Wanjiru’s Son

A friend’s post took me to this raging debate about Kikuyu men with women’s names for a surname, and how one non-Kikuyu man has created a stink from it.

Short story:

I went to Primary school with a boy called Peter Wanjiru. Standard 7. I knew nothing. Our teacher used to make fun of poor Peter all the time, called him son of a woman every time he called out the class roster and wash it down with a big laugh.

There we were, children, being introduced to “son of a woman” as an insult. Peter would answer “present” and blink back tears. He may not have understood things cultural but I suppose the tone of derision would have gone straight to his little heart. Imagine that.

If Peter’s mother would have come to school– this thought came later after I grew some more and learnt of the stupid things adults say about each other– if Peter’s mother would have come to school on account of her weeping son, she would have called that teacher the k word. He was Luo. Then we would have learnt a new insult. Your mother! Your foreskin! Blow for blow.


Feminine identity is a power some African cultures tapped into during war time. Male warriors would dress like women to achieve a dual identity, either they believed it gave them mystical powers, like Kinjeketile’s sacred water– don’t ask, or it helped unsettle of the enemy’s mind, like psyops.

During Liberia’s civil war, militia drawn from local ethnicities tapped into this tactic in very colorful ways. If these soldiers had called themselves by their mothers’ names, it would have been an act of invoking courage.

This fluid identity phenomenon had existed for millennia in African cultures, mostly now decimated by western Christianity. It recognized the dual male-female as extreme ends of a spectrum, and if you could tap into both extremes at the same time, you would achieve mystical powers.

If you look at this phenomenon through the eyes of present-day western gender identification, you’ll completely miss the point. You’ll miss the wealth of how African cultures had evolved the human identity over thousands of years– and lost it all in in the flood of disremembering. But you can still see evidence of it, most powerfully in African languages.

I’m saying Old Africa was not as confused about the feminine identity as westernized Africa seems to be. Our ancestors revered the feminine (especially the birthing feminine, and that’s a complex story for another day). Peter Wanjiru, wherever you are, power to you, son of a woman.

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