A name represents identity and many other things, the most important one being character.

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What’s in a name? Choosing the right name for your child

In 1999, a couple from New Zealand had a baby girl. Perhaps out of love for Hawaii or other reasons best known to them, they decided to name their baby “Talula does the Hula from Hawaii”.

For nearly a decade, this girl lived with that name. When she started making friends she would introduce herself as “K” out of embarrassment and fear of being teased and ridiculed. When the couple split, they ended up in a custody battle in 2008.

It’s at this point that the government learned of the girl’s difficult life and intervened. She was made a ward of court (placed under the government’s custody) and the judge, Rob Murfitt, gave her a new name, legally, which was kept private to protect her identity. Murfitt also expressed concerns over the growing number of parents giving their children ridiculous names which in return set the children up with “social disability”.

Naming a baby is all fun and games until you get sued, the government intervenes, you end up in bitter conflicts with your partner or worse, the child gets bullied and ends up scarred for life.

Changing baby naming trends

In a journal titled “The science behind baby names-Name Trends” published by Journal Storage (JSTOR), the writer analyses several research findings around baby naming practices all the way from 1900. In the article, it is noted that baby names just like other trends come and go. At one time, it was cool to call a baby girl Christine or Joyce but in 2023, it’s almost impossible to come across a toddler with such a name. Further, the research shows that parents are influenced by several factors when choosing baby names, including music, movies, celebrities and public or political figures.

Heroic figures like Nelson Mandela inspired many boomers to call their children Mandela. Though these influences still have their place in society, the journal also mentions a significant cultural shift in baby naming. Parents are now avoiding popular trendy names and trying as much as possible to pick unique names. With influences like celebrities and influencers giving their children the most unique names, the pressure to get creative is piling on modern day parents.

Culture against trends

Closer home, in many Kenyan communities, children are named after grandparents. Other communities have slightly more complex naming systems such as picking names based on the time of day a child is born, the season, the context of their birth and sometimes occurrences that preceded them. For instance, if a child is born in a family where all the children born earlier died, it is believed that giving the new child an ugly name (such as an animal’s or object’s name) can confuse the evil spirits who then allow the child to live.

We have such elaborate and deep rooted naming systems that it is nearly, if not impossible to defy them and pick an entirely new and unique name for your child. Baby names in some homes have been a source of conflict for couples, especially when one person prefers to deviate from the culture while the other insists on honouring their heritage. Often, it is mothers who are pitted against fathers as our naming systems favour patriarchal side of the child’s family.

Gone are the days when people bore countless children and there were multiple opportunities for both parents to pick names. What then do you do, when your partner insists that you must name your adorable little bundle of joy after this or that person? And what are the legalities of naming a child? Can you possibly get into trouble for naming a child wrongly, according to Kenyan law?

We talked to Whitney Muhadi, a soon to be mother and she shared why naming a baby is not something to be fought over while Joan Mukoya an Advocate and the Managing Partner at Koya and Company Advocates takes us through the legal issues to consider when picking a name:

Be careful who you name your child after

Whitney Muhadi above says that a name is not just a name. It represents identity and many other things, the most important one being character. “The first name to me should be something that represents a good personality type. Baraka, is one of the names we've settled for our child in the future, and the name means blessing. I would love my child to be a blessing to others wherever they go. Giving them a name that represents something good is important to us.

The naming system in my Luhya culture, as I was taught, involves naming the first male and female children after the grandfather and grandmother from the dad’s side. Afterwards, the children that follow can be named after the mum’s side.

What I like about our naming culture is that there is a sense of direction if you haven't given much thought to naming your child. Plus, it allows you to let someone's legacy live on through your child's name-especially if they are named after someone who did good during their time.

But I do not think this naming culture should be as strict, such that it ruins relations between new couples and their in-laws. For instance, if someone is left out when children are being named, there is possibility of serious friction or discord. That's one thing I don't like about our naming systems. They are too strict that we have to prioritise the dad's side of the family and there is little room to deviate.

When going through the name picking process, we’ve been flexible while still respecting the culture. One thing my partner and I have established is that the first name has to be something neutral that represents memories and something good. We both love the Japanese culture and we are considering the second name to lean toward that direction rather than the usual English names. The third name, if it's a boy will be named after my husband's grandfather and if it happens to be a girl, they will be named after both his grandmothers.

Though not all cultures are similar to ours, in most Kenyan homes, children are named after relatives. When it comes to naming children after someone in the family, character is very important.

