What is in a name? A lot, actually!

NAIROBI: In life and in death, a name has great legal significance.

In multi-ethnic Kenya, the naming of a child at birth is mostly a religious-cum-customary law affair. Christians, Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs all have their age-old traditions of giving a name.

Most tribes in Kenya have an intricate method of naming children. The Kikuyu customs, for example, dictate a regime that is based on children being named after the parents' parents and in a well-defined nomenclature system. The Maasai customs name children after renowned personalities or members of family, but not after a living person.

In the African traditional set-up, women were and are referred by their clan's name. Getting a name and nationality at birth are fundamental human rights enshrined under Article 53 of the Constitution of Kenya, 2010.

A person, even a child, without a registered name does not officially exist. Section 11 of the Children Act, 2001 further reinforces that every child shall have a right to a name and nationality. Where a child is deprived of his identity the Government is obligated to provide appropriate assistance and protection, with a view to establishing his identity.

Kenya's laws have many lacunas when matters of name become contentious. The importance of a name mainly suffices with the women folk and many questions can be posed. Can a woman after marriage retain her maiden name or must she adopt the husband's family name? Or can she use both names? What are the formalities of changing names, say, after marriage or death of a husband?

Children out of wedlock can be caught up in the web of the law of naming – whose name prevails, the biological mother's or the putative father's? And what about adopted children? Changing of names under the Luo's wife inheritance can be overwhelmingly fascinating.

Women who divorce are made to carry their husband's tag after divorce and reverting to their maiden names is another hurdle. Changing a name is now a common occurrence. An individual may opt for a name change upon marriage, divorce, separation, change of sex or even if an individual does not like his or her name.

The birth certificate is the document which determines a name throughout a person's life. Naming a child by choice or tradition is an important exercise and one should guard against any spelling mistakes, failing which the mistake can be perpetrated for life.

The Principal Registrar can and does change names on the ID cards on marriage, divorce or when spelling mistakes are evident, generally accompanied by an affidavit i.e a sworn document before a magistrate, commissioner for oaths or notary public.

In most cultures of the world, a woman adopts a man's name upon marriage. However, in recent times, the world has continued to witness a reversal with the man taking the woman's name upon marriage. Recently, a Frenchman created a furore by publicly adopting his wife's family name.

In 1991, a Swedish couple refused for five years to give their newborn a legal name, in protest at existing naming laws and was fined after failure to register the child's names as "Brfxxccxxmnpcccclllmmnprxvclmnckssqlbb11116". Noms de plume or pen names or nicknames, which are assumed by an individual, are not recognised by law.

For one to change their name after marriage, an original identity card, proof of marriage vide a marriage certificate, and copies of the couple's identity documents are needed. For married ladies who wish to change their names, both husband and wife need to be present during the application process.

It is in the public domain that a Kenyan trans-gender activist won a landmark case to change the name on her high school exam certificate. In its wisdom, the high court took judicial notice of the fact that examinations in the country are not administered based on the gender of the candidate. And if anything, change of name does not affect the quality of exam papers.

For those who desire to change their names, one must get an affidavit of a referee and make a document called "deed poll" and registering the document in the land office under the Registration of Documents Act, and thereafter advertising the fact of change in the Kenya Gazette.

Having more than one name can create havoc when a person dies and it is such instances that warrant regulation of names and even the spellings.

When making a will or obtaining a death certificate, great care must be taken and one should be exceedingly careful and use the same name as in the ID card, passport and title documents as Kenyan registration authorities are extremely fastidious in processing the paperwork.

Though names matter, according to Shakespeare, a rose by any name would smell sweet, but until then let me try to figure out why my own birth certificate, ID card and passport all have a different name!