Foreign Names have Culturally Alienated Africans

What is the effect of having a European, Arab or Indian  name? Travelling to Saudi, I met Christians who have no western names. In Europe too I have white muslim friends who still retain their European names. Given the fact that the African is always forced to adopt some strange names because of having converted to a particular religion has had the effect of  allienating us from our-selves and making us think that we have to look like Europeans or Arabs to be part of the human race. Realising this dilemma several Kenyan prominent figures like Mwai Kibaki, Wangari Maathai, Orie Rogo Manduli, Uhuru Kenyatta, Raila Amolo Odinga, Kabando wa Kabando, Kalembe Ndile, Anyang Nyong, Koigi wa Wamwere amongst others are leading the way. By dropping the colonial imposed name, the African will infact find himself or herself.

Daily Nation 17th October 2012

Belonging to a man.

O, be some other name!

What’s in a name?

That which we call a rose

By any other name

Would smell as sweet

Uttered by Juliet to display her unflinching love for Romeo in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, the words above hold no water outside romance, where names sometimes pack more weight than their face value.

And you need not go further than look at the list of leading lights in Kenyan politics, which reads like a script from the ’60s, thanks to scions of former heavyweights now holding powerful positions, courtesy, largely, of their surnames.

This, however, is not a Kenyan peculiarity. In the US, for instance, two George Bushes ascended to the presidency almost back-to-back. The same has been done by the Sukarnoputris of Indonesia, the Gandhis of India, the Bhuttos of Pakistan and the Aquinos and the Macapagals of the Philippines.

In the years gone by, the question “whose son are you” was common since people were, more often than not, judged according to their father’s reputation. Wisdom dictated that “a good name is worth more than gold and silver”, or, in modern terms, millions of dollars in the bank.

“Names are very important in the African society because they are believed to appease ancestral spirits and further the family tree,” explains George Mathu, a lecturer at the University of Nairobi’s Department of Anthropology.

“Their significance is so integral that parents will avoid naming their children after people with bad images in the society, like thieves or murderers.”

In the olden days, and to emphasise the importance of names, naming a child was done in elaborate rituals laden with deep religious significance. Newborns were named after ancestors, past heroes, time and place of birth, animals, physical features and major events.

Others were a reflection of the prevailing emotions or conditions at the time of birth. Taabu, Raha, Blessing, Zawadi, Talent, Innocent, Fortunate, Rehema and Baraka are good examples.

Mathu says that a name is so critical in the belief systems that many believe it can determine the way people behave and feel about themselves. This explains why there are so many Castrols, Mandelas, Kennedys and Julius’, and so few, if any, Judas’, Cains, Hitlers and Lucifers.

A funny name, for instance, can make an individual the centre of attraction or ridicule, in the end affecting their self-esteem and personality.

Orie Rogo-Manduli, the firebrand female politician and activist, says she was baptised Mary Snessor by her parents in honour of a Scottish nun working in Calabar, Nigeria.

“My mother gave birth to me while on a visit to check on my ailing father at Maseno Hospital in the company of Jaramogi Oginga Odinga,” Orie explains. “I popped out unexpectedly and, after being washed, Jaramogi took me to my father’s bedside where, although very ill, he whispered ‘Orie’”.

Later on, the Trans-Nzoia County Senator aspirant found ‘Mary Snessor’ such a mouthful and requested her parents for permission to drop the two names.

“Although I admired the Scottish lady — and even visited her birthplace later on — I believed my identity lay with my maternal grandmother Orie, whose genes I carry,” she says.

“Besides, people used to stop at ‘Mary Snessor’ and ‘Orie’ was somehow overshadowed, hence we held a big family meeting where I officially became ‘Orie Rogo’ and later added ‘Manduli’, which is my late husband’s name.”

Known for her strong feminine ideals, Orie insists that women should not drop their maiden surnames even after getting married since that is a sign of respect to their fathers.

Occupation, religion and personal philosophies are some of the most common reasons for changing names. Also, success in some careers like performing arts and politics is sometimes hinged on a unique and larger-than-life personality, of which a name plays a big role in creating.

There are many people who transformed their careers and fortunes in these fields by simply changing their names.

If you watched movies like The Firm, Jerry Maguire, Magnolia, The Last Samurai and War of the Worlds, you might be among the many who do not know that the main star Tom Cruise once answered to the name Thomas Mapother III.

Other stars who changed their names are Marilyn Monroe (born Norma Jean Baker), Demi Moore, (Demetria Gene Guynes), Chuck Norris (Carlos Ray) and Bruce Willis (Walter Willison).

Adolf Hitler’s father was born Alois Schicklgruber and later adopted the name Hiedler after her single mother remarried. But, as the future Fuhrer entered Germany as a young job-seeker, an immigration officer found ‘Hiedler’ a mouthful and simply wrote ‘Hitler’.

That name change would prove a turning point in his political career in future because it would have been hard to imagine the millions of Nazis in rallies across Berlin and Frankfurt shouting “Heil Schicklgruber” instead of “Heil Hitler”.