Names are very powerful and in my observation children tend to pick attributes from the people they are named after. It's really important to pick who you name your children after very carefully and to discuss with your partner before enforcing the final decision.

My advice would be, to let the name picking process be exclusively a responsibility of the couple. If possible, in laws can respectfully give them the space they need to make this decision. When they decide on a name, they should present that choice as a united front- couples should also take it lightly, and avoid unnecessary conflict when one's mother, grandma, father or a relative they love was not picked. As long as the name is good enough for the child and they will not face any sort of prejudice in the society, there is no need for grudges.

I love the name that my parents picked for me and I wish to pick a wonderful name for my child so that they are not bullied in future.

The legal misconceptions

Culture and naming systems aside, there are several misconceptions we need to address when it comes to naming children in Kenya. These are “rules” we impose on ourselves imagining that they have a legal standing.

Joan Mukoya the advocate says, one of the most common misconception is that children have to take their father’s surname. In reality, a child’s surname could also be derived from the mother’s name. It is also common for people to pick English names as the first name, followed by a native name and the surname as the third name. This is not written in law and parents do not have to adhere to that order of naming.

“People also assume that children who take their mother’s names cannot inherit property but in reality, every child has a right to inherit as long as they are biologically related to someone or legally adopted. Another interesting thought is that the government cannot interfere with the naming of a child, but the government registrar of births cannot register a name that is abusive because it's not in the best interest of the child.”

Still on registering names, single mothers are often misled to think that they need the consent of the child’s father to add his name to the birth certificate. Though this was the case previously, in a court case titled L.N.W vs Attorney General and others 2016, the High Court declared section 12 of the Birth and Registration Act that required consent as outdated and discriminatory. This section prohibited single parents from entering the names of their children’s fathers in the register without requesting the father for permission or providing the registrar with evidence that the father and mother were once married as per the law or recognised customs.

The high court found this section discriminatory as it subjected children born to single parents different treatment from those born in two-parent households. The case was filed by a single mother whose child was born out of wedlock. The ruling of that case is now law, and single parents do not need to seek consent to include a father’s name in a birth certificate.

Is there a legal naming system?

Moving on to whether there are laws and rules around naming, Mukoya says, there is no particular rule, but the court recognises and respects culture. “According to the Kenyan constitution, every child has a right to a name and nationality and the convention on rights of the child says that a child has the right to a name and an identity.” Essentially refusing to name a child would be in breach of the child’s rights.

Mukoya further explains that in the African context, family identity is held in high regard and the patriarch’s surname is treated as a right in many communities. “The law does not speak too much on how the child should be named but the best interest of the child should be taken into account. These are considerations such as the culture they exist in and how naming works in that culture, bearing in mind that they will have to co-exist and a name that contradicts that culture is likely to lead to social exclusion. Inheriting a surname (family name) is a crucial consideration because they exist within a society whether we like it or not there will be implications if the child does not take up the family name.”

Considering a name change?

Perhaps you are reading this and realising that you made a mistake in naming your child or you wish to change your name, maybe to honour your heritage or for other reasons. We asked Mukoya to elaborate on the name changing process and why people change names. To this she says, the most common reasons for name change include cases of adoption where adoptive parents want to give their adopted children family surnames.

“If you're a single mother and you marry someone, your children can take the stepfather's name as their surname. Unique cases of witness protection can also compel one to change their name and sometimes victims of domestic violence go through the process to protect themselves from their abusers. Other common reasons include, change of religion, intersex children who face issues of gender choice, and when children are being bullied or they do not like their name.”

When it comes to the name changing process, Mukoya explains, “You can change a name at any age. If a parent wishes to change a child’s name, they are allowed to do so but when the child is 16 and above the parent has to seek written consent from the child. The signing of this consent form should be witnessed by a lawyer under the registration of documents pertaining to name change.”

The usual name changing process starts with a deed poll (a document saying that that you want to change your name officially). The document is taken to the registrar of documents, where you will be asked for supporting documents like birth certificate. The other documents depend on your exact situation such as whether you are married, divorced, a minor and essentially your reasons for changing your name. You will also need a statutory declaration, which is sworn by your acquaintance who has known you by the name you wish to change. The acquaintance should be a Kenyan resident. You also sign an affidavit explaining why you want to change your name and attach all the required documents -once approved, your name change will be published in the Kenya gazette. The point of publishing is to notify the public.

Read more here about what to consider before picking a name.