“Kah-ri-ye!!” That is my earliest memory of hearing my English name spoken and it dates to the early 90s on the field at my primary school in Nairobi. Even then, that name felt like an older sibling’s hand-me-downs never quite fitting well.
That was my name, but I never quite knew how to pronounce it. It was there on all my official documents and on the tip of my tongue for whenever I was asked, “What is your Christian name?”
In the naming convention of the Kikuyu people, I as the second daughter of my parents, was named after my maternal grandmother.
“Kah-ri-ye, what a strange name. Where did your cucu get that name from?”
I never gave much thought to why all my classmates in an African country had names such as Rose, Catherine, Jeffrey, Lawrence. All I knew was that these were our Christian names. These names plus our baptism assured us of our place in heaven. It was as simple as that. We needed Christian names.
It is said that the British colonialists decided to give Kenyans Christian names as they could not pronounce our African names. This explanation sounds plausible given they did mispronounce Mt. Kirinyaga as Mt. Kenya. Kenyan Catholics also needed to acquire a European saint’s name in addition to their existing English name during baptism. In the psyche of the Kenyan mind, Christian names came to be seen as formal, official, a sign of being educated, no longer a heathen, saved from one’s primitive nature. Long after the country gained independence, this mentality remained.
Kenya’s first president, Jomo Kenyatta (among many other figures), is credited with saying “When the missionaries arrived, the Africans had the land and the missionaries had the Bible. They taught us how to pray with our eyes closed. When we opened them, they had the land and we had the Bible.”
Even after Kenya gained independence, we remained strong custodians of the religion they left us and the names that came with following this religion.
Many years later, I went to the US to study. The Africans I met, particularly many of the Nigerians, instantly made me start questioning all I had grown to believe was normal. Omoshalewa, Olayemi. I would introduce myself to other Africans and wait for the moment when they would say their “Christian” name, but this moment never came. I remember that sudden realization that there were other black Africans such as myself roaming the world with no European names. Did my Nigerian Christian friends know that they were saying goodbye to heaven by refusing to take up proper “Christian” names—even if they did go to chapel every Sunday?