What’s in a ‘Christian’ or ‘tribal’ name?

I’ve had the privilege of traveling overseas. When I was in Kenya, I noticed most of the children I met had what they’d call a “Christian” name and then a “tribal” name.

The Christian name would be something like Samuel, Florence or Esther, whereas the tribal name would be something like Gathoni, Mukami or Nyambura. (We moved mostly among the Kikuyu tribe, but we also met some children from the Luo tribe.)

Teachers always introduced the children to us by their Christian names. Sometimes they scolded the kids for even casually referring to themselves by their tribal names, even if they had grown up being called Wambui and not Lucy.

Even though I’m a Christian, I have issues with this.

I love hearing names from a different culture, even though I don’t always pronounce them correctly. It reminds me that this world is far bigger than the Tom, Dick and Harrys (or Kimathi, Ndemi and Wangondus) one has grown up with.

My husband also has a Christian name and a tribal name, but he enjoys it when people take the time to learn, and try to pronounce, his tribal name. It’s part of his heritage and culture.

Another issue is that Samuel, Florence and Esther aren’t Christian names; they’re Anglicized ones. Technically speaking, even Jesus isn’t a Christian name; it’s the Anglicized form of Yeshua.

So why should another culture’s names take precedence over the names of the culture that you grew up in?

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not advocating the overthrow of teaching English in foreign countries. An article in the American about “English: The Inescapable Language” concludes that “competence in English is now a necessary part of every serious education around the world.” Like it or not, it is the language in which most global business transactions take place.

But I’m talking about names. Shouldn’t you be free to choose either a Westernized name or a name specific to your hometown or tribe? Just because other people may flub or butcher your name, at least they’ll have made an effort.

And who knows … they may learn that there’s more to a name than just syllables and tones. It helps make up your very identity.

P.S. Jesus (or Yeshua; I don’t think he minds either version) promised that in heaven, all people who have been victorious in him will have new names. “I will also give that person a white stone with a new name written on it, known only to the one who receives it.” (Revelations 2:17, NIV). Now that is a beautiful testimony of the power of a name!

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About multiculturalmarriage

I'm glad to be part of a multicultural marriage! I grew up in the U.S. but am married to an African husband. This makes life challenging, creative and cool - all at the same time!
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