I arrived in Johannesburg in 2001 as Shingai Darangwa. A shy, 8-year-old boy with a fondness for books. But I soon realised that this long-winded Zimbabwean name wasn’t going to work here. I was teased, ridiculed, smacked – I was bullied in every way imaginable. My skin was too dark. My nose was too big. My country of birth was – and in some circles continues to be – the biggest joke, with a currency slipping faster than Bill Cosby’s popularity. “How much does a loaf of bread cost in Zimbabwe?” they taunted. “$1 million?” Argh, they never got tired of that one.
New city, new name
I knew, even at that age, that the only way to make school more bearable was to separate my name from who I was. Moving to Durban a year later, allowed me that chance. I started using my second name, Neville, and telling people that I had been adopted by white people.
In this way, I was able to explain my English name while also clarifying why I couldn’t speak any of the black South African languages. I added that my adopted parents allowed me to keep my Zimbabwean surname as a gesture of respect.
They bought it.
Suddenly, I wasn’t answering silly questions about the price of bread in Zimbabwe.
Lo and behold, the ruthless bullying I had previously experienced ceased. In fact, I was now held in high esteem. I felt the respect and regard that was reserved for the white kids, and I loved it.
I was the black kid with all the “cool” qualities of the white kids – the resident coconut, if you like.
Sure, it sounds like a well thought-out scheme for an 8-year-old. But, at the time, all I knew was that being associated with whiteness would significantly improve my situation.
Being the object of fascination was fun, but as I grew older I became aware of my lack of identity. I didn’t belong. When I would go visit my grandmother in Zimbabwe, I was Shingai again. My Shona was poor and I didn’t know how to relate to my people. By the time I moved back to Johannesburg, at age 13, I was just another kid with an English name.
My magic had waned; I didn’t have to make up stories, no one cared.
Now, as a 22-year-old dual-citizen of Zimbabwe and South Africa, I find myself between my two nationalities. Presumably, somewhere near Beitbridge.
When the xenophobic attacks reignited earlier this year, calls from my family – here and abroad – asking me to be cautious made me want to claim back my Zimbabwean heritage.
I reflected on how – ever since the moment I crossed the border – I’ve been keeping my nationality a secret.
It always felt like Zimbabweans had no voices to champion our cause. I decided I wanted to be one of those voices.
Binning Neville, reviving Shingai
Binning Neville and reviving Shingai was my way of standing up to be counted. It may seem petty and inconsequential to some, but me choosing to revert to my name was important. I needed to connect with who I really am: a proud, black, Zimbabwean kid who still loves to read.
Shingai means be brave, courageous or strong in Shona. Which is how I think Zimbabweans need to be in order for us to better our situation.
No doubt, we’ll continue to see black kids being ashamed to say their African names out of fear of being mocked. My name-change is a refusal to subscribe to this inferiority complex. I will boast of my name for all those years that I’ve had to cower behind a fictitious reality.
No more of that Neville business. So, next time you see me, please call me Shingai.
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