Sunday, March 12, 2017

Alice Walker and Everyday Use: Meanings of "Wangero, Wa-su-zo-Tean-o, Leewanika, Kemanjo"

The central character in Alice Walker’s “Everyday Use,” the beautiful Dee Johnson, breaks away from her Deep Southern American roots to become the heavily educated, urbanized, modernized young woman who despises her cultural setting. She later visits her bucolic dirty southern family of her mother Mama Johnson and unattractive scruffy and scarred sister Maggie. Dee signifies her transformation after stepping out of the car, by uttering to the two, “Wa-su-zo-Tean-o,” and declaring that her new name is African: Wangero Leewanika Kemanjo. Debate and dissection continues about the inspiration and significance behind these African terms in Walker’s famous short story.

“Wa-su-zo-Tean-o,” is pre-noon daytime Luganda language greeting used by the Baganda of Uganda. It directly means, “How did you sleep?” but is a way of saying “Good morning” or “I hope you slept well.” The correct wording is, “Wasuze otya nno?” But how would this greeting phrase that is so specific to a Ugandan ethnic group end up in one of Walker’s most memorable works? It is worthy to note that Walker an excellent full-scholarship student at prestigious Spellman College in Atlanta (Georgia), transferred to distinguished Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville (New York) in 1963. Some of the reasons cited for her transferring are that Spellman was too conservative and puritanical for her liking.

Walker’s roommate and dear friend at Spellman College, which she left in 1963 for Sarah Lawrence, happened to be a Ugandan named Constance. In 1964, after her junior year, Walker traveled to Uganda as a summer exchange student. Interviewed by Amy Goodman during the Organization of Women Writers of Africa conference at New York University in 2004, Alice Walker recounts about her Ugandan roommate as well as her painful journey to discovering her great-great-grandmother’s grave:

“So, I went back to pay my respects and to take flowers, …I was lucky enough to be able to get my Ugandan roommate–when I was at Spellman my roommate was this wonderful woman from Uganda who made me care deeply about Africans and African women. In fact I went to Uganda trying to understand how Constance had been created and produced by this country which before Idi Amin was very beautiful, very tranquil and green. So anyway Constance and I and my entire women’s council–I belonged to a women’s council–went to visit this grave. We sat there–my Constance from Uganda, my friend Belvee from–I mean, so many of us with so many histories that are so painful. Belvee’s mother had been actually beaten to death. So, we had a long time of crying there. We watered those graves with our tears. We were happy to do it.”

Further, there is a small place in Uganda that happens to be uniquely named Wangero. The root word “ngero’ means “stories” or “proverbs.” Wangero can hence mean, “the place of stories” or “the person of stories.” Local Ugandan friends may have given Walker the nickname “Wangero” or alluded to it, or Walker may have picked it out from the people of the first area he visited in Africa. Alice Walker, from early in her life, has certainly been a person of “many stories.” Some, like Helga Hoel (a Norwegian scholar on Kenya literature), have speculated that “Wangero” is a mispronunciation and misspelling of the common Kenyan Kikuyu name Wanjiru. That theory does not hold water—the two have distinctly different spellings, the Kikuyu live hundreds of miles away east of Buganda, and the “Wa-” prefix is quite common in many personal names of east and central Africa.

The Leewanika is apparently a misspelling or an Alice Walker variant of the name Lewanika who was a powerful king in a region (Barotse Land) of present day Zambia. Under Lewanika, the region became a British Protectorate after colonial enforcement negotiations with Cecil Rhodes. In African terms, the “Le” in Lewanika is pronounced “leh” rather than “liih.”

The name Kemanjo is apparently of African structure, but it is hard to prove that it is an African name. Helga Hoel speculates that it is a misspelling of the Kenyan Kikuyu name “Kamenjo” (White: 2001).


Goodman, Amy. “Alice Walker on the ‘Toxic Culture” of Globalization,” in Democracy Now!—The War and Peace Report. 2004.

Hoel, Helga. “Personal Names and Heritage: Alice Walker’s ‘Everyday Use’.” 2000. Trondheim Cathedral School, Trondheim, Norway. 30 Jan. 2000.

White, David. “‘Everyday Use’: Defining African-American Heritage,” Portals–Purdue North Central Literary Journal, 2001.

Labels: Alice Walker and Everyday Use: Meanings of "Wangero, Wa-su-zo-Tean-o, Leewanika, Kemanjo"

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