Traditional Kenyan names have been replaced by modern English first names. This brief historical breakdown explains how the introduction of Christianity has steadily eroded name-giving tradition in Gikuyu culture.
Written by: Jessica Muchiri | Edited by: Amanda Siow
When you walk into a Kenyan household, chances are there is already a pot of chai simmering on the stovetop. Then, you greet everyone with a hug, a handshake, or both, whether you know them or not. As the aroma of cardamom and ginger waft through the living room, you get pulled into the arms of a familiar stranger, and they might ask:
“Jina lako ni nani?” What is your name?
The answers you would receive from the Gikuyu of central Kenya have transformed dramatically over the past few hundred years. Today, the first names you would most commonly hear are: John, Mary, Joseph, and Faith. In the past, however, people were called Wanjiku, Njoroge, Wangeci, and Kamau.
Naming traditions have tremendous historical importance to the Gikuyu. Names represent the past, present and future of a clan and a family. The first boy is named after the paternal grandfather; the second boy is named after the maternal grandfather; the third boy is named after the eldest paternal uncle; and so on. These names do not just represent an individual, but rather who has come before them and who will come after. Modern first names like John and Mary do not reflect or recognize this tradition and its significance. Instead, they were imported from foreign cultures—a forced shift catalyzed by colonialism.
The Gikuyu People | Tuko News
At the advent of imperial presence within Kenya came missionization. Although Kenya was formerly colonized by England, the missionaries came first from all over Europe: Italy, Ireland, France, and England. While their religious sects varied, one common practice was instituted across Gikuyuland: the usage of baptism names. The baptized, once fully initiated into these religions, would take on a Biblical name. Over time, this phenomenon evolved into the full adoption of both biblical and non-religious English first names. For many, the adoption of these new names represented stricter adherence to the new faith. The Gikuyu slowly shifted away from their old practice of worshipping Mount Kenya, resulting in the creation of a new identity for themselves as a primarily Christian people.
Despite this, names like Thande and Wambui are still there. They have simply taken a back seat to the foreign, relegated to the position of the middle name. Legally, but also culturally, middle names are considered less significant than the first. This coincides with the rapid urbanization of the Gikuyu and the declining presence of the Gikuyu language.
Prolific Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiong'o took a stand against the usage of English names in 1977 when he changed his name from James Ngugi to Ngugi wa Thiong'o. He began writing fiction exclusively in Gikuyu under this name. His act drew attention to the fact that English was and still is the language of the oppressors. However, because modern names are so intrinsically tied to the faith that most Gikuyu now adhere to, it is difficult for many to address their aberrance in our culture.
For that reason, the next time anyone sits down for a cup of chai, I believe a certain degree of reflection is necessary to understand how we ended up with these names.
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