My name is Omékongo Luhaka wa Dibinga wa Yenga Kakesse wa Tshintunkasa. For American cultural purposes, my first name is Omékongo and my last name is Dibinga. Writing my full name may be irrelevant to you but it means everything to me. You see, when I was growing up in Boston in the 1970s & 80s, I was beaten up for just saying my name by my classmates and other neighborhood kids. Nowadays, however, I say my name with pride as a motivational speaker who inspires others to be more accepting of people of diverse backgrounds.
Do you know what it feels like to have just the mention of your name trigger violence? If not, maybe you will after reading part of my story. I was born in Boston. My Congolese parents escaped a tumultuous situation and came to America where they received nine academic degrees including three doctorates from Harvard and the Sorbonne. Sounds as if I should have had it easy growing up right? Well I did and I didn’t. My life has been one of eternal dualities. I’ve been a have and a have-not, and I have been rich and poor at the exact same time.
My parents were deep into the Black Power movement of the 1970s, causing them to end up leaving their teaching positions at Harvard and Boston College. With this, my family fell on tough times. Part of my childhood years were spent living a meager lifestyle. During the winters, it sometimes got so cold in our house since we didn’t have heat that we had to gather around the stove and cover ourselves over it with a blanket in order to keep warm.
Our house was also infested at one point with rats and cats. We also at times had neither electricity nor phone service. Lastly, there were frequent issues with the plumbing, leading us to have to boil water to take warm bucket baths or just take cold baths.
The aforementioned situations would normally be enough to fracture the toughest child’s spirit but this was not my only problem. Remember my name? Our names caused us to be tormented outside of our house. On the lighter side, my name became the subject of nursery rhyme remixes. “Old McDonald had a farm” became “Omékongo had a farm.” On the darker side, we were beaten up and called all types of names like “African bush boogie” and “African booty scratcher.”
Kids grasped at anything for new insults to hurl our way. On a deeper physical level, my eldest brother was even shot in the eye. One of his earliest memories of living in Boston is watching my older sister pulling my two brothers by the hand back from school while “class”mates were throwing rocks at them and calling them names. Lastly, not only did our names make us stand out but so did our lack of designer clothes, which other students always noticed.
This was my life growing up. Thoughts of suicide leased space in my psyche. In my desperation, I turned to the one source of pride that I could find—my name, ironically. In my identity quest, I realized that my name had strong historical roots. My parents told me I was named after a great Congolese warrior who saved my grandfather’s life. Carrying a name with such a great history, I decided I could no longer hold my head down! As Nietzsche said, once you understand your “why” for living, you can endure almost any “how” so having discovered my “why,” I felt ready to take on the world!
I started telling myself that if I was named after a warrior, I must live as one. Furthermore, I remembered the words of our neighbor Mrs. Johnson. See, it has been said that if you hear a negative comment once, you have to hear the opposite positive comment 17 times to negate the negative comment. For this, I owe Mrs. Johnson a great deal. Rumor had it she was a soothsayer!
My mother told me that Mrs. Johnson said that I was going to do great things. I couldn’t figure out why she chose me over the other children on the street, but I stopped trying to figure it out. I just started telling myself that I am destined for more than my current circumstance. Rather than picking up the guns and shoot back or pick up the bats and swing back at our detractors, I decided to pick up the pen and write back, not fight back.
I began writing to simply express myself, but I soon realized that my writings could help others understand me. I figured that maybe if I could show those who hated us that we all laugh and cry in the same language, those who tormented us would understand us better and embrace us. I was right!
As others began hearing my story, they slowly realized that we had more in common than apart. Slowly, as dialogue increased, the disrespect decreased. As I said in the beginning, I’ve been rich and poor at the same time. Throughout my struggles, I’ve always had a rich culture to draw strength from, even when I didn’t realize it. Though I was a material have-not, I always had a strong family to get me through the toughest of times and that helped me to feel like a millionaire on many occasions.
My experiences led me to realize that I needed to devote my life to bridging cultural divides, focusing particularly on young people who have experienced what I have gone through or even worse. I have lived, worked or performed in 18 countries and my work has been televised in over 150 countries. Rest assured, this little kid with the funny name who was beaten up for saying his name is now making a living speaking about his name and understanding cultural diversity. It all works out in the end my friend, if you stay on your course.For more about Omekongo and his journey, be sure to pick up his motivational book ”
G.R.O.W. Towards Your Greatness! 10 steps to living your best life