Kenya Personal Names

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Understanding customs used in surnames and given names can help you identify your ancestors in records. Learn to recognize name variations and see clues in names.

Online Tools[edit | edit source]

Surnames[edit | edit source]

  • Traditional Kenyan communities use a patronym or matronym naming system. Many tribes have a prefix in their local language to denote the relationship between a father or mother and their child. For example, the Kikuyu use the term ‘wa’, which means ‘of’. In turn, the name ‘Kimani wa MUMBI’ means Kimani, the son of Mumbi. This practice is becoming less common in contemporary Kenya.
  • Today, it is much more common for children to adopt their father’s surname.[1]

Given Names[edit | edit source]

  • A child is usually given at least three names – one selected by the parents, one selected by the maternal grandparents and one selected by the paternal grandparents. This varies from one community to another.
  • In Kenya, the naming of a newborn child is considered to be a very important affair. Names may reflect various things. For instance, the name of the child may reflect the tribe they are from.
  • It is common for a Kenyan's name to reflect family connections. For example, children are often named after their grandparents.
  • Parents may name their children after the time or season of the child's birth. For example, a child of Luo ethnicity who is born during the night may be named as the Luo word for night (e.g. ‘Atieno' for a female or ‘Otieno' for a boy).
  • Names may also reference recent global or national events. One example is how many children born in the years after the United States presidential election of 2008 were named ‘Obama' or ‘Michelle' – after the former US President Barack Obama (who has Kenyan heritage) and the former first lady Michelle Obama.
  • It is also common for many names to have religious meanings. For example, a child born to Christian parents is usually given a biblical name.<ref name="KC"'>

References[edit | edit source]

  1. "Kenyan Culture: Naming", at Cultural Atlas,, accessed 16 March 2021.