It is my first time sitting in this session. There are seven blue plastic chairs and one green one at the far end of the room. There is a poster on the wall right above the green chair “Silence and Chaos are mirror images of truth.”
I am about to question the authenticity of this quote when my friend pulls my hand down and I settle on the seat beside her. She sees seven women.
I see seven bestsellers.
She sees seven sources of wisdom.
I see centuries of wisdom, libraries of events and memories that need but one trigger and they’d fall like dominoes, or power up like hurricanes. Isn’t it a wonder that all hurricanes are named after women? She tells me to shut up and the session begins.
The first one starts:
“My aunt was laid to rest this past Saturday. Can you believe that for all the years I have known her, it was only during her burial that I learned her name was Agnes. I mean where was she? Where did her identity as Agnes Akinyi go? Why didn’t I even ask? And I was so emotional that I turned to my hubby and asked him, ‘what’s my name?’ He just looked at me and shrugged, ‘You are Lillian Awino, of course why?’ And I simply told him ‘never forget it and no matter what happens never let me forget.’ See, it just ate at me the whole weekend. My aunt was always Mama Baby and with that her name was forgotten, how can I as a woman keep my identity?”
She turned to us, her eyes taking in everyone and it dawned on me that out of the seven of us, only one was single and she was seated there thinking ‘how can I turn this into a book?’ The moderator smiled and asked us to give our thoughts on the matter, but my mind was still reeling at the thought of becoming something utterly different from me.
However, I am more than my name.
So, when she spoke of identity what exactly did she mean? These thoughts danced around in my head and when my turn came one thing was clear : what do I have to do to keep my identity and also ensure those around me know of it?
I have created personalities on social media. I believe in Nilichoandika here, suchakenyan on Instagram, herhar on twitter and the list goes on, but it has never destroyed or set aside who am I, in fact it has helped me channel my writing and enabled me to engage with lots of people.
As the women aired their thoughts my mind went back to the times when names are set aside for either personalities or work. Like the woman selling vegetable whom I call ‘mama mboga,’ and the vendor who sells shoes and I call ‘msee wa viatu.’ Or the neighbor in the last house down this estate whom I call ‘mama ndovu,’ because of her obese son. I will admit that all these years I know the woman as ‘mama ndovu,’ and yet she’s the one whose salon does magic to my hair. On the other hand, the lady who spreads her mat under the tree right outside our compound is known as ‘Khadija,’ and she has been going by this since I was a toddler back when they used wooden combs to help part your hair while plaiting it.
What’s in a name you’d ask and I would say centuries of stories. There is power in a name, but even so, there is infinite power in how you brand yourself. Our take home assignment from that session was to figure out what identity is and why it matters, but as I made my way out of that room towards the neatly piled plates of mandazi outside, all I could think of was one thing: the names of all the women who have inspired me in my family.