Name protocol

In my capacity as bridge-builder and maven of the crosscultural, Congolese names are driving me nuts. Multiply name complications by Congolese and airline bureaucracy and you get a major Catch-22 snafu.

I once asked my friend François to explain the system whereby people name their children but I quickly got lost. Then I learned that the system he was explaining was a tribal one, and other ethnic groups did it differently. Then again, many people were changing their naming patterns to fit a more Western mode.

Suffice it to say that the systems are confusing to a Westerner, and they are in flux. I have found that the only way to know what to call a person you meet is to listen to what other people call him or her. Often we Westerners resort to using a Congolese person’s Christian name because it is easiest for us to remember. People kindly accept that, but when other Congolese talk about that person and call her by another name you don’t know who they’re talking about.

Most of the Congolese I know have three principal names: two Congolese names and a Christian name. Some, such as married women, may have more but we’ll ignore that for the moment. On all Congolese documents, beginning with school homework, the two Congolese names are written in all caps, and the Christian name, if it is written at all, follows in cap/lower case: TSHIDIMU MUKENDI François.

This does not follow the Western first-middle-last name pattern, or even a given-middle-family name pattern. Rather, the pattern is something like important-family-Christian. The important name is Tshidimu. It is a unique “given” name. Mukendi is a name that comes from the family and is passed on by family (tribal) rules. And François is the name either received at infant baptism or, more usual these days, a French name given at birth along with the others. (Christian names were banned during the Mobutu era when we lived in Congo but have come back into use.)

Many people call my friend François. Many call him Tshidimu. Nobody calls him Mukendi, Mr. Mukendi, or Pastor Mukendi although Mukendi, strictly speaking, is his family name. It is not, however, a name that he passes to his children. If he passes on any name at all it is Tshidimu, his important (Congolese given) name. But sometimes it’s the mother’s important name that gets passed on. I got lost in the explanation of the distinction. If any name is omitted it’s the family name, which is about as insignificant as our middle names. He becomes François Tshidimu or Tshidimu François.

The system, whatever it is, seems to work in Congo, but try buying an international airline ticket online for TSHIDIMU MUKENDI François, as I just did.

I tried to fill in the blanks for the passenger’s name in a straightforward way. First name: François. Middle name: Tshidimu. Last name: Mukendi.

This might have worked, except that the airline dropped the middle name when it issued the e-ticket and the “middle” name just happened to be the important one. The ticket was issued to Mr. François Mukendi. (Question to Brussels Airline: why ask for a middle name if you aren’t going to use it? Answer: We don’t require it but you can put it in if you want to.)

When François presented his e-ticket, in person, to the Kinshasa office of Brussels Airline, he was told he would never get through the Kinshasa airport because the name did not match what appears on his passport. The ticket had to show all three names. (His flight is several weeks away. He was wise to check it out well ahead of time.)

He emailed me and asked me to fix the problem. I called Brussels Airline, US office, because I wasn’t about to try to handle this problem in French. I was told that, since it seemed to be a problem in Kinshasa, he had to fix it in Kinshasa. I emailed François and told him this. That was yesterday.

So François went to the airline office again this morning–not a simple trip in Kinshasa, let me tell you. He was told no changes could be made in his ticket without physically presenting the credit card that bought it–mine.

I called the US office again and explained this latest version of the problem. I had to make the name change. I said, the solution seemed to be to treat Tshidimu Mukendi as a hyphenated last name, so that both names showed up on the ticket. I spelled Tshidimu many, many times (although it should have been in their records somewhere). I was told they would look into it and get back to me. “It’s complicated,” the agent chirped, “because the Brussels-Chicago part of the flight is on United.”

Complicated. Tell me about it.

And also. François needed to change the return date of the ticket because he had learned he couldn’t get a Canadian visa to visit his son while he was in North America. The date change had to be handled after the name change, I’d been told, but I laid that information on the agent as well, hoping she could wrap her brain around it.

I called  a few hours later because she hadn’t called me back as she promised, by 10. I spoke to another agent and learned that the previous agent had dropped the reservation and made an entirely new one, Business Class, for an additional $1800. AAAACK. Fortunately, it had not yet been charged to my credit card.

Several complications later (the agent kept asking, But what is his LAST name?–although her airline flies lots and lots of Congolese) I learned that the Kinshasa office had already made the necessary changes–he had become “MukendiFrancois Mr. Tshidimu” on the new ticket. Whatever works for Kinshasa, I guess. I just needed to pay for name and date changes: $140.16. By then it seemed like a bargain.

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