The Sweetest Sound
“Welcome home, Lancelot and Mary!”
Home? The Okavango Delta in Botswana? The smiling African woman who greeted us handed us lavender-scented washcloths and showed us to our “home,” a tent that had in common with the pup tents of our scouting days only the fact that it was made of canvas.
The tent, larger by far than the room we had at the Hotel Mercure in London en route over, had a wooden plank floor and a full bathroom. A basket of greenery had been set on the down comforter, in the middle of the queen-sized bed. We pulled back the fronds and leaves and found a bottle of chilled champagne and two champagne flutes with a note that read as follows:
Dear Lancelot and Mary,
Welcome to Camp Xakanaxa. We hope that you will enjoy your stay with us and let the magic of the Delta touch you in a special way.
If there is anything that you may need, please do not hesitate to ask.
We trust that you will have an enjoyable safari and a memorable stay.”
It was signed “Ben, Kago, Hendrick, Loveness, Lorato & CX team.”
We uncorked the champagne and filled the flutes. This was indeed going to be the trip of a lifetime.
If only we could master the name game.
As seasoned travelers who once taught French and know a smattering of other languages, my husband and I weren’t particularly worried about the linguistic difficulties we’d encounter during our two-week trip. One week would be spent in South Africa, where English is the lingua franca. Even if the accent of the Afrikaans-speaking population was at times a bit difficult to understand, we did not anticipate any problems. In Botswana and Zambia, we’d be staying in safari camps accustomed to receiving international tourists. No problem there either.
What we didn’t expect, on the other hand, were the challenges that would be presented by proper names. Kago? Loveness? Lorato? How would we remember such names? Now, to be honest, the safari personnel didn’t expect us to call them by name, even though they used our names with impressive regularity and accuracy. However, as students of Dale Carnegie, we had always done our best to address by name people with whom we had regular contact and, thus, to “win friends and influence people.”
Admittedly, our best wasn’t always good enough, even in our own culture.
Case in point: at the Y where I work out, I had for two years greeted a man I’d see on the exercise bikes by name. “Hi, David!” I’d sing out every time I saw him. And he’d give me a wan smile and say hello. The fact that he never attempted to learn my name didn’t bother me. In fact, it made me feel just a tiny bit superior. Then one day I heard someone call him Mike. I was seized by doubt.
“Is Mike your name?” I asked.
“Yes,” he replied.
“I’ve been calling you David all this time and you haven’t corrected me?”
He laughed heartily.
I understood, then, why “David” had never warmed to me, had always looked at me out of the corner of his eye as if I were a piece of mold that had grown on the bike next to his.
And now, here I was in Africa, confronted by a new and different challenge. If my memory could fail me so spectacularly at home, where I had a whole host of mnemonic devices to help me to recall proper names (“Gene” was “congenial,” etc.), how was I going to manage where most of the names were completely unfamiliar?
In truth, the difficulties began well before we reached the first of our three safari camps. In Cape Town, we were greeted at the airport by a woman named Deidre who worked for our travel agent. Where’s the other “r” I thought when, at my request, she spelled her name for me. We then met Deon, the man who would serve as our guide and chauffeur during our two-day stay in Cape Town, taking us to Table Mountain the first day and on a tour of the entire southern Cape the second. An unusual name, I thought, but not unheard of. I can do this!
At the airport in Maun, Botswana, where we had flown from Cape Town, two men approached us to inform us that we would be taking a small plane to our first safari camp. Their shirts were embroidered with the name of the camp: Xakanaxa.
“How is that pronounced?” I asked, my experience of words beginning with “x” being limited to xylophone and x-ray.
“Ka-ka-NA-ka” they said, their teeth gleaming.
Knowing the children’s word for excrement in French, I winced when I heard the first two syllables. What was the state of the plumbing at these camps?
The men introduced themselves as Charles and Obit. Charles I could deal with, but Obit?
“I wonder if Obit knows what his name means in English,” I whispered to Lance after the men had left our side.
“I doubt it, and don’t you dare tell him,” said Lance who, in nearly 48 years of marriage, has sometimes had reason to question my diplomacy.
I remained silent. After a considerable wait, we boarded a small plane and took off for a landing field near Camp Xakanaxa. When we touched down, our luggage was whisked away from us to be taken to our “tent” and we were ushered into a Land Rover for our first game drive. Our driver introduced himself:
“Hi! My name is Chemical.”
I thought I had misheard.
“Chemical?” I repeated. “That’s your actual name?” I asked.
“Yes, that’s the name my mother gave me,” he replied in a tone that did not encourage a follow-up question.
