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ELECTION 2022

Maragoli: Where a newborn baby can reject a name

WESTERN
By Brian Kisanji | Jan 16th 2022 | 7 min read

Susy Musimbi, a 65-year old grandmother from Mbale, Vihiga narrates why naming was so critical to the new born in Maragoli. [Courtesy]

Just like all other Kenyan communities, Maragoli, one of the 18 sub-tribes of the western Kenya-based Luhya ethnic group, has an intricate method of naming children.

In most cases, Maragoli or Avalogooli, the second-largest of the sub-tribes, names its newborn children after relatives, especially the esteemed ones. They may be dead or still alive.

And the process of naming a child starts immediately after the woman is confirmed to have conceived.

Maragoli Council of Elders coordinator Samson Muhindi says the naming process is regarded highly as, to them, it determines the destiny of the child.

"The pregnancy should be handled with a lot of care through taking good care of the expectant mother. And the entire society is involved," says Muhindi.

Among the Maragoli, a pregnancy is considered sacred. "That is why everyone participates to ensure the expectant mother is well taken care of," he said.

In the past, a midwife, locally known as omudendi, played a leading role in taking care of an expectant woman, from the time she conceives to the time of delivery. It is still common among some groups within the Maragoli but the practice is slowly fading away.

"A midwife would be identified and largely expected to play the role of a nurse. The midwife would take care of the expectant mother and help her during delivery which mostly happened at home. And the midwife would be paid for her services. However, as you know, the role of midwives in childbirth is declining today due to increased access to hospitals and other health services," Mr Muhindi says.

He adds: "We had very famous and great midwives. They monitored the pregnancy, especially towards the final days, and ensure safe delivery."

Traditionally, women delivered their babies at home as hospitals were few and those available were far away. The people had also not been sensitised enough about the importance of delivering in a hospital as is the case today.

During delivery, certain women, including the midwife, were allowed into the room where the expectant woman is. It was these women who would make the announcement to those waiting outside as soon as the baby is delivered. They would also announce the gender. And there would be celebrations in the family where the child is born. And the family is joined by the rest of the community in the celebrations.

Among the Maragoli society, a baby is welcomed by ululation. Prolonged ululation signifies the birth of a baby boy. And it is the midwife that sounds the ululation, which paves the way for the naming of the baby.

Muhindi says it is the elderly women, mainly grandmothers, and aunties, that name the children.

Many factors, including whether the child was born at night or during the day, are considered during the naming ceremony.

Naming newborns was also a way of honouring distinguished members of the family or immediate community. 

The Maragoli Council of Elders coordinator Samson Muhindi narrates how naming was done among the Maragoli at his home in Mbale, Vihiga on January 14, 2022 [Courtesy]

Children are sometimes named after those who have done well in the family and society, whether they are dead or still alive, as a way of showing them honour.

"Other than whether the child was born during the day or the night, we also consider seasons, whether the baby was born during a rainy season, drought and famine or during harvesting. They baby would be given a named that goes with the season," says Muhindi.

And there are bizarre moments when a newborn baby "rejects" a name. So, how do they know the child does not like the name that is given to it?

"The infant may cry uncontrollably. This means the baby has rejected the name and must be given another one," says Muhindi.

Susy Musimbi, a 65-year-old resident of Mbale in Vihiga County termed the ceremony of naming newborns critical.

"It is common for a baby to reject a name. The child would cry and for a long time," says Musimbi.

She adds: "The destiny of a baby is directly linked to the name they are given. That is why it is important for a child to accept a name given to them."

"When a child rejects a name, those involved in the process are expected to randomly mention other names, including those of ancestors. The baby will stop crying when the name he or she likes is mentioned, and that is the name a baby is eventually given," says Musimbi.

Names could also be changed. This happens during circumcision or marriage.

"In every society, including Maragoli, naming is a form of identity. It gives a sense of belonging. We pride ourselves in our names, and no matter where we go, our names will always be our identity. The names link us to our heritage," says Musimbi.

The final rites are performed through the shaving of the hair of the newborn. This is done in the home of the baby's father and signaled the man's acceptance of the newborn as his flesh and blood.

In most cases, it is the child's grandmother or aunt who shaves them and this is done seven days after birth.

"Shaving is also our way of initiating the child into the society. Shaving ensures a newborn is brought to its father's home to avoid any form of confusion there may be," says Musimbi.

In case a woman lies about the father of their baby and the young one is brought to a home of a different man for shaving, there are claims that the infant would die, a few days after the shaving, which is normally an elaborate ceremony complete with drinks and food.

"Among other things, the shaving ceremony is meant to discourage women from hiding the identities of those responsible for their pregnancies," says Musimbi.

The ceremony also encouraged discipline in relationships so that it would outrightly be clear who the father of a baby is when a woman gets pregnant.

Other sub-communities of the western Bantu ethnic group of Luhya are Isukha, Bukusu, Banyala, Banyore, Batsotso, Gisu, Idakho, Kabras, Khayo, Kisa, Marachi, Marama, Masaaba, Samia, Tachoni, Tiriki, and Wanga. They all have different but mutually understood linguistic dialects.

Among Musoko clan of Kabras, newborns are given names of particular ancestors. It is believed that this protects them from calamities.

"Newborns will die of sicknesses that are easily curable if they don't bear names of particular ancestors," says 82-year-old Saulo Keya, from Matete in Kakamega County.

Keya says passing names from one generation to another also helps them preserve their customs.

"If a newborn baby cries so much after delivery, it means the ancestors want it to be named after a relative from the father's side. And if the baby cries unnecessarily, especially during the day, it means you give it a name from its mother's side,” says Keya.

He adds: "The naming ceremony must be attended by both parents and in the event parents or one of them is not available, the child's grandparents step in. And the baby will cry and even refuse to breastfeed if given a name he or she doesn't want."

Babies born during drought are given names such as Nashimiyu, Simiyu, Narotso, Nanzala, and Wanzala, while those born during the rainy season would be called Nafula and Wafula. Nechesa is a girl born during the harvest season while Nanjira is a child born along the way, to the hospital or midwife's home.

Jenipher Mukoyani, 61, also a member of Kabras sub-tribe, says twins are named distinctively. The first one must be called Mukhwana and the second Mulongo. In the case of triplets, the third child is named Shisia or Khisa.

"At times, names that newborns reject are those of people who died with unresolved issues. They'll never allow their names to be used until the living sort out their pending issues; be it debts or dowry,” Ms Mukoyani says.

Rev Abraham Murukwa, the senior pastor at Malava East PAG, says: "Naming can also take a biblical angle where a parent finds a Bible character and names a child after them," said Murukwa.

As a Christian, he says, he remains opposed to ritualistic shaving of newborns. "It remains an abominable practice to us as Christians."

Mr Tom Keya says aunties and grandmothers are given the duty to shave babies because they have strong connections with ancestors. 

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