A Nigerian-American journalist in Kenya

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“My names are…” July 30, 2010

Filed under: cultural observations — Admin @ 8:07 pm
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That’s the way many Kenyans begin when introducing themselves. One time, a guy I was interviewing stood up, cleared his throat and said, “my good names are…”

Let’s explore these “good names.”

I’ve always been fascinated with names and the traditions people use to name their children. In some Nigerian ethnic groups, several relatives will contribute to a child’s name so the child may end having at least six names.

In Kenya, I’ve learned that many children take on the names of a late relative. Well this is the case among the Luhya ethnic group. Often times, when I ask for someone’s name here, I get confused. For example, there’s a camera guy at K24 who is named Anthony.

Anthony is a very happy, friendly type of guy and you will always find him smiling (though he’s not smiling in this photo). So, I asked Anthony for his full name and he responded,

“Anthony Ngacha.”

“What is your middle name?” I asked.

He said that Ngacha is his middle name, actually his grandfather’s name. I asked for his surname and he told me “Kiboi.” So I asked why he did not include Kiboi the first time and he said he is not sure.

This is not the first time this has happened. During an interview, I asked a lady named Jane (I have changed her first name) for her full name. She told me her full name is Jane Kariuki. I became confused. I told her that I’ve known her as Jane Munyi. She said that Munyi is her father’s name but she is now married. So she told me to use Jane Munyi Kariuki. So I asked for clarification.

“So, your father’s last name is Munyi?”

“No, my father’s last name is Maganga (I’ve changed the name).”

So…I hope you understand my confusion.

Well, I sought out to understand this naming issue once and for all. I went to a guy at K24 called “Papa.”

First, I asked him for his full name and he said, “Odali Julius.”

I asked for his last name and he told me, “Kasibwa.”

“So Julius is your middle name?”

He said no, “Odali” is the middle name.

Julius is his given name while Odali is his father’s father’s name and Kasibwa is the surname. His children’s middle names all come from late family members, including his mother, father, aunt, and mother-in-law.

“And your children’s last name is also, Kasibwa?”

“No, Odali.”

I didn’t give up trying to learn! He explained that among his ethnic group, the Luhya, the child’s last name is the father’s middle name. So if I were Kenyan, my name would be Chika Ashinyeli, because Ashinyeli is my dad’s middle name. And then my middle name would be the name of a late relative. So, Chika Bridget (my grandmother) Ashinyeli.

I think I got it now.

So, I asked a few of my colleagues for their full names: Mary Wanjiku (mother’s mother’s name) Nyoike;
Gladys Wanjiru (grandmother’s name) Mwangi; Diana Wanjiru (dad’s mom) Muiri

And sometimes, a child can be named according to the season during which they were born. Julius said among his people, a child born during rain is named, Wafula and during the dry season, the name should be, Wanjala. Similar traditions exist in many cultures, most notably, among Ghanaians, who are named according to the birth day… literally. I remember explaining this to one lady. I have a friend name Akosua (“born on Sunday”) who had explained to me about Ghanaian, specifically Ashanti, names.

One day in an anthropology class, a classmate asked why almost every Ghanaian guy she knows is named Kofi. I told her that Kofi means “born on Friday.” She turned up her nose in annoyance and said it would be so awful to be in a class with so many classmates with your name.

“Millions of people were born on a Friday!” I distinctly remember her saying.

Well, each to his own, but I love the way that we, Africans, are named.

A few days ago, I was talking with a K24 colleague. Her name is Beryl and she happens to be a superb journalist. We were talking about baby names and we both agreed that African names are indeed, significant. She said that she had to grow into her own name.

I remember, my own journey, the journey of becoming Chika.

Throughout elementary and middle school, I was called by my middle name, Sandra, because I was ashamed of “Chika.” Sandra just seemed more appropriate, for the public- though at home, I was called “Chika.” In high school, I became somewhat of an “Afro- centrist” and I finally started telling people to call me “Chika.” Man! My L-town ghetto classmates had fun with that. “Chuka? Chicken? Chaka Khan?” My tenth grade math teacher once ridiculed me in front of everyone saying, “Chaka, Shiko, or whatever your name is…” But I didn’t care because I had finally learned to become “Chika.”

Then, I learned that Chika is actually short for Chikaodinaka. Chi Chi. Chika. Chikaodi. Chikaodinaka.

“My names are Chikaodinaka Sandra Bridget Ashinyeli Oduah.”

If you’re confused, send me an email.


5 Responses to ““My names are…””

  1. Hi Chika! Thanks for connecting through my blog. Nice post about the names- I now understand so much better! I was always confused as to why they had so many different names, and would tell me something different every time here in Kenya, but you helped clear things up! Your name is beautiful, btw.

    Anyway, I’m glad you finally made it to Kenya. My fiance and I are here for a summer internship and are sad to be leaving in only 3 weeks! It is truly an amazing country.

  2. Dede Teteh Says:

    That’s interesting, I’ve never seen my name spelled that way before Akosua, because my father’s family is from Ghana my name is also ghanaian and my name is spelled Kossiwa and it also means born on Sunday. So, this is the Ashanti spelling?


    Great Blog Chika!!

    • chikainkenya Says:

      thanks Dede,
      maybe it’s the ashanti spelling. have you ever seen color purple? the actress who played nettie (the sister that was taken away) is from ghana. her name is akosua busia.
      thanks for reading!

  3. Stella Says:

    Hello Chika,

    My name is Stella. Kindly assist me on understandin this. First do you happen to know anything about the Efiks or Calabar or Kalabar. My grandfather was in world war 1 & 2. He had a street named after him in Efik and he passed on in the 90s. His name was Paul Onyiego Ogwora, and the street is named Onyiego. We would very much appreciate if you happen to know anything about the Efiks and if we have relatives out there.

    I am Kenyan.


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