I found myself wondering if he had siblings and if they were named in similar fashion. Perhaps there was a Mechanical and an Electrical and maybe even a Civil. Did Chemical’s mother subscribe to the “name and destiny” theory? Was she hoping to produce a family of engineers? I didn’t ask.
Chemical was clearly no engineer, but he was one heck of a naturalist and driver. He identified animal species and listed their characteristics, their lifespan, told us about their diet, their prey, their predators. Giraffes, elephants, zebras, and lions were easy, but Cape Buffalos? Impalas? Red lechees? Warthogs? So, it wasn’t only names of humans that we’d have to commit to memory, but names of animal species as well! Our heads were spinning even before he started naming the birds: magpie shrikes, saddle-billed storks, white-crested helmeted shrikes, fish eagles, ox-peckers, fork-tailed drongos, and more.
Drongos! We exploded in laughter.
“Did you say ‘drongo?’” asked my Australian husband.
“Yes,” replied Chemical.
Do you know what “drongo” means in Australian slang?”
“It’s not a compliment,” Lance replied.
Had Chemical taken the time to look up the word in the Online Slang Dictionary when he got back to camp, he would have learned that “drongo” means “moron” in Australian slang. The example provided on site would not have earned an imprimatur from the feminist brigade: “What a drongo—he dumped a really good-looking Sheila for that sow.”
Well, this Sheila felt like a bit of a drongo herself as she struggled to note down the names of all the creatures to which she was introduced. We bounced along the rutted, pot-holed dirt tracks through the delta, ducking to avoid being scraped by the tall grasses and branches that slapped against our vehicle. Is it any wonder my scribbles were illegible? I finally gave up entirely when, after having told us that drivers were instructed not to leave the marked trails, Chemical pulled sharply on the steering wheel and we veered off the path and dove through the grasses, swerving to avoid trees: a leopard had been sighted. Since this was a “special sighting,” the rules were laid aside.
We saw her, first slinking through the grass, then on a tree branch. She was majestic and beautiful and we knew her by name. I didn’t even need my notebook for this one.
Having triumphed in showing us a leopard on our first game drive, Chemical took us back to camp. And that’s when the hard work of memorizing exotic human names began. We took our cue from the Cape Turtle Dove whose cry sounds to the human ear like the admonition to “Work harder! Work harder! Work harder!” It was Chemical who interpreted the bird cry for us.
We knew that there would be bird species we’d never heard of, animals we wouldn’t have been able to identify without a guide. What we hadn’t expected was the human challenge. Here, everyone addressed us by name. We made quick work of explaining that although all of Lance’s registration materials were in the name of “Lancelot Donaldson-Evans,” in order to be in conformity with his passport, he had not been called by the name his mother gave him at birth since, well, birth. They didn’t need to be told twice.
From then on, it was Lance and Mary. “Good Morning, Lance and Mary. How are you, Lance and Mary? Did you sleep well, Lance and Mary?” And so on.
This was hospitality at its best. The least we could do was to learn the names of the staff members and others who attended to us.
And so we did. At our second camp, the Chobe Game Lodge, staff members had names that sounded familiar to our ear (for example, our game driver was known as “DK,” and we did not complicate life by asking what the letters stood for). But different challenges were in store for us. DK’s English was heavily accented, and she was soft-spoken. I strained to hear her commentary. We learned the names of people, plants, and animals. We learned the words for their groupings: a pack of wild dogs, a dazzle of zebras, a pride of lions. When DK spoke of “heads of elephants,” I was confused.
“Is that what groups of elephants are called? Heads?” I asked.
“Yes,” she replied. And she repeated: “Heads.”
“How do you spell that?” I asked, pencil poised.
“H-E-R-D-S” she replied.
To get to our third camp, Toka Leya, we had to take a ferry across the fast-flowing Zambezi River into Zambia. Nawa, the driver who met us on the other side and took us to the camp, was easy to understand, perhaps because there were no competing noises from outside: the van was air-conditioned, the windows closed, and the road paved.
Our journey ended at the riverbank where a small metal boat with an outboard motor awaited us. Mailos, our captain, would also be our principal guide and driver during our stay at Toka Leya.
A warm, slightly plump woman with an infectious laugh greeted us at water’s edge.
“Hello Lancelot and Mary. Welcome to Toka Leya,” she said, handing us scented washcloths.
She was wearing a nametag that said “Mwame.” Trying to commit it to memory, I asked her what it meant.
“Queen,” she said, laughing.
A pleasant middle-aged man named Stephen gave us our orientation. Whew! I thought. A name I’ll be able to remember!
