What’s in an African Name?

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September 15, 2010 By Minda Magero

James Wamathai’s post a couple of weeks ago on his relationship to his Kenyan name prompted me to write this follow-up post. I cannot recall how many times I heard the woebegone wail from one child or another during my primary school days in Kenya: “She called me by my home name!” You see, we had somehow been programmed, at such a tender age, to think that being called by our home names was shameful. Home names got that moniker because they were the Kenyan names that many people used when at home.

Most Kenyans have Western first names, also known as their English or Christian names. My first name happens not to be English, but it was always referred to as such because it wasn’t Kenyan. From reading Oginga Odinga’s autobiography, Not Yet Uhuru, Wangari Maathai’s autobiography, Unbowed, and Nelson Mandela’s autobiography, A Long Walk to Freedom, I discovered the origin of English names in Kenya and other African countries.

The British colonialists weren’t able to pronounce African  names, so they required Africans to acquire Western names. This they set into motion by enforcing Western first names for Africans in their employ and for those who desired to get an education through the mission schools. As the young, hastily carved out Kenya began to grow, Western first names became the norm for Kenyan children. The Catholic Church took it a step further, requiring a person who was christened in the Catholic Church to acquire a (European) saint’s name in addition to his or her already existing English name. In addition to these Western first names, parents also gave their children Kenyan names, which were relegated to being middle names. As a result, some people have ended up with four or five names, including their surnames.

My first encounter with Kenyans who did not have English names took place in high school. I was intrigued by the thought that their parents were

Minda Magero

sufficiently proud of their African heritage that they chose to break with the established tradition of giving their children Western names. It was refreshing; I envied them. It was also one of the experiences that launched me on a journey of questioning why things are done the way they are in Kenya.

Subsequently, I realized  that Kenyan society generally hadn’t developed a culture of questioning things. I have repeatedly asked why Kenyan judges wear white-ish wigs in the courtroom and the answer I get is that it has always been that way. Like so many other traditions handed down by the British, the wig wearing has continued for decades, with no open debate on the issue. While attending university in Western countries, I was taught to question things–something that, in my experience, was not merely discouraged in the Kenyan pre-college education system, but actually penalized. The system probably still runs exactly as the British originally designed it to: churning out largely docile and acquiescent graduates. The origin of English names for Kenyans isn’t even discussed in our education system!

So what’s in an African name? Would a rose by any other name, as William Shakespeare asserted, still smell as sweet? Maybe so for roses, but I beg to differ when it comes to people. Names carry and confer identity. They have stories behind them, rich histories, a heritage. In my ethnic group, for example, people are generally named for the time of day, the season, or the events surrounding their births. Other special categories exist, but these are the main ones. I think that in giving English names precedence over Kenyan names, we lost parts of our identity, many of our stories, and a good bit of our history.

The good news is that identity can be restored. I have had the pleasure of rediscovering many aspects of my Kenyan and African identities in my adulthood. And while I have chosen to retain my first, non-Kenyan name, I take fierce pride in my heritage and in being African. When I hear an African name spoken, I savor it on my tongue like fine wine. Each one sounds beautiful, rich with the history of its culture, bursting with heritage.

The greatest disservice Westerners did (and still do) Africans was enforcing measures that stripped us of vital aspects of our identity. I do not advocate Africans harboring ill feelings towards Westerners for those actions, as that would only foster a victim mentality among us and bog us down in vicious cycles of reacting, rather than responding to history. Let us instead focus our energies on redefining who we are, knowing where we want to go, having a strategy for getting there, and working that strategy.

I would like to see African societies continually question why do we do the things we do. Is it the best way for us to do things? How did our forefathers do these same things? Are there aspects of our cultures and traditions that we can recover and make relevant for the 21st century? Can we create a new identity for ourselves, instead of unquestioningly accepting what has been conferred on us? The recent referendum on the new Kenyan constitution was a wonderful step in that direction.

I believe that at the heart of most of Africa’s problems lies a loss of identity—not really knowing who we are collectively (as nations, nation-states, and as a continent) and living life as it was designed for us by others, rather than as we design it for ourselves. The loss of identity expresses itself in a lack of confidence in ourselves, our ideas, our ability to solve our own problems, etc. Perhaps a good place to start this journey of establishing our new identity and regaining our confidence is in taking pride in our African names and the rich histories they contain. Our forefathers accomplished many things in their days; we can build on what they started. I know that many Africans in the motherland and the diaspora have already begun to do this. I write this for those who have not given it a thought and also to spark some open debate on the issue.

You don’t have to give up your English name to rediscover your African identity, but if giving it up makes you happy, go for it! Either way, be proud of and confident in your African identity and heritage.
That’s what is in an African name.

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