Jan 19, 2015 09:41AM ● Published by Erik Dittmann
My name is Francois Musonera, but that is not the name I was born with. In fact, I was not born with any name at all, nor was I named shortly after birth as some children are. Let me start from the beginning. I am originally from Rwanda, Central Africa. In fact, I was born in the rural village of Ntobwe.
When I was growing up, I lived a simple and happy life. We didn’t have TV. We didn’t play video games. We didn’t go to the mall, yet we felt very happy. We played guessing games or competed to see who could tell the best story.
My favorite childhood activity, however, was the “Giving Name Ceremony.” In Rwanda, it truly took the whole village or community to raise a child. According to the Rwandan culture, eight days after a baby was born, the family of the newborn organized a party at which time all the children of the neighborhood suggested a name for the baby. This was a single name, which eventually became the baby’s last name. At my “Giving Name Ceremony,” I was given the name Musonera. It was a very festive occasion with food, mostly beans, cassava, and pumpkin leaves, and drinks like banana wine and juices.
Everyone, adults and children, took turns telling the parents the name they would like for the baby to have. Each name had a meaning. For instance, my last name means “merciful.” From about 50 suggested names for the baby, the father made the final choice. Women accepted this as a way of life. Occasionally, however, the name for the baby was chosen at the parents’ discretion, and they ignored the suggestions.
My original name, Musonera, was considered by the church to be a pagan name. Therefore, three to six months later when children were baptized, they were given another name, which the church considered to be a Christian name. This became the child’s first name: mine is Francois. In the United States people ask “What is your first name?” or “What is your last name?” In Rwanda they ask “What is your Christian name?” and “What is your pagan name?” Today especially, people who have traveled abroad do not like the use of the word “pagan,” so they ask “What is your Rwandan name?”
All of this means that Rwandans do not share last names. In my extended family, now scattered all over the world, each one of my siblings has his or her unique last name. For example, my name is Francois Musonera, while one brother who lives in Belgium is named Paulin Sezikeye, and another brother who is deceased was Philbert Kayitare. My sister living in France is named Philomene Mukantagara.
Traditionally when Rwandan couples married, the women kept their original name. Today this custom is also changing: people are beginning to part ways with tradition and customs, although it is still not common for the woman to take on the man’s name. Now, however, some people are beginning to have family names whereby children are named after the father. For instance, my father’s name was Mihandago, so if I had been named today, that would have been my last name also.
Every place I’ve lived or visited has something unique that makes it stand out from other places. Just as cultural practices and norms like the naming ceremony in Rwanda might seem strange to people who were raised here in the United States, I found many cultural practices and norms here odd when I first experienced them. For example, I was surprised how people throw away almost anything including what is still in good enough condition to be reused. When I first arrived in the United States, I was able to furnish my entire apartment with things I picked up from the street without paying a penny. Since I had everything I needed, I felt rich even though some of my neighbors thought I was poor. Here in Beaver Dam, I enjoy the calm and the small town lifestyle. I have what even many rich Rwandans don’t have, and that always gives me a feeling of happiness.
We all have much in common, but it is these little differences that make life so interesting. I came to realize that there is a story and tradition behind everything, and so I am happy that you have allowed me to share my story and cultural tradition with you today.
While in the United States, I was able to put together a memoire titled Rwanda: Surviving the Genocide to share the complete story of my experiences during the Rwandan genocide of 1994.
I can also be contacted via phone at (920) 744-7950 or (920) 885-7313 x2145.