The best gift I ever received was given to me by my Zulu professor: the former South African poet–laureate Mazisi Kunene.
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Professor Kunene was a Mountain of a man; at least that’s how I remember him. At the beginning of each class, during my semester abroad at the University of Durban Westville, he would exclaim, “I am Mazisi Kunene of the Kunene River, look it up on the map!” He was jolly, with a short white afro and a warm smile. Mazisi Kunene had lived in exile in the United States while working on behalf of the resistance movement. He was a friend of the Mandelas. He was also a prophet––more stories on that at another time––and he could speak with his ancestors.
On the first day of Zulu instruction––we had 3 hours every day, Mazisi Kunene gave us all Zulu names. Maybe this kind of thing has happened to you in your foreign language classes. Before assigning a name, Mazisi would pause, tilt his head, and listen to his ancestors.
The name he gave me––after consulting with his long dead relatives ––was Nomhlaba, which means Mother of the Earth. Professor Kunene explained to me that this was not about loving or caring for the earth, per se, but it meant that I could travel anywhere on the earth and that whatever I would need, I could find within myself.
This name was a gift, and it has taken me years to understand it more fully. I am most certainly still on a journey to comprehend it completely.
While I couldn’t fully grasp the nature of Kunene’s gift when it was bestowed, I could grasp that I was on a journey a very long way from home.
I was traveling with a small group of American students from several different colleges to study political reconstruction in the wake of Apartheid. My semester studying in Durban was the first time in my life that I had travelled outside the United States. Actually, before that, I had barely left New England. I grew up in a small town in Vermont. I had the same friends my whole life. I journeyed not too far to attend college in Lewiston, Maine. My existence was what you might call “sheltered,” and in that sheltered existence, I had drawn some conclusions about myself and my identity. I had determined that I was “sporty,” but not overly athletic; smart, but not overly studious; introverted and a worry-wart. I was very comfortable in my life, but, as it turns out, comfort can be bad for learning. I didn’t like to do things I wasn’t good at, and I was afraid to fail.
Eleanor Roosevelt is quoted as saying, “You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself, ‘I have lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along.’ You must do the thing you think you cannot do.”
What I believe is that when we push ourselves to go outside of our comfort zone, we will discover there is no limit to what we can learn and achieve. The gift that Mazisi Kunene gave me was much more than a name. What he gave me was confidence and optimism.
In that naming moment, Mazisi Kunene changed my life forever. My name has changed the way that I face a challenge or difficult situation. Rather than assuming that I will fail, I approach every obstacle with a positive mindset. I enter those moments, even when they are most difficult, with a knowledge that I have what I need inside. It doesn’t always make those moments easy (in fact it rarely, if ever, does), but it makes it feel possible to work my way through. What I also know is that the challenge is an opportunity for growth and learning. My name has given me the strength to take on very challenging circumstances that have enhanced my life immeasurably.
So, my message to you is this: don’t underestimate the resources you have within you. Occasionally, do what you believe you cannot do, and enjoy the ride.