A family matter
A community in Kenya has come up with a unique way of fighting tribalism and racism—by localising people’s names.
According to Luhyas, Kenya’s second-largest community, everybody in the world hails from their tribe. George W Bush, Graça Machel and Jacob Zuma are just some of the tribe’s many sons and daughters scattered over the world.
They all have Luhya names by which they are known locally: for Luhyas, their names were coined around where they happened to have been born. No wonder then that it is only in this community that you will find people giving the names of famous people from across the world to their own sons and daughters.
Luhya elder Karoli Alukuma explains that the localising of people’s names has helped them to view the world as one home and that members of the community take pride in the achievements of people around the world whom they consider “their own”.
“We are the most non-tribal, nationalistic and global community in Kenya and perhaps in Africa because we treat everybody around the world as a member of the Luhya family. We feel proud of their achievements no matter their country of birth,” says Alukuma.
In Luhyaland, Bush is referred to as Shisakha, which is a Luhya name for a cover of trees or thickets. If you hear Luhyas talking of George (which they pronounce as Chiochi) wi Shisakha, they mean George son of Bush. To them, the outgoing United States president’s father is their son who just happened to have been born in the US and decided to call himself “Bush” as it is English.
US president elect Barack Obama is simply referred to as Upaama, a Luhya name meaning somebody who concentrates on whatever he does. When Obama was contesting the election, many believed his success derived from his strong concentration on the campaign. But for many Luhyas John McCain is also their son, just like Obama, and they would have been comfortable if he had won. Here, they refer to him as Chiooni Makani. Makani is a typical Luhya name and Chiooni has been slanted from John to sound Luhya.
Condoleezza Rice has no first name here. She is only referred to as Muchele, the Luhya word for rice. It is common to find many Luhya women being referred to by only one name.
“This has happened to me,” says Grace, a mother who hails from the Luhya community. “I named my daughter Condy Peace Rice, but these names have vanished from people’s lips and they simply call her Muchele.”
One of the Luhyas’ 18 sub-tribes is called Idakho. Luhyas thus believe an Idakho son or daughter founded the state of Idaho. And Luhyas who visit the US believe their trip is in vain if they fail to get to the state.
Graça Machel elicited a lot of excitement when she was recently in Kenya as part of a Kofi Annan-led team to broker peace after the disputed presidential election.
For many years, they have referred to her as Keresa wa Mashalia (Graça of Machel). Mashalia is a traditional Luhya name, whereas Keresa is a coinage from Graça to suit the Luhya dialect.
Luhyas have long known Annan as Mukofu wa Anami: Mukofu in Luhya means a wise old man and Anami is also a typical Luhya name, but sounds similar to Annan.
So Luhyas believe their son Mukofu and daughter Keresa were godsends for their motherland to bring peace and that it is because of their local blood that they succeeded in ending the presidential impasse very fast.
They also regard Zimbabwean leader Robert Mugabe as one of their own, and you will hear some of them complaining that “Roboti” Mugabe has let them down, though others strongly stand by him. Many Luhyas are called Mugabe or Mukabi (a person charged with the responsibility of sharing with other people).
A Luhya MP, Dr Bonny Khalwale, remarks that Mugabe is “our blood. Even his Shona tribe, just like the Ndebele, is a member of the Bantu group just like us. We are where we are and they are where they are because of the search for land and other opportunities.”
Luhyas gave these names to all these well-known figures even before they attained their current status. And the community believes they have always done things right.
So Jacob Zuma is fondly referred to as Tsuma, a Luhya name meaning “a man of strong character and ability”. He is also a Luhya son, and if he visits the community one day, he might be shocked by the kind of support he enjoys here.
Denis Lumiti is a correspondent for the Kenya Times