Her name is a first-class tongue-twister to be sure.
Victoria Namusavyumuremyi, a junior guard for Highland High School’s girls basketball team, has gotten accustomed to hearing coaches, teachers, friends and pretty much everyone else stammer and stumble over her eight-syllable last name.
While some make good-faith efforts, others simply throw up their hands. Public address announcers at a pair of recent Hornets road games took the easy way out, referring to Namusavyumuremyi as “Vicky N.”
In her case, even pronunciation practice doesn’t necessarily make perfect. Destini Ryan, a friend and teammate since middle school, laughed when asked how many of the Hornets could pronounce Victoria’s last name.
“I don’t think any of them can,” Ryan said. “I try but I can’t get it right.”
Victoria smiled and shook her head at Ryan’s all-too-typical plight. A native of the United Republic of Tanzania, she realizes her unusual last name is representative of the wide cultural chasm her family has crossed.
But Victoria conceded that her last name would also be uncommon in Tanzania. It is not a family surname but one chosen by Victoria’s mother during pregnancy. As is customary in East African countries where Swahili is the primary language, Victoria’s family members have distinct last names.
“When I got here, I heard how some families all have the same last name,” she said. “Me and my family were like, ‘Whoa, that’s weird.'”
Namusavyumuremyi, she said, translates to, “I ask Jesus for life.” Victoria’s mother, Reah Ndayishimiye, has a last name that means “I’m faithful, ” and her sister, Delphine Mpawenimana, has a last name meaning “I’m a gift from God.”
Each last name tells an individual story, Victoria said.
“All our African last names have to do with God and the struggle the mother went through with God to deliver that child,” she said.
Such knowledge might have helped first-year Highland girls basketball coach Lonnie Neal, who made a point to learn how to pronounce his junior guard’s last name.
“Her sister came to pick her up one day,” Neal recalled, “and I called her ‘Delphine Namusavyumuremyi.’ She looked at me like I was crazy and said, ‘Why are you calling me that?’
“I obviously had a lot to learn.”
The learning curve has been far steeper for Namusavyumuremyi and her family, who traveled from Africa to New Mexico in 2007. The journey actually began in Burundi, home to Victoria’s mother, Reah. She left the war-torn, desperately poor country seeking a better life.
First stop was Tanzania, where Victoria was born, though she claims to be from Burundi – a country she’s never visited.
“We say Burundi because where I’m from it’s rude for the kids to say where they were born,” Victoria said. “My mom was born in Burundi so I tell people I’m from Burundi, even though I was born in Tanzania.”
The family’s exodus to America was aided by Catholic Charities and was anything but simple. It included numerous bus trips, lengthy stays in unfamiliar villages and numerous interviews as families basically competed for a chance to relocate.
“It wasn’t safe for us,” Victoria recalled. “It was like awful.”
The family was finally selected for relocation and came to Albuquerque, where some cousins had previously settled.
No one in Victoria’s family spoke English, and American culture was baffling.
“I was actually bald, had no hair and kids looked at me kind of weird,” Victoria said. “People didn’t know if I was a girl, so I had a hard time with that. Back home girls are not allowed to have hair at all, except the ones with rich parents.”
Fortunately, English came quickly to Victoria, who already spoke Swahili and two other languages. Diet and socialization took longer.
“I’d never had that many kinds of food in Africa,” she said, “and when I got here I was really picky. I started losing a lot of weight until I got used to the food.”
There was also an initial impression that New Mexicans were inherently rude.
“My family and I would see other black people and try to speak to them in our language,” Victoria said. “They’d look at us crazy and we’d think, ‘Why aren’t you talking back?'”
The family gradually acclimated, and Namusavyumuremyi began to make friends while attending Wilson Middle School. Ryan and others ultimately persuaded her to try basketball, a sport she knew nothing about.
“When I finally went out the coach saw I didn’t really know how to play,” Victoria said. “She basically just told me to run all the time and I did.”
Running was easy for Victoria, who enjoyed spending time with her teammates. When she arrived at Highland as a freshman, basketball skills began to click – defensive skills anyway.
“(Ryan) was one of the best players, and they just told me to stay with her, keep my hands down and watch her stomach,” Victoria said, “so I did. Then after a while I got a steal from her and pretty soon I was competing with the JV.”
Two seasons later, Victoria remains a basketball work in progress. She’s 5-foot-4 and slightly built, but possesses eye-catching speed and quickness.
Neal, who took over Highland’s struggling program this season (5-13 before a scheduled Thursday night game with Atrisco Heritage), is trying to expand Victoria’s game.
“She’s my defensive stopper,” Neal said, “and sometimes you’ll swear she’s everywhere. She just has to learn to stay at that level. Learning to use her left hand might help, too.”
The latter comment brought a knowing nod from Victoria, but Ryan says her teammate’s skills are improving. In a Hornets victory over Manzano last week, Victoria was 4-for-6 from the floor and finished with nine points, three steals and an assist.
“I think she’s come a long way,” Ryan said.
Making a name
Neal said learning to coach Namusavyumuremyi has been a process.
“If I get after her during a game, she takes it personal,” Neal said. “She’ll come to me and say, ‘Sorry I made you mad.’ She doesn’t get sarcasm and she’s never been coached.”
Neal has gotten better results from one-on-one instruction during breaks.
Ironically, Victoria may be learning more about coaching from the instructional side. A talented dancer, she picked up numerous routines in Africa and enjoys teaching them to friends and teammates. Victoria dreams of perhaps operating her own dance studio someday.
For the time being, she’s focused on keeping her grades up and improving as a basketball player. Regardless of how much she improves, Victoria’s not convinced Namusavyumuremyi will ever become a household name.
“People can’t spell my last name and that’s all the time,” she said with a shrug. “I don’t even know what to say about that.”