Monday, December 31, 2012

Toilet Tales and Loo Blues

Though it’s the most basic facility in a human house hold the toilet is more often than not ignored or treated with disdain. In many African societies its mere mention borders the taboo associated with sex and in some cases it has no official name. 

Even in developed countries it’s considered good manners to refer the toilet by its many pseudonyms developed through the ages. John, London, restrooms, loo, crapper and washrooms are among several terms developed to skirt around saying toilet.

 But for the 2.5 billion people in Africa, Asia and other third world countries that the United Nations says they have no access to toilets 230 years after Scottish watchmaker Alexander Cummings invented the flash, this important sanitation facility is a big luxury.

This is why world renown philanthropist and the world’s richest man Bill Gates has challenged a group of young innovators from topnotch American universities to design a lavatory that will operate without running water, electricity or septic system and operate for less than five US cents a day.

To demonstrate his commitment to spearhead the designing of the world’s first state-of-the-art toilet for the world’s poor Mr. Gates has pumped in more than $180,000(Sh14.76) million into the so-called “poop project”. The money was part of the prizes and grants awarded to the winners and runners up of the Reinvent the Toilet Challenge, a competition set up to get the best prototypes for the new toilet design.

 “Imagine what’s possible if we continue to collaborate, stimulate new investment in this sector, and apply our ingenuity in the years ahead,” Gates said during the presentation of the wining designs at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation headquarters in Seattle. “Many of these innovations will not only revolutionize sanitation in the developing world, but also help transform our dependence on traditional flush toilets in wealthy nations”.
The project is part of Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s Water, Sanitation & Hygiene (WSH) which has committed $370 million (Sh3 billion) in the area of sustainable sanitation for the poor.

Bill Gates’ appetite for toilet matters was whetted by a visit to Durban in 2009 where he came face to face stinking and dilapidated latrines in the South African city’s shanty neighbourhoods. The software magnate was so moved that the quest for a cheap and high-tech toilet now consumes him with same passion that software designs deed when he was setting up Microsoft in the 70s.

South Africa is famous for its open air flush toilets, infamously known as “apartheid toilets”, common in townships and other low income neighbourhoods. These dehumanizing contraptions have been so controversial that they formed the chore theme of the 2011 municipal polls prompting the press to dub them the toilet elections”.

African National Congress (ANC) accused the opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) of building toilets without walls for black residents of Khayelitsa Township outside Cape Town, a city controlled by the latter. However, media investigations revealed that the ANC has also built around 1,600 similar toilets in Rammulotsi Township in Free Town Province. 

The ruling party took DA to court over the issue where the judge declared open air toilets a violation of residents’ constitutional right. While the opposition party cited lack of funds to build enclosures for the toilet ANC accused the white-dominated party of racism against Africans.

In a bid to solve the thorny issue of sanitation in crowded areas introduced Ventilated Improved Pit latrines, or simply VIP toilets. The difference between a regular latrine and VIP is a ventilation pipe siphoning the fumes from the pit through the roof, thereby reducing the intensity of the offensive odour. 

Like it’s her neighbor down south, Zimbabwe has also been a theatre of toilet politics in years past. An improvised latrine in the economically unstable Southern African nation is popularly known as a Blair toilet owing to the fact that they were designed at the Blair Research Institute in Harare when Zimbabwe was still a colony. 

The major feature of a Blair toilet is a ventilation pipe rising from the pit to the roof fitted with a fly trap. In a bid to settle the scores with former British Premier Tony Blair the Robert Mugabe government commissioned the recording of a song called The Only Blair I know is a Toilet done by Last Chiangwe, since referred to as “Toilet Tambaoga”. 

With the United Nations report in 2010 saying that fifty percent of Zimbabweans in the rural areas defecate in the bush cholera outbreaks are frequent in that country. In 2009, over 4,000 people died after an outbreak of Cholera in the country.

Back in Kenya matters sanitation are not any better than in nations down south. 

The “flying toilets”, which basically refers to defecating in a polythene and then swinging them them on rooftops, common in Kibera and other slums are so famous around the world that they have been a subject of study for several individuals and non-governmental organizations. According to a United Nations Development Programme launched in 2009 “two out three people in Kebera identify the flying toilet as the primary mode of excreta disposal available to them”.

