There could be silent displeasure among boys with their mother’s name for a surname.
Alex* is a third year student at a public university in Nairobi. He is among a growing number of young men who have to make do with their mother’s name as surname.
During a spontaneous tête-à-tête last June, Alex confided in this writer, saying: “I still can’t believe I am stuck with a female name for a surname in a male driven society. I will not drop it either.”
This even as he feels that children, “especially boys,” should be allowed to use their biological father’s name as a surname.
To understand his predicament you need to know his story. Alex was born the second child of two children to his mother Wairimu.
When I ask him about his father, he says his mind has fuzzy far-in-between memories of a man who frequently visited their house back in the day.
“He would play with me and my sister,” he says. “He was quite friendly and we saw him as a father figure.”
Then, almost unexpectedly, he disappeared. And life moved on. Alex and his sister learnt to live with their mother as the sole parent and breadwinner.
Apart from struggles every family encounters in life, Alex attests to a pretty average experience as a son growing up in the family.
The first time Alex became aware that Wairimu was his surname, he says, “is probably around class 5”. It is the name his mother bestowed upon him as his family name.
The name would officially enter record books when Alex sat for his KCPE exams in class eight. It was a point of no return.
Up until then he hadn’t bothered about the name. It was a totally different story in high school though as his peers took to chiding him about his ‘female’ surname.
On weekends one of them could yell: ‘Hey Alex! We need a woman to clean the dormitory!’
In the morning, if he came to class late by a minute, someone would say: “Alex, are you late from preparing breakfast for the kids?”
And at bath time, some boys would suggest to him that he showers later when all the males would have been done.
To wade through this barrage of juvenile jokes targeted at him, Alex often played along; managing a laugh once in a while.
Deep inside, however, he took umbrage at the snide remarks. He wanted them to stop.
“This was the first time it hit me that I was actually using my mother’s name as my surname. I began questioning how this came to be.”
“I kept asking myself how come all the other boys in my class had their fathers’ names as surnames yet all I had was my mother’s name,” Alex says.
When schools closed and students were back home, Alex took it upon himself to investigate his father’s whereabouts, his name and possibly pick it as surname.
The man, he was told, briefly had a relationship with his mother then took off never to be seen again.
Alex says: “The man may not have been in my life but I wouldn’t mind using his name. Having that name would be a more effective way of identification and earning respect from peers.”
Like Alex, David Mburu Njeri has had reservations about using his surname – Njeri.
He loathed it when his university professor, in pure academic fashion, would address him as Mr Njeri, as he usually did with every student.
“My professor never meant ill. But I couldn’t help but hear the silent giggles and murmurs from the background every time he called me. Every time he mentioned it I held my breath and bit my tongue,” he says.
His insecurity grew worse when a girl he had been hitting on told him that if they ever became an item and their relationship progressed to marriage she would not take up his surname.
“She did not like the idea that I would be addressed as Mr Njeri and she Mrs Njeri.”
After graduation David stopped including ‘Njeri’ as part of his name. Except for his bosses no one else at work knows that his surname is Njeri.
“The name might remain in my official documents but I won’t use it proactively,” he says.
University of Nairobi sociologist Dr Karatu Kiemo opines that the phenomenon of female surnames is unique to central Kenya.
“In the Agikuyu culture there are nine known clans. There is a tenth unspoken clan that belongs to children from single mothers,” Dr Kiemo says.
Culture, he says, takes into consideration the fact that some children are born out of wedlock: products of relationships that were never firmly set on marriage.
“When a baby is born and the father avoids taking responsibility then the mother regards him non-existent. The child will use the mother’s name as his/her surname,” Dr Kiemo points out.
The same would be assumed in relationships where there was an acrimonious breakup between parents of the child.
It is not always doom and gloom though. Some boys proudly adorn their mothers’ names like a badge of honour.
Take John* Wambui for instance. John graduated from law school more than a decade ago. He now practices as an advocate.
He loves it when his peers call him Mr Wambui. “The name might sound feminine but it is part of my identity,” he says. “I am honoured because it makes me stand out from other advocates.”
Besides, John was raised by a single mother, to whom he says he owes every success.
“My mother toiled to keep us in school. She never grumbled about not having a man to help with fending for the family. Why would I want to bear the name of a deadbeat father, would I not be courting his spirits?”
Margaret Kagwe, a counselling psychologist, says it is proper for children raised by single mothers to use their mother’s name for a surname.
“It is recognition that the mother played the roles of both parents in this child’s life. It is also a pointer that the child’s biological father was missing in their lives,” Margaret says.
Margaret, however, takes notice that having a female surname may affect a boy especially during adolescent and teenage years.
“During adolescence they are searching for identity,” Margaret says. She admonishes the society to stop stigmatising ‘fatherless’ children.
“If a man is responsible for pregnancy, it does not make them a father. If he is not supporting the child materially then he cannot claim to be the father,” Margaret says.
It is a sentiment that James* Mwangi Gathoni, 33, holds as well. Commonly known in his professional circles as Mwangi wa Gathoni, James believes that men who fail to raise their children should not be able to pass on their name to the children.
“A father is not a man who fertilises an egg and leaves. A father is the man that raises the child,” James says.
Even so, Alex still believes that he should be allowed to use his father’s name and not his mother’s.
“I have many friends from single parent families who still get to use their father’s names. A father’s name is a recognition of genealogy and not merely who raised a child,” he opines.
Alex hopes to officially drop Wairimu and take up his biological father’s name as his surname.
“At the very least I want to stop using Wairimu as my surname. That does not mean that I don’t recognise my mother’s hard work in raising us.”