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.