Most slum dwellers prefer flying toilets due to their conveniences especially at night when walking to the outdoor toilet enclosures is a security risk. Besides being a health hazard especially when the polythene bags burst and spill their contents Rift Valley Railways blamed flying toilets thrown on its tracks that cut across Kibera for causing a derailment of one of its cargo trains that killed two people in 2009.

Led by African Medical and Research Foundation (AMREF) several non-governmental organizations launched “Stop Flying Toilets” campaign in 2001 whose objective is to build as many latrines as possible in Kibera and other slums across the country. So far, tens of community-maintained sanitation blocks have been built where residents pay a small fee every time they do their business. 

But sanitation is still a big issue in this crowded slum where statistics from non-governmental organizations claim one pit latrine serves about 50 people.

Enterprising Kenyans have turned the sanitation problems that bedevil the city and other urban centers across the country into ainto booming business generating thousands of shillings everyday. From the Nairobi Central Business Association (NCBDA)-controlled city toilets to fully fledged private entities dealing with poop disposal, many Kenyans are now earning a decent living from this rapidly growing industry.

“The NCBDA decided to rehabilitate the facilities because as a body in charge of the city centre welfare we realized Nairobians had a sanitation problem since the public toilets were dilapidated, dirty and acted as hiding places for city urchins,” explains NCBDA Chairman Timothy Muriuki. “We entered an agreement with the city council and designed an operational model that led to the clean and well maintained facilities we have today”.

He says that NCBDA does not make any profits since they are not a commercial entity but they lease them to independent operators who pay them a small fee.

 “We are currently working on a formula where toilets in markets like Muthurwa will be accessible to the public for free with the operators being paid through the levies charged on traders by the city authorities,” Mr. Muriuki says. “This is the system that will be adopted by the county government that will be in place after the next elections”.

The sanitation business in Nairobi is so promising that NCBDA and its affiliates is not the only player. There are numerous establishments, some from as far as Europe and the United States that have joined the fray to get a piece of the “poop pie”. 

One of the foreign-based poop dealers is Sanergy, a company that was hatched in a classroom by three students studying at the Sloan School of Business in Massachusetts a few years back. 

“We work on a concept called sanitation value change where we are involved in the whole process of waste disposal from building toilet structures, collecting the waste and processing it to fertilizer,” explains David Auerbach, one of the co-founders. “At the moment we are based in Mukuru where we have franchised 80 Fresh Life toilets to local traders who pays Sh45, 000 for the first toilet and then Sh25,000 for the second purchase onwards”.

Some of the after sales service includes a daily collection of waste, training on how to run the business any other assistance that the trader might need.

“Charging between five and ten shillings per customers most Fresh Life toilet traders are able to recoup back their profits in six months,” Auerbach says. “Our waste collection point at Mukuru is producing organic fertilizers which we will be available in the market commercially very soon”.

Sanergy, whose business model won a $100,000 (Sh8.2 million) in a business plan competition at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 2011, aims to have 1,000 by 2013 where the directors say the company’s biogas digester will produce enough electricity to feed the national grid.

PeePoople, a Swedish company with outlets in Kibera and other slums in Nairobi, is another sanitation company that entered the Kenyan market recently. It has developed special bags called Peepoos modeled around the concept of “flying toilets”, but in this case the bags don’t fly but ends up in a designated collection point. Peepoos have inbuilt properties to convert human dung into nutrient-rich fertilizer after a few weeks. 

“By turning human waste into fertilizer in a very short time, what could be a problem is transformed into a valuable resource,” the company explains through their website. “This is one of the driving forces behind the development of the Peepoople business model for urban slums”.

The project is also meant to provide business opportunities for small scale traders especially women since they are the majority distributors of Peepoos. 

With one of these special bags selling at Sh3 and a shilling refund for every Peepoos delivered at the special collection points, the company says its one of the cheapest sanitation solution for slum dwellers.

“In urban slums, Peepoos are normally sold directly, door-to-door to end-consumers by women micro-entrepreneurs or cooperatives,” the company says. “Used Peepoos can be utilized as fertilizer in household gardens. They can also be collected and distributed profitably to local peri-urban farmers based on the inherent value of Peepoo as fertilizer”.

From the drop-off points Peepoos are transferred to a storage facility where they are kept until they are fully sanitized and processed into usable fertilizer without the risk of contamination, which usually takes around four weeks.

