Monday, April 11, 2011


What’s in a name? As a child growing up in the English speaking South American country Guyana we were required to have Christian names and surnames. As an adult living in the English and French speaking North American country Canada most of us have first and last names. The ethnicity of the vast majority of people in this country can be identified by their names, at least by their last names. Those of us who are the descendants of enslaved Africans cannot be identified in that manner. We bear the names of the Europeans who enslaved our ancestors unless as adults we have chosen African names. Some of our children and grandchildren have African first names that we chose as we became more aware of the importance of naming ourselves, expressing our kujichagulia (self-determination.) However, after centuries of bearing the European names that were forced on our ancestors, those names now identify who we are.

I came to this realization about a month ago when I “found” a relative in Toronto. I had attended an event to support one of my circle of sistren who was about to undergo major surgery. During the time of sharing stories one sistren who I had met at various events in the community but never knew her last name mentioned that her brother was working as an engineer in southern African countries including Botswana. I had always wanted to visit Botswana since Sir Seretse Khama visited Guyana many years ago during my youth. I was engrossed in listening to the sistren speak about her brother’s adventures when she mentioned that he had attended Queens College during his secondary school education. At that point I realised that like me, the sistren was Guyanese. Naturally I asked her where she was born and was greatly surprised when she replied that she was born at Rose Hall on the Courentyne. I shared that my father was born in Fyrish village on the Courentyne and she mentioned that was her father’s birthplace also. I knew that the likelihood of our being relatives increased by the minute if her father was born in the same small village as my father. The fact that we are related became evident when I asked her father’s last name and heard one of the names that I have been told since childhood proves blood relationship. The mere mention of the names Farley, Jonas, Liverpool and Paddy from the villages Courtland, Fyrish and Gibraltar on the Courentyne Coast of Guyana means I have found a blood relative. It may be a first cousin or a twenty third cousin twice removed but that is my relative. I exchanged contact information with my new found relative and we have been in contact since.

How often can this happen in one month? With me it seems more than once. On Sunday, April 10, I attended an information gathering excursion with a sistren who I have known for a few years. At the end of the event I overheard a conversation in which one person had a very distinctive Guyanese accent. I find that I cannot pass up an opportunity to connect with fellow Guyanese so I introduced myself (after a lull in the conversation) and asked the good gentleman if he was Guyanese. I have sometimes mistaken a Trinidadian accent for Guyanese (comes from spending decades living outside of Guyana.) Not only is the man Guyanese but we are related and I found another relative with the same last name as my relative of a few weeks ago and I am now thinking I should advertise in the local Caribbean newspaper and plan a family reunion.

What’s in a name? Sometimes it can be a connection with relatives you never knew you had. My next generation all have African names but I will ensure that they know the names of their relatives from Guyana and elsewhere who still bear the European names that were foisted on their ancestors. We lost contact with countless relations during the centuries of enslavement because our names were taken away from us. What’s in a name? Survival.

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