African Names: A report from Kenya

Kayla Lyn Bronder, as a volunteer Public Health Officer at the St. Camillus Hospital in Karango, Kenya, had the opportunity to closely observe the baby naming practices of the Luo culture, and we appreciate her sharing them with us. During her eight month stint, Kayla developed the Nyatike Jigger Eradication Campaign to assist those in the community affected by the parasitic flea known as a Jigger.  For more information on the project, visit her blog: kaylainkenya.blogspot.comKayla will be returning to Tulane University School of Medicine in New Orleans in July.

In Luo culture, the naming of a child is an important and yet strangely flexible process. Unlike American parents, Luo parents often wait days or even weeks before naming their baby. And while the first name is a traditionally Christian or “Western” name, the second name usually indicates the time, weather, or conditions of the child’s birth. Finally, the father’s name (in our context, the last name) is often overlooked and only used for official documents.

For example, a little boy born at noon time could be named something like Michael (Christian name) Ochieng (O for a boy, -chieng for “noon time”).

A baby girl born while it is raining could be named Vivianne (Western name) Akoth (A for a girl, -koth for rain)

My Luo name is Adhiambo. A for a girl, -dhiambo because I was born in the late afternoon.

The majority of children are named along those lines: Don, Tony, Stephan, Joseph, Mercy, Faith, Camilla, Fenny, followed by Oluoch, Oriri, Odhiambo, Akinyi, Apiyo, Adongo, and so on and so forth.

Occasionally parents feel inspired by athletes, musicians, or world leaders and name their children Clinton, Reagan, and countless Barack Obamas, and right alongside our great American presidents are their beautiful wives Hillary and Michelle. I haven’t met too many Georges or Lauras, but I try not to read too much into that.

Unfortunately, some parents make drastically horrible decisions when it comes to naming their children. My (least) favorites have included Violence, Morphine, and Dotcom. Thankfully for Luo children, they mostly go by their Luo names, so they need not dwell on the cruel miscalculations of their families.

The final interesting realization I’ve come to concerning the Luo child naming process is the powerful flexibility of the whole ordeal. With hundreds of babies born at home each day in impoverished conditions, the practices of birth certificates, embroidered baby blankets, birth announcements, etc. remain foreign oddities. So a baby’s name often evolves and changes until something sticks.

Here’s one gratifying personal baby name experience I’ve had in Kenya:

At the time this photo was taken, I was told that the baby’s name was Dotcom Akoth. “Dotcom?” I asked incredulously. I must have misunderstood! “Yes, Dotcom. Like from the internet.” Alright then…Dotcom…Poor thing.

Two weeks later we followed up with the Adhiambo family — Emily, Rocky, David, and Baby Dotcom. They had moved into a tiny mud hut that was previously the kitchen of a family member. Emily could no longer pay rent on the small home they’d lived in before and was forced to rely on the meager resources of her impoverished family. We had to do something to help. A single mother with three small children in a mud hut will almost definitely become reinfested with jiggers.

We discussed the situation with the family and agreed to buy the metal roofing materials if the family came together to build the rest of the house. When we arrived on Monday morning with the roofing materials, a smiling Emily handed me her beautiful baby girl, introducing her as Kayla Adhiambo. When I asked what had happened to “Dotcom,” the rest of the family insisted that the baby’s new name be Kayla Adhiambo, as a sign of appreciation for the help.

Two weeks ago I had been given chickens. This week, a namesake.

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7 Responses to “African Names: A report from Kenya”

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UrbanAngel Says:

May 6th, 2010 at 6:44 am

As a person living in South Africa. I can understand where you are coming from in this post . It’s wonderful to see other naming practices in Africa. There are some wonderful African naming traditions.One of the things that I love about Africa, is how much ‘free-er’ the name culture is.

Thank you for a lovely post & keep up the good work ! I commend you on your work – the world needs more people like you !

Meaghan Says:

May 6th, 2010 at 7:22 am

Not only did you give this family a home, but you saved their child from a lifetime of embarassment.

olivegreen Says:

May 6th, 2010 at 1:02 pm

Beautiful post…thanks for sharing.

lilli23 Says:

May 6th, 2010 at 4:04 pm

What a wonderful story! I think it’s wonderful to hear about the naming process in different cultures. And for the record, Kayla is much better than Dotcom! 🙂

Heather Says:

May 7th, 2010 at 12:41 am

Because my name is a bit of a challenge to pronounce in many languages, I have a few other names–I’m Aya, meaning “sign” or “word of God” in Morocco and Dzithendo in South Africa which means “praise” in Tshivenda.

Sachiko Says:

May 7th, 2010 at 10:56 am

What a great post! Thanks for sharing your experiences.

I wonder how baby-naming flexibility could change the name game here in the States. I think people like me might be less neurotic about choosing the One and Only Right Name for each kid, with the birth certificate clock ticking in the hospital.

We could just enjoy the new baby and keep throwing names at them until it sticks. I think that’d be cool.

Is There More to our Names or are They Just a Combination of Syllables? – moneymorality Says:

April 18th, 2016 at 5:15 pm

[…] on the season during which they were born or the time of day at which they were born. For example, the Luo in Kenya name their child Akoth (for a girl) or Okoth (for a boy) if they are born during the rainy season […]

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