My first three weeks in Mwanza I have met many new people. In fact, every person I have met has been a new acquaintance. When meeting new people, you usually say your own name. I have said my own name quite a lot recently. I like my name; actually, I love my name! I think it is a good representation of who I am and I am always proud to tell someone my name. Well, I was before moving to Tanzania. Here, when someone asks my name, I respond and then must repeat it many times as the person tries their hardest to pronounce it. Some just give up. Other times I tell a person my name and they nod and quickly move on to another subject so that they will not have to attempt to say it.
People have always struggled with my name. It is hard. There are three syllables, ten letters, and a silent “e.” Silent “e” is a whole unit of language in school! The other day I introduced myself to a gentleman, he had me repeat it several times, then his eyes lit up. “Oh,” he said, “You mean Benedetta!” Observing my hesitation he continued, “People who speak Swahili are not used to having ‘rn’ pushed together in words, it is a sound and sensation that does not make sense to them. So I will call you Benedetta.” This was not an option he was giving me, I was from then on “Benedetta” to him.
In high school, I was “Bernie.” I played soccer. It is very difficult to shout three syllables, ten letters and a silent “e” across a soccer field while sprinting. So I was Bernie. I was not bothered, it was a useful name, a name with purpose, and as I got better and better, a name many a soccer player feared. Bernie was my name.
My sweet brother calls me “Bern.” When he is excited to show me his newest piece of art he says, “hey Bern you wanna see something?” As if he doesn’t have time to get all three syllables, ten letters and the silent “e” out of his mouth in time, the art is too important. When he wants to discuss something important with me, “Bern” becomes a gentle, trusting, and sweet name that I know I must live up to. Sometimes he says “Bern” and I just want to hug him. No one calls me “Bern” the same way he does. Bern is my name.
My name is both who I am and who I try to be. Sometimes, I don’t need the three syllables, ten letters, and a silent “e” to know who I am, I just need to be named. Here in Tanzania, demanding to be called “Bernadette” takes away the potential for identity. “Bernadette” provides no significant meaning for the Swahili language and therefore no significance for me, the person the name is representing. As long as I am Bernadette, I will not be understood here. I do not have a name.
Benedetta, however, is a young woman who has recently moved to Tanzania. She has a lot to learn and hopes that her neighbors and coworkers will let her into their world and their lives. Benedetta has goals, Benedetta has pride, Benedetta will have a community.
As I become Benedetta, I hope also that God’s presence in this place, at this time, will be named. It is only through this naming process, this claiming of God and God’s presence here, in a language that is understood, in a manner familiar and comforting, that disciples are formed and ears opened to God’s call.