One of the most prominent homegrown providers of innovative sanitary solutions is EcoTact. Started by David Kuria, an architect with a Master of Arts in business administration (MBA), in 2006 the company is in charge of the Ikotoilet facilities that are scattered in various urban centers across the country. 

Inspired by a zeal to improve the sanitation of thousands town dwellers especially those in informal settlements Mr. Kuria says he is in a mission to demystify the toilet and ensure Kenyans speak freely of this critical facility in human homsteads. 

“We need to make sanitation sexy and address it from different perspectives,” he told a microfinance conference of his company’s campaign to demystify toilet matters. “We have engaged beauty pageants to start talking about the relationship between beauty and hygiene”.

Besides recruiting beautiful models, comedians and politicians as ambassadors of his toilet campaigns Mr. Kuria made a first by converting public lavatories into minimarkets. 

“When you look at economics, whet we have done is to transform the toilet aspect into a toilet mall where you can get more than the two functions of the toilet,” he says. “You can have your polished, you can buy your airtime, you can blog your companies-corporate blogging and the recent one is you can also buy a coke, if not a banana, in the public toilet”.

Besides being invited to speak in various conferences both locally and abroad Kuria has also won several international awards like Ashoka Fellowship on Public Innovation 2007 and the Schwab Foundation’s Africa Social Entrepreneur of the Year Aw3ard in 2009, both firsts for a company in sub-Saharan Africa, among many others.

Therefore, even as Bill Gates pumps millions of dollars in his quest to design a state-of-the-art toilet affordable and to the world’s 2.5 billion without access to sanitation, he will have to contend with competition from young innovators from Kenya.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Yahya Jammeh: West African Gaddafi?

Forever adorned in flowing white robes, a fez, dark glasses and clutching a Koran and an African walking stick, Gambian President Yahya Jammeh is feared and loathed by his enemies in equal measure. 

And indeed those in the strongman’s wrong books have a course to worry now more than never before, especially those languishing in his deplorable jails. 

 A few weeks ago the self declared “King of Gambia” grabbed the headlines after ordering the execution of nine death row convicts through the firing squad, a first in the country in the last 27 years. The inmates included two Senegalese, which triggered the summoning of the Gambian ambassador to Dakar by President Macky Sall.

Senegal holds a lot of sway in matters Gambia since the latter is literary eclipsed inside the former, save for a small strip of the Atlantic coastline.

“All those guilty of serious crimes and are condemned will face the full force of the law,” Jammeh vowed during a televised address to mark the Islamic holiday of Eid-ul-Fitr in August. “By the middle of next month, all the death sentences would has been carried out to the letter. There is no way my government will allow 99 percent of the population to be held to ransom by criminals”.

But after intense pressure the regional leaders the Gambian leader has retracted the order and suspended the executions. Many believe this is just a ploy to let things cool off before eliminating the remaining 38 prisoners in death row. European Union, the major donor to Gambia at the tune of Eur65.4 million (Sh….), has also threatened to impose sanctions if the executions continue.
“The relationship between Yahya Jammeh and the Gambian people is a marriage that has never worked well, not even for a single day, and the time for it to end came and went with each extraordinary abuse of power that has included the deaths of fellow citizens,” writes Mathew Jallow, a Gambian blogger in the Diaspora. “The execution in Mile Two Prisons of so many innocent Gambians is more than anyone can bear, and if Yahya Jammeh thinks this egregious act of violence will just go away like the massacre of the sixteen students or the execution of forty-four Ghanaians, he is clearly underestimating the resolve of the Gambian people”.

But the Gambian leader, presiding in a country where more than 80 percent of the population is said to live below the poverty line, is no stranger to controversies.
After seizing power in a bloodless coup in 1984 Jammeh’s reign have been dogged by accusations of human rights abuses and silencing critics through unorthodox means like indefinite incarcerations, exile, death, torture, mysterious disappearances besides supporting and arming rebels fighting the Senegalese government in the border region of Casamance. 

On a personal level, many observers have said, his antics border those of infamous despots like Iddi Amin Dada and Jean-Bidel Bokassa. From instructing a gathering of traditional elders to ordain him king of Gambia, threatening to behead all gays to purporting that he can cure HIV/Aids using herbal concoctions, His Excellency the President Sheikh Professor Alhaji Doctor Yahya Abdul-Aziz Jemus Junkung Jammeh is a man of many personalities, and names.