The same could not be said for Odon, who took our lunch order, or Amon, the activities director, who tried to talk us into bungee jumping or at least a helicopter ride over Victoria Falls; or Oman, who worked as a waiter; or Thebe, who cleaned our room. We became hopelessly confused, took Odon for Amon. Amon for Omon. Unfortunately, most staff members did not wear their nametags regularly. Only the names of Stephen, Felix (a restaurant worker) and Mailos, with whom we spent a lot of time, managed to make a dent in the folds of our brain.
Lillian, a weary-looking woman with cloudy eyes, missing teeth, and a three-year-old son who didn’t leave her side, guided us through the indigenous village of Sinde. Her name too was easy to remember, not only because it was familiar to our Anglophone ears, but also because it was my mother’s name.
On our last day at Toka Leya, we were given a client appreciation form to fill out. In the narrative portion of the form, I singled out several staff members for special mention, including Mwame, who had been friendly and helpful to us throughout our stay. It was only as we were bidding adieu to the staff that I looked at the nametag of a woman I did not recall having seen before: It read “Mwame.”
“Mwame?” I asked. Is there another “Mwame”?
“No, just me,” she laughed.
“But when we arrived, we were greeted by a woman named Mwame. She said her name meant Queen.”
“Yes, that’s right!” she said. “It was me. My name means Queen.”
The mystery was solved when my Mwame rounded a corner. For once, she was wearing her nametag. It read “Thebe.”
I rushed back to Stephen’s office and changed the name on the client appreciation form.
That embarrassing episode should have given me pause, made me realize that despite my good will, I had not mastered the name game and might as well give up. It didn’t.
At the airport in Livingstone, a charming young woman checked us in for our flight. The letters HMNIA were stitched on the pocket of her uniform. Having learned about tribal languages, strange combinations of letters, etc., I was intrigued.
“How is your name pronounced?” I asked.
“Abigail,” she responded.
It was then that I noticed that all the agents had uniforms sporting the initials HMNIA. We were, after all, at the Harry Mwanga Nkumbula International Airport.
Some days later, my husband, not to be outdone, could not resist the temptation to comment on the name of a cashier in a shop at the Johannesburg Airport: “Mxlosi.”
“How do you pronounce your name?” he asked.
The young man pronounced an M, then clicked his tongue against his teeth the way you’d do if you were trying to encourage a horse to gallop, and then said “Losi.”
“Is that a tribal language?” asked Lance.
Mxlosi: “It is.”
Lance: “Do many people know how to pronounce it?”
Mxlosi, motioning to the other staff, replied, “Around here, they do.”
Around here they do.
Ouch! What a lesson for us! We were mere tourists, clearly not from “around here,” thus not expected to be able to pronounce the unusual names of this man and his compatriots. We admired the subtlety with which he pointed out our ethnocentrism.
It was time to return to the USA. In just a few hours, we’d be on the plane headed for England, and from there we’d fly home, home to the range, where the buffalo roam and the deer and the antelope play, home where we know animals and people by name. But, before we walked down that drafty jet way, Africa had one more surprise in store for us, one more sign that it had beaten us at the name game.
We had not yet settled in at our gate. I had left my husband seated on a bench, surrounded by our hand luggage, and I was finishing up my souvenir shopping when I heard an announcement:
“Would Mary Donaldson please present herself to the nearest agent?”
I exited the shop and went to find my husband. “What’s that about?” I asked him.
“Probably nothing. We’re in South Africa. There must be dozens of Mary Donaldsons in Johannesburg alone. Besides, that’s not your name. Your name is Mary Donaldson-Evans.”
“Yeah, you’re probably right,” I said, unconvinced.
I bent over to gather up my luggage.
“Where’s my laptop?”
The laptop was missing.
I rushed to the nearest information kiosk, spying my laptop as I approached. A “nice lady,” the agent told me, had turned it in. In the absence of an identification tag, they had searched the pockets of the case and had come upon a torn ticket stub with the name Mary Donaldson still intact.
Suffice it to say that while Dale Carnegie was right about many things, he got it wrong when he insisted on the importance of accuracy. It’s not true that we never forgive people who mispronounce, misspell, or otherwise mutilate our names. When your lost laptop is on the other end of the mangled name, it is the sweetest sound in the universe.
About the Author
Once a professor of French literature, Mary Donaldson-Evans came down out of the ivory tower in 2011 and hasn’t looked back. Her creative work has been published by The New York Times (“Metropolitan Diary”), The Stir@CafeMom, The Lowestoft Chronicle, Diverse Voices Quarterly, Corner Club Quarterly and BoomerLitMag.