Nearer home, while growing up around the Kilembe Copper Mines of Uganda, Richard Nguluku Ndile couldn’t tire telling people about that ‘wonderful place in Uganda’ upon his return to his native Kibwezi, hence everybody referred to him as Kalembe.

Years later, after he lost a civic election just because, he says, his supporters could not recognise his name on the ballot paper, the maverick politician swore an affidavit and dropped the first two names, officially becoming Kalembe Ndile.

Besides politics and showbiz, there are those who abandon their original names as a sign of protest against political, racial, religious or cultural prejudices in the societies they live in.

“The African independence generation was very conscious of their African roots and was determined to crush cultural subjugation and imperialism,” explains former Subukia Member of Parliament Koigi wa Wamwere. “Therefore most of them went out of their way to demonstrate this quest by dropping, legally or otherwise, all their European names.”

Kenya’s founding father Jomo Kenyatta was among leaders who changed their names to reflect their pan-African convictions.

Born Kamau wa Ngengi and baptised John Peter, which he later changed to Johnstone, the late president adopted the name Jomo, which means “burning spear” in Kikuyu, and Kenyatta, which referred to the beaded belt he often wore.

Other African leaders who changed their names included Zaire’s Mobutu Sese-Seko wa Zabanga, Malawi’s Kamuzu Banda and South Africa’s Thabo Mbeki.

In Nakuru, politician Koigi wa Wamwere says he was baptised with a Christian name that he is not comfortable mentioning because he never considered it his name in the first place.

“I dropped that name because I considered it a constant reminder of the colonial subjugation and past,” he told DN2. “For those reasons, and the fact that I would like it to remain buried in the vaults of forgotten history, I don’t like mentioning or saying what it was.”

While Africans don’t need to have foreign names in order to be Christians, Koigi says, the fact that they adore European names is an indicator that although they got political independence, they are still “culturally colonised”.

The veteran politician’s sentiments are echoed by Mukurweini Constituency MP and Assistant Minister for Sports and Youth Affairs, Kabando wa Kabando.

Due to what he calls “vexation by the blatant segregation against my cultural heritage by the colonial education system”, the MP dropped his birth names Godfrey Kariuki Mwangi for the double-barrelled Kabando wa Kabando.

“During my younger life, many high schools were sponsored by major religious organisations like the Catholic Church and the Presbyterian mission,” he explains.

“There was a rule that you have to be baptised with an English name for you to be admitted in one of these schools, hence I adopted the name Godfrey because of the worry that I might pass and miss a chance.”

But even after taking up Godfrey, he referred to himself as GKM Kabando when he joined Form One at Ololoserian High School in Kajiado since he never believed the first three names were his. For these reasons, many of his classmates referred to him as Kabando.

“That was a rebellion against unfair conventions at an early age because these colonial prejudices compelled Africans to do what our colonial masters didn’t do,” Kabando explains. “Foreigners don’t change their names when they come to Africa, but some expect us to change ours.”

When he vied for the Chairmanship of the Student Organisation of Nairobi University (Sonu), the name Kabando wa Kabando stood him in good stead since many could not easily place his ethnic identity in the heavily polarised student community.

“My name helped me defray the tribal card when I campaigned and won the Sonu chairmanship in 1992 since I couldn’t be associated with any ethnic or political party grouping,” Kabando recalls. “But it also became a setback for me when I vied for a seat in Parliament in 1997 because some Mukurweini voters thought I was an alien.”

While saying that he is passionately opposed to camouflaging identities through foreign, names Kabando believes that using local names is an honour to the African philosophy and anthropology, which was the guiding principle in naming children for hundreds of years.

“The adoration of foreign names, especially among the youth, is a perpetration of an inferiority complex because it reflects their worship of Western values,” he explains.

“Martin Luther King Jr talked about people being proud of who they are regardless of their race and religion, but here we are, punishing our children with strange names or expecting them to speak English with a native accent.”

Getting his names changed completely was never an easy task, for he had to contend with legal bottlenecks at the Registrar of Persons. After launching more than 32 unsuccessful applications, he finally got his way in 2003 after the NARC government came to power.

“After the 2002 elections, I literally camped at the Registrar of Persons for many days until he finally heard my case, albeit half-heartedly,” the politician says.

“The only other political figure who was able to completely change their names completely in Kenyan history was Johnston Kamau Ngengi, popularly known as Jomo Kenyatta.”

In A Grain of Wheat, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, formerly known as James Ngugi Thiong’o, explains his surprise upon encountering an African economics lecturer at Makerere University without an English name called Mwai Kibaki.

Although he was baptised Emilio Stanley by Italian missionaries, President Mwai Kibaki has always been known, for all intents and purposes, by his two African names.

Born of pan-Africanist fathers who had a penchant for African names, the two leading presidential contenders Raila Amollo Odinga and Uhuru Muigai Kenyatta don’t have any English names.

Others like Kalonzo Musyoka and Musalia Mudavadi lay a lot of emphasis on their African names, while Peter Kenneth is the only presidential hopeful who uses two European names.


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