Why Justin Jekonia Onyango Kwasa is more than my name, it’s my story
What does your name mean?
Justin Jekoinia Onyango Kwasa. With a name like that, I get asked this question a lot. My usual answer is, “just because my name is non-Anglican doesn’t mean it has some special meaning.” But that’s a lie. A more truthful answer is that my name contains four words that together highlight key aspects of my heritage and personality. In order to understand my name, we need to go all the way to the beginning…with the name Onyango
In my father’s culture, people are given names based on their sex and time of birth. I was born around 6:00 PM so I was given the name Onyango. Onyango means that you are male born in the morning. If you’re confused, don’t worry you read the last two sentences right. Due to a shaky remembrance of the tribal language, I was misnamed Onyango instead of Odhiambo. I didn’t even know about this mistake until very recently. A cousin had to painfully break the news to me at a recent family wedding. The misnaming does, however, have one pop culture benefit. In the fourth season of the TV series Arrested Development, it is revealed that Onyango is also Tobias Funke’s middle name. That’s another long story I won’t get into so let’s get back to my birth.
It was at that time that I was also given my “first name” Justin. This name is ironic because while Justin is the name that used to identify me publically, it’s also the least significant name out of my four. Basically, my parents just liked names that ended with the “n” sound. My name is Justin. If I was a girl, I would have been named Autumn. Also, my sister’s name is Jasmine. The funny thing is that my parents aren’t even impressed with the name they gave me. As a teenager, one of them told me that it would be cool if I would go by one of my middle names instead. Really? You DON’T like Justin? Thanks for blowing my fragile teenage self esteem. You had a full nine months to pick a name and you have the audacity to tell me thirteen years later that you messed up!
But having my first name be the one that least defines me taught me an early lesson about identity. You don’t have to be defined by what others see you as.
I guess my mom chose the name Justin because she didn’t want me to struggle with having a name that no one could pronounce. Like Barack Obama. You see my mother, a Black girl from the South Side of Chicago married my father, who was from Kenya. That’s how I got my last name, Kwasa.
Understand this, my father isn’t just any Kenyan. He comes from the most revered and prestigious clan in all of Africa, the Luos. Never heard of them? Well you might have heard of some of our kinsman. How about Academy Award winning actress Lupita Nyong’o? Does the 44th President of these United States Barack Obama sound familiar?. Yeah Obama and I are “related.” Barack Obama Sr. and my grandfather came to America in the same educational program. That puts Barack and I in the proud, but small group known as Halfricans.
I joke around about my Kenyan heritage, today, but I didn’t always love this name and what it meant. Back when I was a kid, the thing I wanted most was to be a “regular American.” When you say your name is Justin, people just think of you as Black male. But when they see or hear the name Kwasa, you instantly get treated differently. I can’t count the number of times I’ve been asked where me/my family are REALLY from (Chicago won’t suffice as an answer). Basically when people find out I’m “African” they expect me to belt out the opening song of the Lion King. As a kid, I wanted to take my last name, drag it out to an alley, beat the crap out of it, shoot it, bring it back to life and shoot it again. The hate was that real.
Eventually as a teenager, I grew into my name and even began to be proud of my heritage. But it was always an incomplete sense of pride. As much as I embraced myself being African, I had never actually been to Kenya. I didn’t know Swahili or Luo. I couldn’t even point out where my family was from on a map of Kenya. I basically felt impostor syndrome with my own name and culture. That is why a couple of years ago, my sister and I decided to send ourselves to Kenya to finally experience our “homeland.”
Jekonia is the name of my great-grandfather.
In Luo culture, there is the belief that you embody the person you are named after. What I didn’t know until I got to Kenya was the extent to which they took it. You see, while I was in Nairobi, the capital and largest city in Kenya, everything was mostly Westernized. But when we left the city and went out to the countryside, where my family still lived, everything changed to Luo customs, including my name. For the first 27 years of my life, I had always been known as Justin Kwasa but the whole time I was in Kenya, I was known as Jekonia Onyango.
Being Jekonia Onyango was a complicated experience. On the one hand, I felt the connection and understanding of my culture that I had been struggling to experience ever since I had accepted my last name. You see while in Kenya, I wasn’t just called Jekonia, I WAS Jekonia. The patriarch of the Kwasa family. Older family members that I had never met greeted me as their grandfather or uncle, once they heard my name. This experience, along with seeing first hand the people, places and customs I had only heard about before, made the trip that much more fulfilling.
But being Jekonia also made something else very clear. I wasn’t Kenyan. I wasn’t a Luo. Regardless of how much I learned about my family and was accepted by them, I realized that this wasn’t MY culture. The values and traditions that governed their lives weren’t the same ones that governed mine. My worldview was different and that was OK. It was then that I realized that I was always the “American” that I wanted to be as a kid. That was where I learned that Jekonia Onyango is a part of Justin Kwasa but Justin Kwasa was not just Jekonia Onyango.
What does your name mean?
Our names are so much bigger than ourselves. Our names hold the legacy of our ancestors before us, the hopes of our parent’s expectations, the pride and shame of everything we’ve done thus far and will serve as a standard for the generations after us. Whether your name was given to you by your parents, your friends or personally chosen, these words are the building blocks from which we can chart our own course.
My name tells the story of my grandfather who traveled halfway across the world for the chance of a better education. My name also tells the story of my grandmother who left her Mississippi home at 18 determined to leave the segregated South. My name tells the story of their children meeting at an Illinois college.
But my name also tells the complicated story of being Black in America. Of existing between White American and Black African archetypes. My name tells the story of the struggle to be unique when on first glance everyone has written your story in their heads. My name contains my full experience. The joys and sorrows, the wisdom and mistakes, the pride and fears of not just me, but of my whole family. My name is me.
So, what does your name mean?