The Kenya Forum | What’s In a Name? Everything. - The Kenya Forum

August 14, 2021


Who are you? Speak your name. Tell your story.

More by Mona Ombogo

What’s In a Name? Everything.

What’s In a Name? Everything.

Recently, during a story-lining session for a new television series I am working on, there was a debate about using ‘ethnic’ names versus ‘non-tribal’ names for our main characters. An ethnic name is a name which pinpoints where a character ancestrally hails from, Say, Mungai (Kikuyu), Otieno (Luo), Chepchumba (Kalenjin), Mwithe (Kamba). A non-tribal name is generic, usually Swahili, English or Arabic; Musa, Hamisi, Amani, Pendo, John, Jane thus making a character’s ancestry ambiguous.

This kind of naming in Kenyan or African television shows has become very popular. It’s considered a safe bet because people apparently will never be put off by a character whose name can cut across many ethnic groups in Kenya. They might however be put off if a character is specifically from Kisumu, or Kiambu or Baringo et cetera.

In Kenya our traditional namesare identifiers to who our ancestors are. They tie our lineage to a specific part of the country.

This has somehow become taboo. I am not sure when that happened. Okay, I am. It stems from a desire to embrace all ethnicities in Kenya, to stamp out ethnicism, to ensure we all feel included whether it’s by our vote or what we watch on TV.

The Idea Behind ‘Non-Tribal’ Names is Noble But…

The idea behind these so-called ‘non-tribal’ names is noble. I understand why producers in the entertainment industry would embrace it. Entertainment is about escapism, idealism and the last thing they want is for their audiences to feel affronted because their particular ethnic group was somehow misrepresented by a story line, or ignored by a show.

I understand and applaud that way of thinking. But it also worries me. It worries me because entertainment is often a mirror to society, a reflection of where we’ve come from and where we are going. So, choosing to drop our ancestral names in lieu of generic ones which don’t hint at where we come from is an indication at best of a decision to erase our history, at worst to vilify it.

The Power of a Name

A name is a powerful thing, it holds the timeline of a people, it tells a story. I am afraid that because of the challenges our past has brought us, with different ethnicities being pitted against each other, we are too scared to look closely at the real reasons behind our divide. The easier option is to forget, bury our names and proclaim we are one. It is as if we cannot be diverse and united at the same time. It is as if to be united we must all look the same, speak the same and carry the same names.

I fear an integral part of us is slowly being eradicated and we are too busy singing a supposedly unifying song to see it.

The hardest way to kill a people is violence because eventually they will rise in revolution and fight back. The easiest way is to take first their god, then their songs, then their dances, then their language and finally, their name.

We carry foreign names today. Several of our true names have died, and with the new craze of using generic naming as a system, even the few we have left will eventually vanish. And one day, we won’t even remember our languages, we will speak foreign tongues and call them our own.

Some might say this is evolution. Perhaps. But our evolution should be brought on by conscious choice, not as a result of colonization, of things being forcefully removed from us. Because then it’s not evolution, it’s degradation. Erosion. There is a huge difference. We have the choice right now to decide which way we will go.

My question is, what are we choosing? Whose legacy do we want to carry forward?

Me? I want to celebrate my heritage, shout it from the rooftops. I want to invite others to do the same. I want to remember my true name.

My name is Mona Akoth Ombogo. I am a child of the African soil. I am dark. I am curvy. And I am beautiful.My father’s people hail from Kapuonja, Kisumu. My mother’s people hail from Gem, Siaya.My people call their God, Nyasaye. RuothWuonOsimbo. Singo .Wuon Loch. Obong’o Nyakalaga.

My forefathers fought great battles for me. First they lost, surrendered, endured the eradication of their languages, their systems, their beliefs and their gods.First they lost, and then they won.

Today I am a child of many things, many dialects, many cultures. But I will always be a daughter of Africa. A daughter of the rain.

When my forefathers fought for freedom, they meant for me to capture these truths with all of my heart. They meant for me to be great. To know that my footsteps would never be erased from the sands of time, because I am the very sands of time.

My fore-bearers meant for me to rise. They meant for all of us to rise; we sons and daughters of the African sun, these lands of plenty. These lands of gold, lands of rivers, lands of the bountiful harvest.

Now, we need to recapture our truth. Recapture what our ancestors always knew. We are great.We need to reclaim it through our words, our mindsets, our beliefs, our prayers, our very being, our very soul. How we treat each other.

We need to speak our name, tell our story. Truthfully.

The bottom line is, it doesn’t matter where in the world you hail from. Every single human being deserves to take great honour and pride in their heritage. They deserve the freedom to choose it.

Who are you? Speak your name. Tell your story.


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