Mabitso

Learning my students’ names has been difficult.

When you’re learning a new language that has no relation to English (or at least, when am), every name seems like a collection of random syllables. Without connotations to the sounds or word parts, they can feel impossible to remember. Two characteristics of Sesotho names compound this problem: they are often very long, and many sound similar to each other.

So for the first few weeks of school, I stood at the front of my classes with a scribbled seating chart on my clipboard, trying to tell Relebohile apart from Khotsofalang and remember who was Likono and who was Katleho.

As I started to put faces to names, first, I learned the frequent participators. These are mostly girls (and a few boys!) who sit in the front row and raise their hand every time I ask a question. Shortly after, I learned the names of students who frequently poked or whispered to their neighbors instead of listening. I filled in the gaps slowly but surely, getting to know Fusi and Teboho and Sechaba and Motseki and Mamello and Thabo and Lehlohonolo… over 60 in total.

I’ve had names on my mind for a few other reasons, recently. I had an infestation of bedbugs this week (stay with me, I’ll get there). Peace Corps sent someone to fumigate my house, and because it was unsafe for me to spend the night in that cloud of chemicals, they put me up in a hotel for the night. Checking into the hotel involved filling out a very simple form, which asked my name. It took me a few seconds too long to answer that question.

My name, which has never been something in flux, now feels like it’s constantly changing to the point where I’m not sure which name to use in which situation anymore.

My whole life, I’ve been Jillian. Sometimes Jill. Never Jilly. Then, in October, I moved to Lesotho and became Bohlale for the duration of training. For three months, I embraced that name; it means “intelligent,” and while I still can’t quite pronounce it correctly, it’s a part of me. In December, I left my training village and moved to my permanent site. Upon meeting my new host mother, I gained yet another name: Lieketso.

Three months, three homes, and three names. Boston to Berea to Thaba Tseka. Jillian to Bohlale to Lieketso. It’s a lot to take in.

By now, answering to Lieketso feels like second nature. Hardly anyone I interact with on a daily basis even knows my American name. My students call me Madam Lieketso, and almost everyone else has adopted my ‘M’e’s nickname for me: Keke. At school, a sign reading “Keke’s Corner” even hangs over my desk.

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Names here all have meaning, and from my experience, Basotho like to talk about what their name means. A few examples are Tebello (“we have been waiting for you”), Palesa (“flower”), and Mamello (“patience”).

It took me a while to figure out the meaning of my new name, Lieketso. When I first asked my ‘M’e, she explained, in her wonderfully rambling way, that it referred to “when you are given something, or when something good happens, and then it happens again and you are blessed with even more.” Huh.

Over time, and with more conversations, it has become more clear. Lieketso means “to receive again” or “to be given more.” My ‘M’e’s name, Limpho, means “gift.” Before me, she hosted another Peace Corps Volunteer, who she named Lineo, also meaning “gift.” Now, she has me, Lieketso, and she sees me as another “gift.”

It isn’t uncommon for Sesotho names to be intimately tied to family like this. When a Mosotho woman marries, she takes her husband’s last name, as do many American women. However, she also accepts a new first name. This new name, usually chosen by her husband’s family, indicates the name of her future child. For example, my host mother was born Limpho. After marriage, she took the new first name Maserial0, which means “mother of Serialo,” and her firstborn son is named Serialo. So in one day – the day of her wedding – a Mosotho woman gains an entirely new set of names that are overtly connected to her new family.

The bottom line? Names are important in Lesotho, and I am lucky to have both of mine. While losing Jillian can sometimes feel confusing, with that loss comes the home and family I gain as Lieketso.

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