Photo: Flickr user: Angela Sevin
Many of us know a person named after someone in his or her family line, but among the Kuria people of Northern Tanzania, names might also tell you something about a person’s position within their family line.
That’s because the Kuria practice a tradition of firstborn naming. If a family’s first child is a boy, his name will be either Chacha, Marwa, or Mwita; girls choose between Bhoke, Robi, and Gati. That’s it; if you’re a firstborn child, you’ll wind up with one of those six names, which means that they are extremely prevalent in Kuria society.
But the importance of a firstborn name isn’t just about determining whether baby looks more like a Robi or a Gati; the chosen name also renames both the parents and grandparents of the baby.
Kuria fathers and mothers are known as Isa-(child’s name) and Nya-(child’s name), respectively, from the time their child is born onwards. So the parents of a firstborn Bhoke would forever after be Isabhoke and Nyabhoke. Grandparents, too, are renamed after the birth of a firstborn child; they became Isako- and Nyako-(firstborn name). Interestingly, the birth of a new child supersedes their own role as parents; an Isachacha whose firstborn grandson was a Marwa would change his name to Isakamarwa (i.e., grandfather of Marwa).
These aren’t the only names in Kuria society; babies are often named after ancestors, events that took place at the time of their births—such as lightning (Nkobha), famine (Wanchara), or harvest (Magesa/Mogesi)—or animals. Some are even named after nearby tribes; if you meet a Kuria named Mwikabhe or Ikwabhe, that person is a living nod to the Maasai, for example.
But the most enduring and widespread Kuria naming practice revolves around the firstborn child. It makes for a strong sense of continuity between the generations…and a lot of confusion whenever you yell for Chacha in a crowded room!