Jana and I had chatted about all those many moons ago. Grateful for his laid-back perception of me, I have found myself tapping into my Swazi name ever so often since the trip, reminding myself that even though sometimes all is not well, all will be well at some point.


P.s. If you want to read more about my impressions of Swaziland, check out this article on Traveller24

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