Apart from ruling the tiny nation as a fiefdom in the last 17 years and earning the title of the “West African Muammar Gaddafi”, the most controversial facet of his dramatic life is his lofty claims that he has divine powers to cure Aids. 

“Whatever you do, there are bound to be skeptics, but I can tell you my method is foolproof,” he told an Associated Press journalist in Banjul in 2007. “Mine is not an argument, mine is a proof. It’s a declaration. I can cure AIDS and I will”.

The infamous presidential treatment begins with Jammeh applying some mysterious paste on the patients’ body before forcing them to swallow some herbal concoction. After ordering them to eat two bananas, the maverick leader then holds up the Koran and points it at each of the patient chanting “in the name of Allah, in three to thirty days you will be cured”. 

He conducts the ritualistic ceremony occasionally and free of charge, with only a handful of patients being lucky enough to have him lay his gloved hand on their foreheads. To partake in Jammeh’s bizarre treatment programme patients are required to stop taking their antiretroviral drugs (ARVs) and stay in seclusion for 30 days. 

Advising patients to stop taking their medication has put him loggerheads with HIV/Aids experts, most of whom has classified him alongside former South African leader Thabo Mbeki as among African leaders whose policies are hampering the fight against the killer disease.
To prove the veracity of his cure the Gambian president has gone to the extent of sending blood samples of purportedly healed patients to laboratories in Senegal, but doctors have said the samples do not support the claims of healing. 

After claiming the position of number one faith healer in Gambia, Jammeh coerced a bunch of mostly illiterate traditional leaders to declare him king last year. They went around the country campaigning for his coronation arguing that it was the best way the nation can reward its “great leader”.

“The president has brought development to the country, and for that he deserves to be crowned King of The Gambia,” Junkung Camara, a chief from the western region of Foni Brefet, was quoted by the Gambian media saying. “This is the only way the Gambian people can express our gratitude to a leader who has done a lot for his country”.

But even though he is yet to be officially declared a monarch Jammeh, who claims to have gotten a vision from Allah to rule Gambia for the next three decades, is a king in all essence but the word. He is currently serving a third term after coming to power in a coup and winning four disputed elections consecutively. 

“He goes around in a convoy of armoured cars and whenever he comes across a crowd he throws packets of biscuits as gifts,” a Kenyan based in the Gambian capital Banjul who chose to remain anonymous for security reasons told DN2. “The education levels are pathetic and most teachers are from Ghana and Sierra Leone and there are only two recognized institutions of higher learning”.

Many locals believe the biscuits are laced with juju to ensure the masses remain loyal to him and his regime. The source says the security agents openly campaign for Jammeh going as far as plastering their official vehicles with his campaign posters and donning t-shirts many months after the elections are over.

“But he has managed to create an atmosphere of political tolerance where the majority Muslims lives in harmony with minority religions like Christianity,” the Kenyan explains. “He has managed to suppress religious fanatics who would like to sow seeds of animosity and religious hostilities”.

Unlike in other countries where voters cast ballot papers, Gambians usually drop marbles in bins marked with contestants’ name. The marble strikes a bell inside the bin as a precaution against multiple voting. The bin with the most marbles determines the winner. In last year’s general elections Jammeh was declared the winner in an election termed as a sham by both regional and international observers.

The totalitarian leader has the affairs of this tiny West African clenched in his iron fist. Besides being defense and agriculture minister Jammeh also heads the Cabinet Office, Parliament, Public Service Commission and National Intelligence Agency among others.
Under his government, several prominent journalists have been shot dead and others jailed indefinitely for criticizing his rule. Deyda Hydara, the editor and co-founder of independent newspaper The Point and one-time Gambia correspondent for AFP, was shot dead by unidentified gunmen while driving in the outskirts of the capital Banjul in 2004. 

Stressing that “I will also not sacrifice Gambia’s peace and security at the altar of freedom of expression,” Jammeh has strongly denied his government’s involvement in these assassinations and others in the past. 

“Being a journalist here is a dangerous affair,” our source in Banjul explains. “If you are not jailed you will definitely get yourself shot dead if you are not working for the state owned media”.

And Jammeh does not hide his venom against anybody who tries to interrupt his absolute rule either from within or without, especially those from the civil society.
“If you think that you can collaborate with the so-called human rights defenders, and get away with it, you must be living in a dream world,” he told the nation during a televised address in 2009. “I will kill you, and nothing will come out of it. If you are affiliated with any human rights group, be assured that your security and personal safety would not be guaranteed by my government”.

