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Birth and Naming Traditions in Kenya

Guest Post by Gloria Teimuge

Gloria is a public health practitioner and consultant, photojournalist and writer living in Nairobi, Kenya. This is part of our series highlighting the geography and culture of Kenya.

My middle name is Jepkoech, which means I was born at dawn, right before sunrise, when the first light appears in the East. I have adapted well as an early morning riser, getting that morning run and energy boost before the schedule begins. My Mom says she was going to name me Jepkorir, which means born at korir, slightly earlier than dawn. Names and their meanings can rub off on us, make us who we are, and establish an identity.

Culture and Traditions

Our next topic in this blog series is one of my favorites: the culture and traditions of the Kenyan communities! I will share some of Kenya's practices, some of which still happen in many tribes and communities on the African continent. This shared ancestry is a reminder that we are one; we are the same people. One notable thing across the continent that I love for sure is the sense of community. African proverbs talk a lot about unity and togetherness; for instance, "If you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together."

On Mashujaa Day, 10th October, the National Museums of Kenya in collaboration with Google Arts & Culture unveiled a beautiful exhibition that explores the 44 Kenyan tribes, their heroes, stories and fashion. Also included is the music scene and contemporary creatives. Follow this link and discover Kenya virtually.

by Shujaa Stories National Museums of Kenya

Welcoming a baby

A baby is welcomed with ululation and joy. An expectant mother is usually well taken care of and respected. Midwifery was the norm and is still common in some areas. Mkunga, as she is known, helps women with newborn delivery at home. Many of the mkunga inherit the position from a family member and learned this skill from their predecessors. Presently, they are 'birth companions' and accompany the women to hospitals in case of emergencies.

Traditionally, women gave birth at home. The mkunga was always on call. They would monitor the pregnancy, especially towards the last trimester, and ensure safe delivery. When the baby is born, the women in the room would announce the gender to those waiting outside, and there would be a celebration. In some tribes, three ululations would signify a boy, and two would be a girl. (Photo above: Kenyan mom-to-be Mercy Tarus, used with permission.)

I learned more about this work when I had the opportunity to work at the health development center in Makunga, a rural town in western Kenya. We educated women on the importance of ante-natal care and regular clinic visits during maternity. There was a lot of reluctance to visit the hospital. Traditionally, they strongly believe in herbal medicine and home-based care, and it has worked for centuries. So, we had to break down the conversation and address the basics. This opportunity was an eye-opener for both parties, and we also learned the importance of natural and herbal medicine.

Naming practices

I just heard of a friend who named her child Lord Tyrion, a Lannister from Game of Thrones! As a GoT fan, I'm all for it. When Barack Obama was elected president of the US, so many mothers that year named their newborns after him. What an honor. Naming children after influential people is becoming quite common; and in general, naming practices are changing and becoming more westernized these days.

The order of naming in Kenya is: Christian name, traditional name, family name. Traditionally, there was no premeditation when it came to the naming of babies. Our middle name is a traditional/tribal name. We are given a traditional name according to the time of day/night, season (rainy, drought, famine), activity (harvesting, taking the cattle out to graze or bringing them back in the evening), or in honor of ancestors, etc.

In the Kalenjin tribe, the suffix 'Che' is for a girl, and 'Kip' is for a boy. For example, the drought season is usually from November to early March, so a child born during this time would be Jepkemei (girl) or Kipkemei (boy). A child born in the rainy season would be Cherop or Kiprop. My friend Chebet was born at noon. Chepkogei or Kipkogei means delayed child labor.

Dawn in Zambia

Sometimes, the elderly family members would meet in a room with the child and start mentioning names of ancestors at random. If the baby sneezed after a specific name, then that would be its name. It was considered a connection to the people they loved through the newborn.

Names can also be changed, which happens during circumcision or marriage. Circumcision traditionally happened for both boys and girls and it was considered a rite of passage. After being circumcised, then they would be given new names. When married, a woman would automatically drop her family name and take her husband's family name. These days, it's more a personal choice, and many women prefer to hyphenate their spouse's name or not to take the new name at all.

In every society, naming is an effective form of identity, and it gives a sense of belonging. We pride in our names, and no matter where we go, our names will always be the identification and tether to our heritage.

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