What’s in a Name?


Emmaculate Achieng (top) and Shamira Achieng (bottom). Are they sisters?

Tenderfeet has two girls with the last name Achieng — Emmaculate and Shamira.

It’s natural to think they might be sisters, but in fact, because their last names are the same, it’s very unlikely they are. How can that be?

In order to solve this riddle, we should explore the Kenyan way of naming children.

Traditionally, a child is given an English first name, like Emmaculate, Julia, Gregory, or Vincent.

The second name is not really a last name in the sense of most cultures, where it is a surname or family name. Instead, it is a tribal name, such as Achieng (Luo tribe) or Wanjiro (Kikuyu tribe).

This means that two girls with a last (second) name of Achieng are probably not sisters because it would be like giving two children of the same parents the same name.

If you had one child named George, you probably wouldn’t name another of your children George (unless you’re George Foreman!). That’s what it would be like if two sisters both were named Achieng.

Sometimes in the case of a child, a third name is used, often the father’s tribal name. For instance, Loice Wanjiro’s father is named Jeremiah Gitonga. Since his tribal name is Gitonga, she may introduce herself as Loice Wanjiro Gitonga.

Note that this third name is really not exactly like a family name or surname either, because when she grows up and has children of her own, Loice’s children will not use Gitonga, but instead the tribal name of her husband and the children’s father.

It can also be customary for a grown woman to take the tribal name of her husband as a third name, when she marries. For instance, Mama Margaret’s name is Margaret Wanjiku, and her husband is Daniel Nyabuto. Her name is then Margaret Wanjiku Nyabuto.

Tribal names are interesting to learn about themselves. For instance, in the Kikuyu tribe, popular tribal names for girls often start with the letter ‘W’. For example, Wambui, Wangui, Wanjiko, and Wanjiro.

Sometimes Wanjiko is spelled Wanjiku, and Wanjiro is spelled Wanjiru — since both are just an approximate way of spelling the Kikuyu word.


Three Shiros (left to right): Loice Wanjiro Gitonga, Faith Wanjiro, Julia Wanjiro

Wanjiro is a very popular name for Kikuyu girls, and has it’s own nickname, “Shiro” (SHEE-rho). The extended Tenderfeet family has several girls named Shiro, three are pictured above.

Luo tribal names often start with A for girl’s names, such as Achieng, Atieno, Akinyi. Usually there is a male version starting with the letter O, such as Ochieng, Otieno, and Okinyi.

Barack Obama’s father was a Luo, so it’s not surprising to see his name begin with the letter O. Our precious friend who passed away, Shadrack Otieno, was also from the Luo tribe and as mentioned, Otieno is a frequently seen name in his tribe.

Vincent Achieng

Student Vincent Ochieng has the male version of the name Achieng. Can you guess what time of day he was born?

The literal meaning of many Luo names refer to the time or conditions when the child was born. For instance, Achieng means “born with the sun shining” (around noon). Atieno means “born in the evening”, and Akinyi means “born at dawn”.

Another large tribe in Kenya is the Kalenjin tribe, which is mainly located in the area around Eldoret where some of our sponsored children live.

Like the Luos, Kalenjin names often refer to the time or condition during birth. They also have a male and female form, male frequently starting with a “Ki” and female with “Che”.

For instance, the popular male name Kimutai (female form Chemutai) means “labor was delayed more than 12 hours”. Another example is Kiptoo (Cheptoo), meaning “born when a visitor has arrived”.

Although it’s fun and interesting to learn about Kenyan ethnic groups and tribal customs, there can be a negative side as well. Although for decades, peace and harmony between the different tribes has been the norm, the unfortunate post-election riots of 2008 caused tribal tensions to flare up again. Sadly, at that time, some people were beaten or killed because of their tribe.

In fact, sometimes a gang of thugs would demand a person show their ID card. If their tribal name showed that that person was from the “wrong” tribe, they could be attacked.

We are thankful that now healing between the different ethnic groups is on the rise, and, for instance, many of our high school students write and talk about putting their national identity ahead of their tribal identity.

At Tenderfeet, we never discriminate according to ethnic background, and welcome children of all groups.

The children learn and laugh together, and never worry about Achieng being a Luo and Wambui being a Kikuyu.

They are taught the important lesson that it’s the person and who they are inside that counts, and though we all have interesting differences, it’s more important to focus on what we have in common.

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