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Names are windows to our heritage

July, 2010

Beyond accents and skin tone and styles of dress, we are defined by our names.

While they may not always be unique to us – how often do you, when visiting another city, flip through the phone book to see if you are there? – our names reflect our history and become our legacy. It is very easy to read the name Donovan and say:“Ah,an Irishman!” or to assume that Samira is a Persian lady. Murkier are Canadian names, with our proudly mixed heritage.

According to the 2008 census, the top three names for baby boys in Canada were Ethan, Jacob and Alexander; the girls were Ava, Olivia and Emma.

Luanshya is in the north of Zambia, and the site of a tragic malaria epidemic. Photo courtesy Niks Nicholls

How far we have come from the early 20th century, the days of John, James and William, and Mary, Helen and Margaret.

My own name is a manifestation of my mixed culture: Hayley, British and Canadian, meaning hay field, and Juhl, from the Danish word for Christmas.

But it is my middle name that causes the most raised eyebrows. I was born in a small city called Lu- anshya, where my father was the sports editor of the Zambian Times.

My parents loved the musical sound of the place and wanted to use Luanshya as my middle name. But first, as all cautious parents do, they asked the locals what the word meant. Their queries were met with blank stares and the occasional guffaw. Mean something? What on Earth could it mean? And so I was named Hayley Luanshya Juhl, and if I complained in my youth about my title, my mother would answer succinctly: “Be grateful you weren’t born in Chililabombwe.”

In my mid-30s, I discovered the truth according to a Luanshya-centric website. It said Luanshya was the site of a horrible malaria epidemic that wiped out much of the population. I was unwittingly named for that tragedy: the Valley of Death.

I am called Hay Field in the Valley of Death at Christmas time. It is more an address than a name.

And so I will never be lost.



At September 2, 2010 at 3:52 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Luanshya does not mean 'Valley of Death' -- it means 'place of the duiker', a small antelope often found near the Luanshya River in the old days before the mine. You can find this in the writings of the missionary, C M Doke, who lived there in the early part of the 20th century.


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