Wednesday, August 17, 2016

What's in a Name?

April 22, 2015, bleary eyed and sleep deprived after two flights and too many hours of travel, my training group met the women who would serve as our host mothers for the first 10 weeks in country. One by one our names were called to the front of the group where we were introduced to our mothers. Amid cheers, singing, and hugs we were presented with our Sesotho names.

*I swiped some photos from that first day from Travis Wohlrab, 
a volunteer who met us at the airport that day.

Danielle meeting her host mother

Austin and his host mother

As my host mother, ‘M’e Mateboho, hugged me tightly she excitedly spoke my Sesotho name, Nthabeleng,… and I immediately forgot it. At the time it seemed like a jumble of consonants and vowels. It was nothing like anything I’d heard before and it would be at least 2 weeks before I was able to confidently pronounce my name.

Meeting my host mother, 'M'e Mateboho

I like to imagine that Sky is saying, "Wait. What is my name again?"

As the weeks passed I found that it became easier to pronounce the many Sesotho names surrounding us; the names of our host families, friends, and Peace Corps staff. It soon became clear to me that every name had a different and unique meaning, and a meaning that everyone readily understood.

The first few months in country I tried to explain to friends and family in the states that every name in Sesotho has a meaning and significance that all Basotho understand. However, I wasn’t explaining the idea appropriately because I was often reminded that our English names also have understood ‘meanings’. I was at as loss as to how to explain the difference.

Over a year later I finally feel that I am in a position to properly clarify the differences. I’ll start with my English name, Kathryn, according to Wikipedia:

“Kathryn is a feminine given name and comes from the Greek meaning for ‘pure’. It is a variant of Katherine.”

However, a quick Google translate tells me that ‘pure’ in Greek is katharos.

I understand that Kathryn is a derivative of the Greek word for pure, but the name it itself doesn’t translate to pure. Which is a difference between Sesotho and English names. Sesotho names translate directly. Such as:

Thabo – Happiness

Thato – Will

Lerato – Love

Neo – Gift

Palesa – Flower

Limpho - Gifts

These popular and common names are literally nouns used in the Sesotho language. If I were trying to tell someone that I have happiness I would use the noun ‘thabo’. Which is also the name a friendly Mosotho bestowed upon my father.

Crocheting a hat while trying to talk with bo-mme about our chicken project, involves looking up many words in my pocket dictionary.

I won’t pretend that there aren’t any names in English that translate directly, such as the name Daisy. Which reminds me of the Sesotho name Shoeshoe, the name of a particular flower in Lesotho. However, examples of names such as Daisy are not common in English.

Kids flocking to my house during the winter break to "read" the books my parents brought.

Moiketsi my favorite little man.

Grandson of my counterpart.

Moiketsi again.

When women get married their husband’s family gives the woman a new first name. This name is often a name they want to keep in the family, as it has significance, and the name they want the couple to name their first child. Then when they have a child they add the prefix “ma” to their names, meaning ‘mother of’. So while my father was giving a fun new Sesotho name Kara was told her name is Manthabeleng, Mother of Nthabeleng. She was disappointed that she didn’t get her own separate name.

Shoeshoe and Thabi

Some names are phrases such as:

Nthabeleng – Be happy for me

Kefiloe – I was given

Rethabile – We are happy

View outside my west facing window.

Sesotho names may also explain family dynamics; certain names make it clear that the bearer of the name was a child born out of wedlock. Such as:

Moramang – Son of whom

Lithonako – Something you found along the way

Makhokolotso – Gathering of all the rubbish

A really good friend of mine has a son who was born out of wedlock. When the child was born her father decided to name the boy Rethabile, which means ‘we are happy’. While my friend appreciates that her child’s name isn’t Moramong (son of whom) she doesn’t think it was appropriate to name him ‘We are happy’.

There are also names that indicate the history of a family, particularly signifying a child born after the death of a sibling. From what I understand these names fall into two categories there are names such as:

Ntja – Dog

Noha – Snake

These are names used to imply that the parents don’t care for their child. As though their intense love is what caused a higher power to take their previous child from them. Instead they’re telling fate ‘I don’t care take this child!” in the hopes of tricking the higher power into not taking this child as well.

The second category includes names that recognize the previous death and rejoice in the birth of another child by giving them a name that acknowledges that God has offered comfort to them, names such as:

Matseliso – Consolation from God

Retseseliso – We’ve gotten consolation for our loss

A friend told me the story of a family having 5 girls. The youngest girl was named Mohau (Mercy) as though saying, “Okay, we’re done!”

We are asking for mercy

It's been awhile since I've posted anything to this blog, phepi hey! Here are a few pictures of the recent events, wintry weather and my birthday!

Happy birthday America!
4th of July was spent at our All Volunteer Conference in the mountains of Lesotho.

We're halfway through our service!

Snow! Even in the lowlands.

I forgot to take a picture of the snow covered mountains until it was almost too late.

Birthday zucchini cake! 

A picture of most of the people from our Camptown.
In my impatience we switched out Emily for Julie.

I'm hoping to get back into the habit of posting more regularly. My next post should be about my vacation to Malawi for 10 days in July.


  1. Very interesting! So much intention in naming children. Thank you for writing about this. I love seeing the photographs of the area and all the smiles on the people you share your life with.

  2. Hi Katie. Great blog! My name is Michelle, and my husband and I were among the PC Blog It Home contest winners a couple years ago. I’d like to invite you to an online project I’m working on called Blogging Abroad, with the aim of helping bloggers to promote cross-cultural understanding. First, if you haven’t already submitted your blog to be featured on the site, you can do that here: I’d be honored if you would also check out the tools and resources I’ve been creating for bloggers like you (there's a monthly photo challenge and 10-week blog challenge). Those can be found here:
    Take care and happy blogging!
    ~ Michelle C.

  3. Great blog!!

    If you like, come back and visit mine:

    Pablo from Argentina