Ironically, the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights, whose members are elected and report to the AU Assembly, is headquartered in Gambia’s capital Banjul. The commission is tasked with the duty of interpreting the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights and dealing with complaints about the Charter’s violations.
There has been a consistent campaign by lobby groups to have the commission relocated from the West African country.

But despite his apparent dubious record on human rights and ruthless treatment of opponents and media Yahya Jammeh boasts of several honorary degrees from recognized universities in the west besides having his former Attorney General and Justice Minister Fatou Bensouda appointed Chief Persecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC). 

Asked during a television interview why she accepted to serve in the despotic regime back in 1998 Bensouda was categorically defensive, stating that whether her homeland was democratic or not was subject to discussion.

“I can always contribute to my country’s development in whatever capacity,” the 41 year-old Prosecutor said. “I have to say that my work as justice minister has never been in doubt. I was able to contribute to the cases that were going on then and looking back I don’t regret what I did.”

With the Gambian Diaspora calling for Yahya Jammeh to be tried at The Hague-based court for crimes against humanity it would be interesting to see how the prosecutor handles his former boss and political benefactor in such an eventuality.

The West African strongman gave The Gambian citizenry a dose of free presidential soap opera two years ago when he married then 21 year-old model Alimah Sallah against the will of his trophy wife Zeinab Suma Jammeh. The First Lady and mother of two is said to have fled to the United States with her children. 

Independent newspapers and bloggers claim that the strongman, who gropes to the First Lady’s whims, had to divorce Sallah and entice the Guinean-born Zeinab with gifts and promises of exotic holidays.  The First Lady is known for his shopping trips in exotic destinations in Europe, Asia and America where she is said to spend millions of dollars on clothes, jewelry and shoes.

“All her shopping transactions are done in cash. There is no paper trail (Credit Card, Checks or Master Cards) to account for the source of the funds,” Freedom Newspaper, an online Gambian publication, claims. “She also does not have any business to do with the Gambian Embassies in the places she visits”.

With his son Muhammed Yahya Jammeh being only five years old, the leader’s claim that he had a vision to rule The Gambia for 30 years is a ploy to buy time in order to bestow power on young Mohammed when he comes of age.

The Gambia has been mentioned as one of the key transit routes for drug traffickers from Latin America to Europe. In 2005, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) released a report mentioned the country among those preferred by traffickers in West Africa. During the same year, 15 people were arrested, among them senior government and military officials, and more than two tones of cocaine with a street value of more than a billion dollars (Sh82 billion) seized.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Sibusiso: First Black Man to Climb Mt. Everest

Climbing Mt Everest, the tallest mountain in the world, is the ultimate test of physical, psychological, mental and emotional endurance. What is more, it is one of the most expensive expeditions in the world.
These impediments, however, counted for nothing when Sibusiso Vilane, a simple game ranger, became the first black African to reach the world’s highest mountain in 2003.
Getting to the peak of the world’s tallest mountain only whetted Sibusiso’s hunger for heights. After Everest, he made another first by becoming the first black African to reach the peaks of the seven highest mountains on the seven continents.
They are Kilimanjaro in Africa, Aconcagua in South America, Elbrus in Europe, Carstensz Pyramid in Oceania, Vinson in Antarctica and Denali in North America.
Sibusiso has climbed Mt Kilimanjaro a record 13 times.
“My advice to everybody who wants to embark on such a journey is that one should not underestimate Mt Everest,” Sibusiso said. “Permits are the most expensive; you also need other equipment,” Sibusiso told The EastAfrican in Nairobi, where he had been invited by the Kenya Everest Expedition to help recruit a Kenyan who will join the team in climbing the mountain in 2013 for charity.
“You have to hire guides and porters who work for you for about three months… it is not cheap,” he said.
Expenses aside, the climber risks not making it back alive: One can fall from the steep ridges, freeze from extreme cold or succumb to one of the numerous high attitude illnesses.
According to Himalayan Database, a compilation of all expeditions to the 300 peaks in the Himalayas since the 1920s, more than 250 people have died trying to conquer Mt Everest.

