African Names: “A Rose is still . . .

A Rose by Any Other Name



I’ve been in Africa two years and still don’t have a name I’m comfortable with.


Most of you know me as Curt.

It is unpronounceable for most Africans.


I spell it out C-U-R-T and they write it “C-U-O-T.”

The “r” is difficult to pronounce here..


My friends up country call me Curtie.

It’s really “Cur-T.”

I’ve gotten pretty confortable with it.


My first name is Sidney.

It was my maternal grandfather’s name as well as his father’s.

I’ve proud to carry the name of Sidney Plott Jr. and Sidney Plott Sr.

I have a granddaughter sharing that name.

Sydney Iles is a beautiful bashful four year old.


No one can pronounce or remember Sidney in Africa.

I’ve given up.


I shortened it to Sid and it seemed to work better than anything else.


I’ve tried initials.

‘My name is S.C. Iles.”

It led to great confusion.


Don’t get me started on my family name. Iles.

I’ve seen it spelled and pronounced dozens of ways.

And that’s back in America.


The capital I and lower case l throw folks for a loop.

It’s like the British Isles.

The island group my kin got kicked out of two centuries earlier.



It’s impossible in Africa.



Most of the time I’m called “Mzungu” here.

It’s Swahili for “White Man.”

It’s what we hear over and over.

I readily answer to it, not considering it a slur.

I mean, it’s what I am.

I also answer to the tribal variations:

Among the Dinka and Nuer, it’s Kakwaja.

The Madi call us “Moondu.”


An official once asked my name and I answered, “Mzungu.”

She glanced up from her form. “That’s not your name.”

“It might as well be. I get called it a dozen times daily.”


At the Laropi Ferry on the Nile, where you sign the register with your name and next of kin, I usually write “Ronald McDonald.”   If the ferry sinks in the croc-infested river, I want him notified that Ronald/Curt/Sid/S.C./Mzungu/Mzee was aboard.


Then I answer to all of the respectful names of a man my age.






They all translate to “elder” and I accept this designation that I’ve earned.


In Africa, you sign a guest/visitor book at every gate/church/border crossing/latrine/checkpoint. I usually scribble my real name in whatever form fits me that day.


I’ve lately been having fun with a new name.

In situations where they don’t really need to know who I am, such as the health club, I answer like this:


“Bwana, what is your name?”


“Bond.” I hesitate until the recorder looks up. “James Bond.”


No one has called my hand on it yet. In fact at the health club, the clerk writes “Bond and Dee” when we arrive.


It’s easy to pronounce.

Easy to spell.


Shaken . . . not stirred.







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