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Minnie Kasyoka

I have two names. That’s how it’s always been. Both names are mine, I took up no surname. My mum was unmarried for most of my formative years and since we no longer lived with my father, it made sense not to include his name on mine and my sister’s documents.

I have never felt unloved, unwanted or had the feeling of not belonging because I have no family name. Instead I have an overwhelming sense of independence from the unhealthy attachment to familial norms that conflict with my ideologies. No one ever tells me, “You’re a shame to this name!” I like how belonging to myself comes before belonging to anyone else.

When I got my son the decision was easy, I named him for the circumstances of his conception, middle name Peter for my step dad, last name Kwame for one of my heroes, the great Nkrumah. His were 3 but they all belonged to him. He was his own person and apart from the necessary guidance I’m meant to impart I make it a point not to control his life in any way. He is a very independent little boy.

You would think my mum, having named me and actively taken away my intended surname would be joyous that for once, I had lived by her example. She was livid! Why didn’t I name him after my step father? I was confused, I had! Peter, wasn’t that his name?

She went on to explain how important it is for a boy to belong somewhere. “Jabali belongs to me.” No, she meant to which family did he belong. Ours of course! We live with my parents, he knows where we come from. I frustrated her.

Then came all the lectures from my extended family. A boy needs to belong. Everyone said this. He needs a name that identifies where he’s from. I gave in and said I’d add my own name, Kasyoka, a Kamba, woman’s name to his, like Kikuyu single mother’s do. The answer was a resounding no!

They wanted me to add my step father’s name to Jabali’s. I love the man, he raised me! I know he’d had no qualms with me not adding his name to my own, why was it so important now? Why was it important for my son to bear THIS particular name, Gitiha?

It hit me with a brutal force months after my mum went through hell and high water to add the name Gitiha to my kid’s birth certificate and passport. She had to trick me into all of it of course and bribe her way through a lot of bureaucracy, but the cunning woman got her way in the end.


It occurred to me that they didn’t say Jabali did not need a name, he needed that name. What was so special about the name?

Jabali Peter Kwame.

None of those names give any indication of his ethnic origins. He could in fact be Ghanaian for all anyone knows.

Jabali Peter Kwame Gitiha is his new name.

He needs to belong.

He belongs to me.

That’s not enough. People need to know where he comes from.

That did not mean from which family he hailed.

It turns out that in my ideological independence from my family, I failed to pick something up that is integral to the survival of any Kenyan alive today, Tribalism. That’s why it didn’t occur to me at first when they said he should belong somewhere.

My own name is unmistakably Kamba, everyone knows from whence I hail immediately they hear Kasyoka and ascribe to me all the stereotypes, negative and positive, that come with that identity. I don’t mind it because I am a Kamba, both my biological parents are. My baby daddy is an amalgam, Kikuyu/Kisii. So my baby is Kamba/Kikuyu/Kisii. It’s kinda cool to belong to all these cultures, I’m a bit jealous. In my mind, the names he bears don’t hinder him from embracing these proud cultures. My choice, in fact gave him a chance, freedom to choose his own path.

The name Gitiha was forced on us for no other reason than that it is a Kikuyu one. Considering they maintain political and economic hegemony over most of the country it is easy to understand what benefits having a Kikuyu name gives a person. Being a Kikuyu in Kenya is like being white in America. The sense of entitlement it gives one! Lord!

I will tell you one day how my world changed when I added the Kikuyu name, Wanjiru to mine during a teenage phase. Changes that were only visible when I finally dropped the name in high school. I know what it feels like to not be Kikuyu. It feels like shit!

The most fucked up part of all of this is that it’s my Kamba relatives, and my Kamba mother that fought hardest against the addition of my Kamba name to Jabali’s.

No one has felt the negative effects of tribal politics quite like the Kamba. Our political leaders have forever been against the tribe in power and that has been felt economically as well as politically.

In spite of being the third largest tribe in Kenya with arguably some of the most brilliant minds in the country, it is rare that you will see a Kamba in a position of great power.

I’m not saying minority tribes don’t deserve a seat at the table, or that Kambas deserve it more because of our suffering. No, I’m stating that it is a testament to how deeply entrenched our tribal politics are that people from other tribes seek to rig the system by giving their babies names from the dominant tribes.

My best friend named her new born son Maasai names. Why?

Wamaasai wana pesa. Na wao husaidiana sana.

Maasais have money. And they help each other a lot!

She was basically saying she wouldn’t give him her Mijikenda name because she preferred that her son has it easier growing up and making a living in this country.

It’s true. It is a shitty time you’ll have trying to make your fortune in business in this country. There’s no job security in biashara (business) for my tribe. Once the elections come round all your business partners ruin you because the Kamba in leadership chose the losing side. If you are a Kamba or a Luo you’d better go to school, read well and amass your degrees because corporate employment is your only recourse. That, or changing your name.

I think we should begin touting it as a retirement strategy. Call all our children, Kikuyu, Kalenjin, Arab or Maasai names hoping to level the playing field for them, giving them a real chance to make something of themselves. By the time we retire at least one of our kids with an agricultural degree will have ‘found himself’ a well paying job in the Ministry of Internal Security and will use money for fighting terrorism to take us shopping in Hong Kong.

Secure your future, adopt a new name.