Saturday, June 5, 2010

Kinyarwanda names

Today is Rwanda’s much-hyped baby gorilla naming ceremony: kwita izina, literally “to call a name.” In recognition of this day, here are a few notes about names in Rwanda.

- Rwandans typically have two names, a Kinyarwanda name which they write in all capitals followed by a Western name (usually French, sometimes English). Neither is a family name – unless the family has intentionally adopted this practice, one cannot tell family relations here by name. This presented obvious problems for family reunification in the wake of the genocide.

- Rwandan women, once they have had children, often go by their eldest child’s name: Mama Jackson, Mama Teta, Mama Yvonne, etc. Easier for me when I meet my neighbors – it’s a two-for-one!

- Examples of Rwandan names: Imanairere (Ee-mah-nah-ee-ray-ray) is female and means "God helps me to grow." Nishyimimana (Neesh-yeem-ee-mah-nah) is female and means "Glory/praise God." Mukahirwa (Moo-kah-heer-gwah, female) means “one who has success in life.” Mugiraneza (Moo-jeer-ah-nay-zah, male) means “well done;” the French is Bienfait. Nzikobankunda (Nn-zee-koh-bahn-hoon-dah, male) means “I know that they love me.” Wizeimana (Wee-zayee-mah-nah, female) means “one who has faith in God.” Kamanutsi (“Kah-man-oot-see,” male) and Nyirakmanutsi (female) mean “to become accidentally” or to be an accident – the man I know with this name was born seven years after his next older sibling!

- My adopted host family in Nyanza gave me a Kinyarwanda name: Agatesi (Ah-gah-tess-ee). The previx “aga-“ is a diminutive, which is a sign of affection when accompanying a name. Agatesi means “one who is loved/spoiled by her parents” – an American connotation that’s a little off-putting, but it’s considered to be a very good name here (and I must admit, I am spoiled by my American parents).

When I introduce myself here, I use the Rwandan format and say I’m Agatesi Trude, or even just Agatesi – most Rwandans can’t pronounce my real name. So I’m called Agatesi, sometimes shortened to Agate. If I meet a mother of an Agatesi or a woman named Mutesi (the non-diminutive and less aurally appealing form of my name) they say they are my mother or older sister. Every time someone calls me Agatesi and not muzungu, I feel a sense of victory and identity within the community. Three weeks after my arrival at site, nearly all the children on my street know me by Agatesi, as well as my neighbors, coworkers, market ladies, shopkeepers near my house, etc.

Although sometimes people who know my name call me muzungu – and I start to say “Sinitwa mu—“ (my name is not mu—“) when they jump in and say “Witwa Agatesi.” We’ll get there, buhoro buhoro (slowly by slowly).


  1. i like it...which part of the u.s do u live in

    1. Hey, I am a Masters Student writing my Thesis on Rwanda. I would like to know more about the culture and the people. Would you mind shooting me an email so we can connect? I would appreciate that a lot.

    2. This comment has been removed by the author.


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