My name is Ntwali and it means warrior. It used to embarrass me but now I hope I can live up to it
This First Person article is written by Ntwali Kayijaho, a Rwandan Canadian hip-hop artist living in Edmonton. His story is part of Black on the Prairies, a CBC collection of articles, essays, images and more exploring Black life in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba. For more information about First Person stories, see the FAQ.
Hello, my name is Ntwali Kayijaho and I’d like to introduce myself.
I know, I know what you’re thinking right now. How do you pronounce that? Is there a clicking sound? Is it Twali? Is it Nit-Wali? Where is it from? Where are you from?
Before moving to Alberta, I had no idea how unique my name was. Or how difficult it would be for people to pronounce.
I was four when my family moved to Canada as refugees from Rwanda. Out of all the options — places like Belgium, California, Oregon, New York, Buffalo — my parents decided that Windsor, Ont., would be the best fit for them and their four sons and a fifth child on the way.
Eight years later when we moved to Edmonton, my 12-year-old self had no awareness of the identity dilemma I was about to embark on.
A brave name, a difficult time
In my native tongue of Kinyarwanda, “Ntwali” means warrior or brave person. According to my parents, Ntwali stood out when they were searching for a name to give me.
I was born on July 13, 1996, two years after the end of one of the world’s worst genocides. The 100-day massacre that targeted Tutsi people like my family — one of the two minority populations of Rwanda — ended on July 15, 1994, with an estimated 800,000 to one million people dead.
My parents chose to stay among the Tutsi people who tried to rebuild the country but in March 2000, they decided it was too difficult to remain and went in search of a better life in Canada.
My parents shielded us from the tough times they’d known.
My father, a renowned physician in Rwanda, was not viewed as being as educated as he was once we arrived in Canada. Therefore, he would commute across the border daily to do a master’s in public health at Wayne State University in Detroit. He managed to graduate at the top of his class while volunteering at a hospital pushing wheelchairs, working full-time at the United Way and providing for the family.
My mother, who had been a teacher and a business owner in Rwanda, had to lay down her hustler’s spirit to raise five boys. On top of that, they were both still coping with the trauma of losing family, friends and property in Rwanda.
I was around 17 when my parents explained the meaning of my name. After what they had gone through, they needed a warrior in their lives.
Growing into my name
Today I am honoured that my name carries so much power, intention and the richness of my family’s identity. But 12-year-old me did not know how beautiful and meaningful my name was and I had the complete opposite reaction to it.
To avoid embarrassment and humiliation, I told my peers in junior high to call me Wali — a nickname that I would come to dislike later in life.
Roll call was something I dreaded every single day of school, especially when our names popped up on those big smartboards. Well-meaning teachers, especially the substitutes, would make a whole speech about how they did not want to butcher it and would go on to ask me where I’m from and whatnot.
My friends would always tease me because they knew only my name would cause teachers that much difficulty.
When I changed my artist name to Ntwali in 2018, I heard over and over how hard it would be to market myself with my complicated name. But after learning my heritage — and experiencing the life lessons of my name — I pressed forward regardless.
Now I get to share my heritage through my artistry and advertise the cool name that, believe it or not, I was once ashamed of having.
I am not the only person to have sold myself short to blend in with society. So many people tell me their unique and beautiful names and then quickly tell me a nickname shortened to accommodate others.
But the message that I would like to get across is that your name has meaning. Your culture has meaning. Don’t go covering it up to be somebody you’re not — trust me, I’m speaking from experience.
It felt like a full-circle moment in my life in 2019 when I was given the opportunity to share a poem I wrote in front of hundreds of Rwandan genocide survivors at 25th memorial anniversary in Edmonton.
Both my parents and my brothers who survived it were in the audience. At that exact moment, I found myself being a warrior for my family by representing our loved ones, our dignity and our strength.
Own the richness of your culture because you never know when you’ll be called up to be a warrior for your people.
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