Meet our Board Members! What’s in a name? Let’s meet Nyanchama

From now on, we would be glad to introduce our amazing Board Members. This month we share the story of Nyanchama. A name is never just a name. It brings with it experiences, living stories. And if this can be generally said of all names, it is even more true of Nyanchama’s case. Indeed, the Board Member we would like to introduce you today is Nyanchama, consultant and campaign coach for the non-profit organization Hand in Hand against Racism. 

Her complete name is Mary Antoinette Stellamaris Nyanchama Okemwa. She comes from Kenya, but she holds the Belgian nationality 30 years now. She is parent of four; the eldest son is 36, while the younger daughter 23. Also, she’s a grandmother. When her granddaughter Sarange was born, Nynchama consciously chose to revert her given name in honour of her niece’s birth. Nyanchama literally means “one with charms”, and it alludes to being “the chosen one” or “one with a calling” in terms, for instance, of healing, divination, and clairvoyance. Nyanchama was named after her great-grandmother who was a healer and ritual priestess. And maybe it is not a coincidence if the relationship she now has with her granddaughter reflects somewhat the one she had with her great-grandmother. Sarange calls Nyanchama magokoro, which is a typical title of respect accorded to a grandmother amongst her people. It is a complex term that is derived from “mother” (ma), a “movement towards” (go) and “ancestor” (koro). Hence, it means “heading towards ancestor-hood” or “outgoing/departing ancestor.” Instead, the translation for “grandchild” – “mochokoro” – stems from “coming” (ogocha) and “ancestor” (koro), and, therefore, it means “coming from ancestor-scape” or “incoming/emerging ancestor”.  Being a decolonial expert, Pan-Africanist, anti-racism activist and defender of human rights, Nyanchama has a wide academic background and a varied work experience, including more than 30- year-experience in voluntarism and activism. You can find out more about her academic and professional background on our website: ENORB’s Board

Although she has Belgian nationality for 30 years, Nyanchama is very close to Kenyan culture and traditions. She reveals that religion plays an important role in the life of most Kenyans. Many people visit their place of worship both to practice their religion as well as to socialize with friends, family, and acquaintances. Also, she tells us that in Kenya, religion is not understood as mutually exclusive, but as an incubator of different beliefs and practices. 

Undoubtedly, religious harmony is reflected in Nyanchama’s personal visions. “I view the world in terms of mutuality and oneness within and between people, planet and profit” – she says – “I believe that we are all intricately intertwined with our habitat (personal, social, economic, political, religious) and with those with whom we interrelate within our habitat. Hence our (co) habitation is both inhabiting (living) and habituating (forming or reforming habits) within our “relationally-constituted” habitat. Accordingly, we are mutually co-constituted in terms of our inter-relational habitation in the world we inhabit, which in its turn is also inhabiting in us”. A vision that was inspired by her grandmothers, who taught her that not only we are one in the world we now live in, but we are also one with our ancestors. 

Talking about ancestors, Nyanchama reveals that they emerge as grandchildren named after them. So here we come again to the names, to untie another knot. Nyanchama explains to us that, since grandmothers are their grandchildren’s name-givers, their relationship is held in high esteem. Indeed, name-giving is akin to opening a portal that channels ancestral forces. It embodies our interconnection with the sacred realm and ageless ancestral wisdom shared amongst elders and between them and their descendants. 

“The transmission of grandmothers’ wisdom is like being a torchbearer endowed with a flame that ignites other torches thereby creating torchbearers who would ensure that this knowledge is preserved and can be transmitted to their progeny”.  

Now that she is a grandmother, Nyanchama does not forget to fulfil its role. Her family became a space where she can transmit her ancestral wisdom. However, this is not a one-way relationship – you might have already understood that – rather a space where members mutually narrate their narratives, share their triumphs and tribulations, commiserate about their anxieties and traumas, and bond in mutual harmony. Nonetheless, her role as grandmother expands outside the family sphere, as she always finds time to give attention to young people who approach her via email or social media with their questions, doubts, and fears. 

As we said, the value of names transcends the mere action of naming people and things. A name, Nyanchama, unravels the value of relationships with the world and people. Today, starting from a name, we have learned a harmonious vision where we are all one with our current and past world. Not only, but this holistic view is also reflected in concrete actions. We can but leave you with the words Nyanchama uses to describe herself.  

“I see myself as a custodian of the hearth wherein flames are kindled from the glowing embers of ancient ancestral wisdom. I am committed to passing on the wisdom imparted to me by my grandmothers and the many other forebears who lived before them. I am the bearer of the shared knowledge of my ancestors, and it is my calling to pass that legacy on to my children and grandchildren, to those who are not yet born and to the wider world. I rely on my African spirituality and the ability it endows me to transcend duality, embrace life to its fullest”.