Kisumu County’s Rabour Primary School is no ordinary institution. According to deputy headteacher Timon Owenga, half of the school’s 1,000 pupils have English/foreign names only and the number keeps rising with each new admission.
“There is a positive side to this. Pupils with English/foreign names strive to behave like those they are named after. Mostly, they are outgoing and perform extremely well in academics,” Owenga said.
Of course, the children play and socialise with others in the school in a normal way – except when they want to behave like what their names dictate.
“A pupil named Bright Johnson does not want to behave like Atieno Oketch! Meanwhile, those with indigenous names chide their counterparts for lacking a sense of belonging.
During class time, when those with English names introduce themselves, those with native names pay keen attention to see if an African surname will pop up,” Owenga said.
The downside, however, is that some pupils find it difficult to pronounce their classmates’ English/foreign names and have opted to nickname them.
“We have tried to encourage those with native names to love and value them,” he said, adding that some parents have made their children believe that they are more special than those with local names. This makes those with native names to feel inferior and out of place,” the headteacher noted.
Owenga also complained that children with English/foreign names appear uncomfortable embracing African culture and traditions in the school curriculum, which he blamed on parents.
“They are negative to local traditions and culture as instructed in the syllabus. Recently, I was teaching music and looking at traditional music instruments and I noticed that many of them did not want to identify with traditional instruments and folk songs,” the teacher said.
One parent we spoke to said his son’s name was inspired by the Holy Spirit and that the boy will not be identified with any ethnic group.
“Even at a tender age, my son is displaying the leadership skills of a king just like his name and he will be recognised as a Kenyan citizen, which is good enough,” he said.
We also spoke to another parent whose two children have English/foreign names. She explained that one of her children was named after a former UK prime minister and that with that name, the boy works hard so that he can be like the man he was named after.
“I am very confident that even my grandchildren will only have English names and that my family will not go back to native names,” she said.
But Sara Masiga, who has taught at the school for 17 years, says she lost count of the many times she had to address bullying by a pupil named after a wrestler.
“He is a bully and violent both in class and outside class. When you ask why, he says he is named after a powerful wrestler and he must behave like the wrestler.
“Some parents fall in love with famous actors in movies or TV programmes and they end up giving those names to their children because they want them to emulate the actors,” Masiga observed.
Some parents, however, explained that they do not want their children to be identified with a certain ethnicity to protect them from future discrimination and marginalization for political reasons. This unfortunately impacts negatively on the children.
“Those with native names feel inferior in class and have low self-esteem compared to those with English names. This has negatively affected the academic performance of those with native names.
“When a teacher calls out those with native names, they are laughed at and they end up shying off and bending their heads in shame. This affects their self-confidence,” Masiga said, adding that those with native names tend to feel foreign names are better.
Those named after famous athletes or artists also end up feeling superior to others, which is challenging for teachers striving to entrench equality in the school.
But Masiga said the school keeps encouraging the pupils to love and value their names. The veteran teacher attributed the increase in English/foreign names to single parenthood as many single mothers do not want their children be identified by their fathers.
“When a couple is separated, the mother decides to give the child an English name instead of a native one,” she said.
Some parents also do not want to name their children after their dead relatives or ancestors so they prefer to pick an English name.
But Dr Benard Okal, a lecturer in the Department of Linguistics at Maseno University, said this is nothing new because the Luo community is known for adopting famous names for their children.
He said a number of mothers named their baby boys Obama in 2008 after Barack Obama was elected US president.
And when he visited the country in 2015, one mother reportedly named her child Airforceone.
Okal observed that Churchill and Clinton are also quite popular names in the community as is Donald Trump because they love the former US President’s billionaire status.
“The community tends to appreciate these famous people and they name newborns after them and they also appreciate the fancy names,” Okal said.
Dr Charles Omondi Olang’o, a lecturer in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Maseno University, said there is no doubt that children’s names reflect people’s aspirations and that parents believe names can affect their children’s career prospects.
He, however, said western names are a threat to African culture even though culture is always evolving.
“Hardly do you see non-Africans giving their children African names. It is almost unheard of. Yet, Africans are unsatisfied with their names. As Africans, we need to love ourselves more. We need to stand up and identify with our culture by starting with the little things,” Olang’o noted.