Sibusiso, who encountered the body of a dead climber on his way up in 2005, describes Mt Everest as “the man-eating monster mountain.”
“The sight really brought home the danger of what we were doing,” he recounts in his book To the Top from Nowhere. “I was five metres away when I saw him, clipped to the same rope as myself, face up; he appeared well preserved.”
A burning desire to set a benchmark for fellow Africans and a quest to achieve the Everest dream, Sibusiso said, kept him going.
“To be honest, we black Africans generally don’t have a sudden urge to climb the mountains in our backyards,” he noted. “We don’t see it as something to be done unless it’s an absolute necessity, or as a job. Mountaineering is simply not a black man’s sport.”
He made the second climb in 2005 in the company of fellow South African Alex Harris and world-renowned explorer Sir Ranulph Fiennes.
The news that Sibusiso would be making history as the first black man to reach the top of Mt Everest made him a household name in South Africa, with British Broadcasting Corporation crew filming his departure from Mbabane by bus to Oliver Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg.
“Friends had organised a surprise for me. At the airport, I was called to the VIP lounge,” he remembers. “Waiting for me there was the then South African minister of environmental affairs and tourism, Valli Moosa.”
The minister handed him the national flag, which he requested Sibusiso to put on top of Mt Everest.
Despite his determination and many months of preparation, the more than 29,000-foot climb nearly cost him his very life when he found himself alone and without water at the top of Everest.
“Slowly the mountain became desert-still. And then the wind started howling,” Sibusiso writes in To the Top from Nowhere. “Like a tension spring that suddenly loses power, my energy dropped to zero. The pack felt 10 times heavier.”
The climber was saved by a young Nepali guide who found him clinging to the edges of consciousness. But his troubles were rewarded upon his arrival at the foot of the mountain, where he received a message of congratulations from none other than the then South African president Thabo Mbeki.
“In this, you have shown the heights we can all scale in life if we put our shoulder to the wheel and work without flagging,” President Mbeki said. “Sibusiso, you have done us proud.”
In 2006, Sibusiso was decorated with the Order of Ikhamanga, an award bestowed on distinguished achievers, by the head of state.
He says that Nelson Mandela, whom he met after reaching the peak of Mt Everest in 2003, is one of the most inspiring figures in his life. As a tribute to the elderly statesman, Sibusiso carried Madiba’s Long Walk to Freedom on his second climb to the roof of the world in 2005 and while holding the famous autobiography aloft, he sang the South African national anthem.
“It’s almost impossible to sing when up there, since there is no air to breathe. I had to take off my oxygen mask, and soon I was gasping”.
After the national anthem, Sibusiso paraphrased Mandela’s famous words during his inauguration as the first black South African president in 1994: “Never, never, never again shall Everest stand as an impossible odd to all Africans.”
Since then, two black Africans have reached the peak of Mt Everest, the latest being Tanzania’s Wilfred Moshi, who did it in May this year.

Sibusiso was formally introduced to the Queen of England in 2011 at a reception in Buckingham Palace.
Besides starting a running club called Born to Win and being a patron of many charitable organisations, Sibusiso hosts a radio talk show “My Climb, Your Climb” on 1485 Radio Today, where he interviews black achievers about the challenges they face and overcome in their careers and lives.
He will be in Kyrgyzstan at the end of this month where, in the company of a friend, he will attempt to reach the peak of three mountains in a row.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Whats in a Name?

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 his unflinching love for the legendary Romeo in the Shakespearean classical Romeo and Juliet, this phrase seems to hold no waters in matters outside romance where names sometimes pack more weight than their face value.

The list of leading lights in Kenyan politics reads like a script from the sixties, thanks to scions of former power men holding powerful positions with largely their surnames to thank.

However, this is not only in Kenya alone but has also been replicated in countries like the United States where two George Bushes ascended to the presidency. It has been done by the Sukarnoputris in Indonesia, the Gandhis in India, the Bhuttos in Pakistan and the Aquinos and the Macapagals in Philippines.

But even in the traditional African setting the question “whose son are you” was common since people were, more often than not, judged according to their father’s reputation. Solomonic wisdom dictates 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 Athropology. “Their significance is so integral that parents will avoid naming their children after people with bad perception in society like thieves or murderers”.
To emphasize the importance of names, naming a child was done in elaborate rituals with deep religious significance. Newborns are named after ancestors, past heroes, time and place of birth, animals, physical features and major events. Others are 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.

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

A funny name for instance, the university don says, can make an individual a centre of attraction or ridicule in which case it might affect their self esteem and personality.

