Giving Thanks for My Name

I’ve always felt strongly about names.   A good name can provide you with a sense of history, direction and character. It grounds you while at the same time giving you wings.

My name- Mara- means many things.  As a child I first learned of its Hebrew meaning, “bitter.”  My Mother liked to tell me that the local Rabbi had tried to persuade her to choose a better name, even offering Miriam as a more suitable alternative.  He said that Mara was no name for the promise of a Jewish baby, but my mother had been adamant, and Mara I was.  Over the years I have searched for other more nuanced meanings of my name, hoping for something slightly more positive or inspiring. But somehow I always got stuck with the Biblical translation; that is, until I met the Sisters.

The moment I introduced myself things got weird.  “Hi, I’m Mara,” I said.  They had looked at me with interest, asking me to spell my name- M. A. R. A.    “What do you do?”- it was a seemingly innocent question posed with expectant eyes. I overflowed with enthusiasm, describing my then position at the University at Buffalo, brokering partnerships with area schools, working to support the promise of education.

Time stopped and the air grew fuzzy.  Why were they staring at me?  I could feel the weight of coincidence before it was revealed.  They had traveled from the Mara Region of Tanzania- spelled and pronounced exactly the same- and were seeking partners to help them build a school for girls. 

Honestly, what were the odds?  It was Christmas day and the two nuns- Sister Janepha and Sister Agnes were last minute guests at my mother-in-law’s.  They explained that in rural Tanzania, where 80% of the population live, girls are traded into marriage at an early age, left to endure lives of suffering and hardship with no hope of upward mobility.  There, like in our own country, education is the only pathway to prosperity- but because there is not enough money, girls are forced to marry, as families look to their boys to invest their precious resources and hopes for the future.   By the end of their visit the Sisters had asked me to help them, or at least that’s what I recall.  As a mother of four young children (3 girls and 1 boy), their vision represented everything I believed in and was working towards.  And how could I ignore the significance of the name?

I’m still not sure what to make of this story. I have never been what you would call a religious person- or a fatalist- but it’s hard to deny the significance of our initial meeting or all that has since transpired.    So many gifts have been given and received since that Christmas day six years ago.  And there are so many stories yet to be told.

Since meeting the Sisters in 2007 I have visited the Mara region on two occasions, taking a bridge across the Mara River, gazing toward the Masai Mara Reserve, and being welcomed by countless countrymen who smiled when they heard my name and its significance.  I came back feeling so inspired that following my second trip in 2011 I did yet another internet name search.  This time I typed in “the name Mara in Africa” and thankfully the word “bitter” did not appear.  Instead, it said that in Africa people named Mara have a deep inner desire for love and companionship and want to work with others to achieve peace and harmony.  It also said that in Kiswahili, the National language of Tanzania, the name Mara means “a time.”

I know from my travels that time in Tanzania is thought of quite differently than it is here.  There, time is said to be elastic, meaning that it stretches and changes with the rhythms and demands of life. In Tanzania things take as long as they take.  Movement is not forced or imposed but crawls forward on its own accord, little by little -or as they say, “pole pole”).    As a person who has always been terribly impatient, trying to peek ahead and force movement at every turn, this discovery about my name still makes me giggle.  

Since meeting the Sisters (Immaculate Heart Sistes of Africa), and helping to start ourTanzania project I have had many more “chance” encounters with amazing people who continue to enrich my life in so many ways. And so on this Thanksgiving weekend as I count my many blessings I would like to  thank those of you who have been part of the BTEP journey …. and my parents for giving me such a wonderful name….


About mbhuber2013

Associate Dean for Undergraduate Research and Experiential Learning and Director of Experiential Learning Network at the University at Buffalo

6 responses to “Giving Thanks for My Name”

  1. Lukia Costello says :

    Wonderful post, Mara! Very inspiring. I wish I had be there to capture the sentiment and beauty of everyone involved. Truly, lovely.


  2. goshin2013 says :

    Hey, do you ever rest from writing? I used to babysit in Queens for a Mara – a very sweet and adorable girl. Have a great Thankshanukah!

    I like the name. True, Miriam would have been better( my mother’s ‘Jewish’ name).

    Sent from my iPhone


  3. Renee says :

    I remember the day you told me about your “chance”meeting
    with the sisters and I got chills. ” You know this
    is too big to be a coincidence, right?” Is what I
    recall saying to you. I’m honored to follow
    you on this journey as a your lifelong friend.
    My name “Renee” means “renew” which seems appropriate
    considering the changes I have before me.
    Loved this post!


  4. Godfrey Telli says :

    Hey Mara, how are you and the family doing! I am so busy teaching two Colleges in Tanzania! Nevertheless i found time to follow your blog. It carries such powerful and insightful messages. It really is!

    By the way, I need to make some small correction on the Swahili translation of your name Mara. Actually the correct translation is not time but “times” or “multiply”. For example one times one (1 x 1) in Swahili is “Moja Mara Moja”!

    I think it is even more lovely to have such a name and you still should be proud of your mom for such a thoughtful name!

    What a lovely blog! Congrats Mara, and please keep on posting!

    Best, Godfrey


  5. Gemma Mckee says :

    Hi Mara. I realise this is an old post but I thought I would tell you that Mara is also derived from the Scots gaelic word for the sea. We are expecting a baby in November and Mara if our favourite girls name 🙂


    • mbhuber2013 says :

      How lovely..thank you for sharing this other translation. And how exciting to have a baby on the way- for the record, I love my name. Thanks for the comment Gemma.


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