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September 7 2011 4 07 /09 /September /2011 05:57

Readers and writers have, for four decades, wondered and debated about the origin of the name "Wangero," which name is prominent in Alice Walker's renowned short story "Everyday Use" that bears a mid-20th Century flavor. Wangero is the African name that the youngster Dee Johnson adopts after she leaves USA's rural Deep South for college and urbanism where she becomes modernized and radicalized. When she pays her bucolic mother "Mama Johnson" and scruffy and disfigured uneducated sister Maggie a visit, she declares to them that she has foregone the name Dee Johnson for her new African name, "Wangero Leewanika Kemanjo."

A lecture that Alice Walker delivered on September 13th 2010 at the University of Capetown in South Africa, apparently puts a lot of questions regarding the name "Wangero" to rest. On this date, at the Eleventh Annual Steve Biko Lecture, in the lecture titled, "Coming to See You Since I was 5 Years Old: A Poets Connection to the South African Soul," Walker credits her college undergraduate Ugandan friend Constance Wangero for her inquisitiveness and fascination with Africa and her peoples:


"...the most important friendship I encountered during my student years...an African woman named Constance Wangero...from Uganda. ...Constance and I were sisters...developed my...interest...and concern for Africa and its peoples. ...I was still 19 or 20...made my way to the land of Constance Wangero...to discover...what made her...a wonderful person, wise and gentle beyond her years and...those of any of the other girls at our school. Uganda...people’s gentle courtesy and kindness. ...a land of the greenest valleys and hills. ...a...feeling of peace and patience with a stranger. I was taken in...by a Ugandan family...sheltered and cared for...dispelling...any sense...that I would not be recognized as one of Africa’s children."

Alice Walker transferred from Spelman College (Atlanta, Georgia) to Sarah Lawrence College (Bronxville, NY) in 1963. At Spelman, Constance Wangero became Walker's room-mate and closest friend. In 1964, after her junior tenure in college, Walker journeyed to Uganda as a summer exchange student. Amy Goodman interviewed Walker during the Organization of Women Writers of Africa conference at New York University in 2004. Walker says, without mentioning the name "Wangero":

"...at Spelman my roommate...wonderful woman from Uganda who made me care deeply about Africans and African women. ...I went to Uganda trying to understand how Constance had been created and produced by this country which...was very beautiful...tranquil...green."

It therefore turns out that Wangero is an African personal name. There is a place in Uganda named Wangero. In Luganda, one of the main languages of Uganda, the root '-ngero' means "stories" or "proverbs." Wangero can therefore mean, "place of stories" or "person of stories." The character Dee is re-named Wangero, in honor of Alice Walker's early African friend Constance Wangero.

Works Cited

Walker, Alice. "Coming to See You Since I was 5 Years Old: A Poets Connection to the South African Soul," 11th Annual Steve Biko Lecture, University of Capetown, South Africa, September 13, 2010.

Walker, Alice. In an interview with Amy Goodman, Organization of Women Writers of Africa Conference, New York University, 2004.

Jonathan Musere

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