African names have deep meanings, let us keep them

A girl gets baptised at the Kabarak University swimming pool. The pan-African movement  is seeping into our culture.  We are rejecting neocolonialism and embracing our somewhat forgotten African cultures, including religion. PHOTO | FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP

What you need to know:

  • What distinguished one tribe from another was embedded in these handed down and refined cultural traditions.
  • My government name is Florence Chemutai Bett. I was named after a town in Italy the locals call Firenze.

Long before the white man landed on our shores on the coast, elbowed his way inland then later pressed the Bible into the hands of the indigenous people he encountered, along the way there existed a robust African culture.

Our people had an organised system of structures, practices, rituals that informed how they lived as communities. It defined who they were as a people. It identified them.

What distinguished one tribe from another was embedded in these handed down and refined cultural traditions.

Every indigenous community had governance structures, religious and social practices and rituals for their rites of passage (birth, circumcision, marriage and death).

Reading up on the fascinating history of these communities shows you just how far from “primitive” our people were. Forget the perspective of the foreign white man.


Of interest to this story are the naming traditions at birth. Names were not just slapped to the foreheads of newborns with no thought behind them – there was meaning, beautiful and exotic stories informed these names.

Some of the back stories that informed these names were the time of day the child was born (sunrise or sunset, were the cows down at the river?), season of the year (heavy rains or great drought, harvesting or planting season?), how the child exited its mother’s womb (feet first or as silent as a lamb, umbilical cord around its neck, premature?), events at the child’s birth (disease, war?), its physical features (wide nose, chubby fingers, flappy ears?)

It is an inexhaustive list of beautiful back stories.

Our people soon adopted Christianity and its rituals – naming traditions gradually shifted as our people were baptised with Christian names as their first names – names from the Bible of prophets, saints and whatnot. These are the first names my parents and most of their generation hold. At least they maintained their traditional second and subsequent names.

Then came my generation. I am a child of the ‘80s. My parents followed this part-Christian part-traditional pattern when naming my siblings and me.

My government name is Florence Chemutai Bett. I was named after a town in Italy the locals call Firenze. My Ol’Man was down there for a work thing on the week I was born in October of ’84. He returned with some loose souvenirs and a name for his little girl, his fourth.


This is what he considered division of labour. He must have told my mother, “You carried the baby, you’re already knackered from labour. I’ll save you the trouble of thinking up a first name, and here is a name I brought her from Italy.” Then he pulled it out of his suitcase, proud of himself. I hope she smiled when he told it to her.

Chemutai is my Kalenjin name. It means I was born when the sun was already up in the sky.

My clansmen are all Bett, they are settled in the environs of Kaplong; some have migrated to other counties.

The ‘90s saw the familiar Bible/British names are replaced with more sexy American versions. John, Joseph, Noah, Jane, Mary, Alice, Rose and Susan were replaced with Jason, Brian, Austin, Stacey, Kimberly, Natalie and Lisa.

By the turn of the new millennium we were so far gone that the criteria for naming our children was, “How fanciful is it?”

Some children even got two Western names.

Enter the 2000s. The pan-African movement has been reignited, and is seeping into our culture and lifestyles. We have gone full circle. We are becoming aware to just how Westernised we are as a generation.


We are now consciously rejecting neocolonialism and embracing our somewhat forgotten African cultures: the music we listen to, how we dance, the Ankara we throw on our backs, the language we speak among our tribesmen, the artefacts we craft, our religious practices and rituals for our rites of passage.

I am not the only one who has dropped their Western name and is now running with two African names. Go ahead and flip through this newspaper for bylines. Run through the list of your Facebook friends, especially the ones in diaspora. It is deliciously empowering to use two African names.

To be honest, though, I have never been hot about Florence. (Sorry, Dad). I find it too strong, too serious, too colourless for personality.

Worse is that everyone you meet insists on calling you Flo, never mind that they have not asked your permission to shorten it instead of sticking with the unshortened mouthful.

With everything going on in the world right now, it is a fine time to reconnect to our roots. I only wish that this beautiful gift of Africanism did not come with the ugly curse of tribalism.