Why our traditional names risk extinction

Kids enjoying themselves. What names do we give to our children? [XN Iraki, Standard]

Our ancestors took naming very seriously with elaborate ceremonies. That led to standardised naming in some communities depending on the time you were born, where you were born, whether you are a firstborn, who your parents are and other criteria.

Our naming has not escaped changes since independence. After all, we have no naming policy in Kenya as in some countries like Spain. What changes have taken place in our names and naming since then? Should we worry over these changes? 

Mzee Mathenge Iregi’s records on money collected to prepare for uhuru celebration in 1963 gave me some insights to namesbefore independence. Women contributors had interesting names such as Wanjiru w/o Kamau. W/o for the wife of. Were women prouder of their husbands or more subdued?

Today, you will get Mrs or a hyphen like Jane Onyango-Kamau. If you are a lady and would vote for reverting to w/o raise up your hand. This might reflect changing values and attitudes. It might reflect the success of westernisation. Easternization is still nascent. Though we trade with China, we have absorbed very little of their culture.

Some name patterns have emerged since uhuru. One is the use of foreign names. Incidentally, such names are very localised. Willkister, Beryl, Pamela, Wycliffe, Chrisantus are common in western Kenya.

Truphosa, Truphena, Duke and Justus are more common in southwestern Kenya. Tecla and Sharon in northern Rift Valley. Fridah, Ephantus and Felisters around the mountain region. On the plains, we have Anastasia, Lena, Cleophus and Urbanus. By the coast, we have names like Gertrude, Rozina and Kingsford. 

The names reflect the dominant religious denominations in different parts of the country such as Quakers, Presbyterian, Catholic and Anglican. We got the names through baptism and other ceremonies.

Another trend is giving kids two Christian or foreign names such as Ghael James or Jane Catherine. I am told this trend reflects women power. Men used to be deciders in kids names. Women now have a say and to ensure equality, the kid is given two foreign names, one from each parent. This is followed by local names like Laureen Gentrix Shimanyula. Keen observers will note this trend is a revival before independence lots of Kenyans got even three foreign names like James Bob Aggrey.

The second trend is giving the kid all foreign names ostensibly to hide tribal identity. But tribal identity has physical manifestations and goes beyond names. Such foreign names are said to be a sign of sophistication.

They used to be Christian but are now mixed with political leaders, musicians, actors and other famous personalities taking lion’s share. I have come across Bill Clinton, Indira Gandhi, Martin Luther King Junior (yes junior), Jennifer Lopez, Prudence Bushnell and Beyonce.

The third trend is giving names that have both Swahili and English translations such as Mercy Neema or Victory Ushindi. This group is more hybrid, torn between old and new names, old versus new identity. 

Fourth, the surprising trend among the affluent is keeping the traditional names like Uhuru Kenyatta or Kioko Mutua. 

Fifth, but an interesting trend is old foreign names becoming localised. Musuruve among Luhyia was originally Miss Reeves! Is it true Nyangaresi among Kisii was originally “Young and lazy”? Makenzi was McKenzie around Makueni. 

The sixth trend is peculiar and reserved for central Kenya. Kids taking their mother’s name as a surname like Kamau Wanjiru or Njeri Wairimu. This trend reflects single parenthood but I have always wondered if there are no single parents in other communities.

Using the mother’s name as a surname in a region that has produced three presidents is least expected. One of Uhuru Kenyatta’s legacy should be to stop this practice.

The trend in our names is more than meets the eye. It is a clear sign that we have no qualms diluting our identity. If this trend continues, lots of beautiful African names will become extinct. African Americans went that way and no longer use African names, except a few like Kimani (Kymani), Bahati or Kenya. Think of all the beautiful African names disappearing from Yattani, Naserian, Nyatichi, Wawuda, Adhiambo, Kamau, Lelelit and more. Muslim names remain constant.

It is not just names that risk extinction but also our culture and mannerism. We are nowadays more concerned about appearances. We shy away from serious issues. This trend shows the Kenyan mind has been “cheapened” and willing to accept ideas without questioning. Noted how student dancers and singers entertain leaders in statehouse while scientists have no access to the house on the hill. 

Seeking foreign names is also a sign of waning confidence in ourselves. It’s similar to getting foreign accreditation for our firms. Our hospitals and even institutions of higher learning are proud of such accreditation. Why not local accreditation? 

That is good news for foreign business. Their products and services are more acceptable. That is why foreign brands are making inroads into the Kenyan market. Just as we think other names are better, we think products from other countries are better. From cars to hair and even medical services, there is a belief that foreign is better. Even foreign wives and husbands are catching up. We then complain of factories closing and joblessness. 

Lack of confidence in ourselves means less willingness to take risks and spawn news enterprises. This is often reflected in our youth wanting to stay longer in school instead of getting into the job market as job creators. 

We are not advocating closing our markets to foreign products and services, but a little national pride would create jobs for our youth. Is job creation not about the demand for goods and services?

The name you give to your kid may be innocent, but it will eventually play out on the economic arena. Has anyone thought of coming up with a national policy on names? How many names should we have? Should we protect our traditional names as part of national heritage? 

Finally, has anyone thought of changing our country’s name? From Kenya to Swahili Republic? Did BBI and punguza mizigo consider that?

-The writer is an associate professor at the University of Nairobi School of Business.