The raging debate about Kikuyu men- yours truly included- taking up their mothers surname is a complex socio-cultural phenomena that calls for a detailed elucidation.

Sadly, it has afforded some a chance to trash Kikuyu men as feminine- but that’s how bigoted simple minds treat things they dont understand.

A female surname doesn’t make one feminine, same way a male one wont necessarily make one masculine.This warped logic is, by extension, analogous to the other enduring one that posits that having ones foreskin uncut makes one a child.But I digress.

Back to the house of Mumbi.Ideally, every Gikuyu child had two fathers.The cardinal one being the ‘biological’ father who was hailed reverently as “A-wa’ or ‘baba’.Not just father but patriarch.

This was the man who most likely carried the child’s genes.Our forefathers recognized that since men and women are who they are, chances were this fellow was not the child’s father.

Thats where the second father came in- the child’s eldest maternal uncle.He is hailed by the reverential name ‘Mama’ which literally means ‘male mother.’ He is the child’s truest relative,unlike the other dad.

‘Mama’ was the standby dad, the obverse father if the child’s mother separated with her husband.When this happened, the child took up the maternal uncles name after the prerequisite rights had been conducted.The child also acquired full rights to inherit him.

To pay homage to this kinship arrangement( which I call ‘Nyarume Concept’),when a Gikuyu boy is about to have his pencil sharpened, he goes down to his eldest maternal uncle and entreats him with gifts.A symbolic gesture that if his parents separate, the maternal uncle is culturally obligated to foster him.

In short, ideally,in Gikuyuland,no child bore a feminine surname, except only as a form of endearment to his mother figure.Or as a way of differentiating between the various sons born of the same dad but of different mothers in a polygamous homestead.

Fast forward to the modern times.Wanjiru separates with his hubby and goes back to her parents home with “her” two children( another Kikuyu phenomena) The eldest maternal uncle to Wanjirus children whose name they are supposed to take up is hesitant about it.Since it will mean that they will also inherit his quarter acre piece of land, his two grade cows, his pick- up etc.

Wanjiru thus finds herself in a cultural lacuna so what does she do? She refers to an old Gikuyu adage- gutiri ritwa ritakuria mwana.A child will grow, despite any name.So she gives them her surname, and inwardly tells his brother to go to hell with his surname.

Wanjirus children wear their moms name and thrive nonetheless.A testimony to the fact that cultures are malleable and made to serve societies, and not the reverse.This is not the way our forefathers envisaged it but hey- its happening!

Of course there are cultural puritans steeped in patriarchy who sneer at this cultural innovation, viewing children bearing feminine surnames as misnomers. Bigots who forget that even the entire tribe bears a feminine surname- the House of Mumbi.

To such people, we refer to them another ancient Gikuyu truism- the eyes of a frog do not stop cows from quenching their thirst from a stream.

Gilbert Mwangi

Creative writer,dreamer,and Drum Major for all things true.

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