Orie Rogo-Manduli, the firebrand female politician and activist, says she was baptized Mary Snessor by her parents in honour of a Scottish nun working in Calabar, Nigeria, rescuing twins babies from ritual killings.

“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 he very ill, he whispered ‘Orie’”.

Later on the Trans Nzoia County Senator aspirant found Mary Snessor such a mouthful and requested his parents that she drops the two names.

“Although I admired the Scottish lady and even visited her birthplace later on I believed my identity was with 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 late husband’s name”.

Known for hers strong feminine ideals, Orie insists that ladies should not drop their maiden surnames even after getting married since that is a sign of respect to their fathers. She also adds that all the Ories in Luo land are related to her since that name is unique to her family tree.

However occupation, religion and personal philosophies are some of the most common reasons for changing names.

Success in some careers like performing arts and politics are 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.

Many people who watched movies like The Firm, Jerry Maguire, Magnolia, The Last Samurai and War of the Worlds might never know that the main star Tom Cruise once answered to the name Thomas Mapother III. Others are Marilyn Monroe, born Norma Jean Baker, Demi Moore, born Demetria Gene Guynes, Chuck Norris, born Carlos Ray and Bruce Willis, born Walter Willison.

Adolf Hitler’s father was born Alois Schicklgruber and later adopted the name Hiedler after her single mother remarried. When the future Fuhrer was entering Germany as a young job seeker a migration officer found Hiedler a mouthful and simply wrote it as “Hitler”.

The name changes 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”.

Growing up in Kilembe Copper Mines in Uganda Richard Nguluku Ndile couldn’t tire telling people about that “wonderful’ place in Uganda upon his return to his native Kibwezi, hence everybvody reffered to him as Kalembe.

Years later after he lost a civic election just because his supporters could not recognize his name on the ballot paper, the maverick politician swore an affidavit, dropping the first two names and 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 roost and they were determined 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”.

In Kenya founding father Jomo Kenyatta, among those leaders who changed their names to reflect on their pan-African convictions. Others across the continent who did the same were Mobutu Sese Seko wa Zabanga, Kamuzu Banda and Thabo Mbeki.

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

Although born Koigi wa Wamwere, the Chama Cha Mwananchi leader says he was baptized 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 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 we adore European names is an indicator that although we got political independence we are still culturally colonized.

The veteran politician’s sentiments are echoed by Mukurueini Constituency legislature and Assistant Minister of 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 parliamentarian dropped his birth names Godfrey Kariuki Mwangi for the double barreled Kabando wa Kabando.

“When I was schooling many high schools were sponsored by the major churches like the Catholic and the Presbyterian,” he explains. “There was a rule that you have to be baptized with an English name for you to be admitted in one of these schools hence I adopted the name Godfrey from the worry that I might pass and miss a chance”.

Kabando chose Godfrey not because it was the name of his father’s best friend.

But even after taking up Godfrey, he referred to himself as GKM Kabando when he joined form one at Ololoserian High School in Kajiado County since he never believed the first three names were his names. 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 are compelling Africans to do what our former colonial masters don’t do,” Kabando explains. “The Wazungus don’t change their names when they come to Africa but they want us to change ours”.

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 inferiority complex because it reflects their worship of western values,” he explains. “Martin Luther King Junior 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”.

But getting his names changed completely was never an easy task for he had to contend with legal bottlenecks at the registrar of persons. But 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 literary camped at the registrar of persons for many days until he finally heard my case, albeit halfheartedly,” 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”.

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

“My name helped me defray tribal card when I campaigned and won 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 in 1997 because some Mukurweini voters thought I was an alien”.

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 baptized as Emilio Stanley by Italian missionaries, President Mwai Kibaki has always been known for all intents and purposes with 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 lays a lot of emphasis on their African names while Peter Kenneth is the only referred by two European names.

Known to the world as Malcolm X, the African American civil rights activist dropped his surname and adopted the “X” after joining Nation of Islam (NOI) to signify the unknown tribe name of his ancestor who was transported from Africa in a slave ship. It was a tradition of slave masters to give slaves their surnames as a sign of ownership

X later changed his entire identity to El Hajj Malik El Shabaaz although he still remained Malcolm X to his followers. Muhammad Ali, a Malcom X’s protégé, also dropped his birth name Cassius Clay after joining NOI to protest racial prejudice by white America against black people.