What's in a Surname?

KYETUME, Uganda—It took me no fewer than five clumsy introductions to catch on to why I kept forgetting the names of people here. The distinct sounds that natives uttered after I’d casually call myself only “Ahmed” weren’t first names that came in the form of two or three Lugandan words. Rather, I eventually discovered, when Ugandans tell new acquaintances their names, they often do so in reverse order: They say their last name first, followed by their first name.

Intrigued by this simple-sounding observation, I asked one of the project leaders of the NGO for which I’m working to explain. After the hour-long discussion that ensued with Nakalinzi Maureen (last name first), I came away with not only a newfound awareness of Ugandan culture, but also with a deeper appreciation of my own last name.

For ages, Uganda has been divided into several kingdoms. (Even today, three kingdoms remain politically significant.) Like all Ugandan kingdoms, Buganda—of which Maureen is technically a subject and whose terrain spans the central portion of the country—puts a premium on surnames.

A Bugandan’s last name is what brands him or her as a member of the Bugandan kingdom, Maureen told me. And the further you go down the name hierarchy, she said—to the tribe and then the clan levels—the more prominent a social role a last name plays. For example, though membership to any one clan can number in the thousands, no two people of the same clan—that is, two people out of hundreds who share the same last name—can marry.

But being part of a certain clan and possessing a certain last name are not the products of lineage. The aftermath of the Rwandan genocide exemplifies why. After the barbarous bloodbath 15 years ago, the Bugandan territory played host to an influx of Rwandan refugees. But rather than integrate, the displaced peoples assimilated in the most extreme way, Maureen told me—they adopted the surnames of Bugandan people. And even in this exaggerated case, the same social rules would (and did) apply to Rwandan immigrants who took on Bugandan surnames:

Despite phenotypic and genetic dissimilarities, the refugees’ new last names prevented them from marrying other clan members—whether of Ugandan or even Rwandan origin—and entirely replaced their former identities.

Unlike most Western and Indo-European cultures—in which last names are passed down in a male-dominated system, from father to son—clan names ultimately cut across blood lines in Uganda, making the clan, and not the father, the fundamental source of authority, Maureen said.

In our country, it’s erroneous to place too much emphasis on any one person or group when we discuss familial allegiance and social organization. As Americans, we readily admit the individualistic nature of our citizenry: 18-year-olds eagerly await the day they can move out of the homes of their parents—with whom they share a last name—to live on their own, for example. And relatives who reside in different cities or states can go without seeing other family members for months at a time, until holidays once or twice a year—if even that.

Wherever she is in Uganda, Maureen’s surname identifies her as a clan member of the kingdom of Buganda, one of thousands of people who assign social authority to the same group. Wherever I am in America, in contrast, my name identifies me as an individual, with allegiance principally to myself.

And while it seems unsettling to exist as a unit of one, it is still undeniably liberating not to be bound by a system of social control that stems from the six letters that follow my first name.


Ahmed N. Mabruk ’11, a Crimson news writer, is a history concentrator in Mather House.

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