Our names are often chosen long before we have taken our first breaths. They are imbued with meanings that have little to do with us, and more to do with the hopes and loves of those we belong to. Names are the remains of people we will never meet and the promise of untold potential for a full and meaningful life. The ties that bind us to our names will weaken as we grow, but we will carry the weight of their source with us always. My name, loosely translated, means “a gift from our fathers.” My parents both lost their fathers when they were just a little older than I am now, a fact that I have come to appreciate with a sharper sense of understanding as I approach the age at which they experienced such profound loss. There are few people who address me with this name outside of my immediate family, but it is a gift that I keep close to my heart, perhaps closer now that I find myself so far from home.
It seems that the naming of things is part of what makes us human. Now that I live in a place where animals far outnumber people, I find it difficult not to share this rite with all the creatures I encounter. The first to be named was a gecko that appeared nearly every night on the wall above my bedside lamp. While I read in bed, he took advantage of this small patch of light to hunt for insects. A part of me knew that it was highly unlikely for the same gecko to visit me each evening; my house was, after all, abuzz with insects and the lizards that preyed on them. Even so, discovering this gecko was the closest I had come to having a roommate in over three years, and I could not resist making him my own. Inspired by my favourite Paul Simon song, I called him Al. I spent many happy evenings with Al by side, enjoying the calm of night after a long day at work, as he feasted on mosquitoes. Summer has long since passed and my walls are bare. I like to think that Al is hiding in a warm corner of the house, waiting for the bitter cold of African winter to subside so that he can keep me company again.
Of course it is folly to believe that we can give names to these creatures. The truth is that I cannot name the geckos in my house any more than I can name the lone bull elephant who delights me with his frequent attempts to acquire the freshest shoots, whatever the cost to the camp’s boardwalks and railings. His presence here has led me to feel that I know him well, but he does not belong to me. He belongs to his own family of giants, even if they have, as nature dictates, pushed him out of the herd and forced him to make his way in the world alone. His is a state of solitude unknown to many of us. Our desire to name and hold onto the people we love, wherever they may roam, is fundamental to our humanity.
At its core, a name signifies that we owe our existence to another and bestows upon us a sense of belonging and family. As we enter new stages of life and belief, our names evolve and change. I have collected several over the years that would sound utterly nonsensical and bizarre to most. Each one is tied to the tears and laughter of friendships that have weathered both time and distance. While I feel immense gratitude for the chance I have been given to make a life here in the wilderness of my dreams, I am equally grateful for all the names I have taken with me. There are days when I am as cut off from home as the elephant, and yet I have never felt alone.