Two weeks ago, I went on a vacation to visit some close friends who are married. I enjoyed every bit of my stay which as well did not go without me learning something about naming and the reason women do not use their husbands’ last names in Burundi.
This conversation about naming in Burundi began when I asked my friend about the process of legal name change in the United States since she is married. You could conclude that this was somewhat unrelated. But as they say, “one thing leads to another.”
She told me that Burundian families have different last names. This is because everyone is named considering the situation at the time of birth. She made me understand that her siblings and herself hold different last names and the same goes for her mother who also does not have the same last name as her father. Neither does her mum share the same last names as her siblings nor does her father as his siblings.
I was a bit shocked hearing this. I had always thought the norm in Africa is that families share the same last names and married women hold the last names of their husbands after marriage. Though, in China women do not change their last names to their husbands after marriage. I am as well not oblivious of the fact that women’s adoption of their husband’s last name in marriage is a western tradition that began in France and was adopted by the British and passed on to the colonies.
According to the Los Angeles Times citation of professor Philippe Ntahombaye’s words, it notes that names are individual in Burundi. Names being individual implies that individuals can bear any name so long it tells more about them as individuals.
After some research, I discovered that Rwanda has similar naming practice. In his anthropological work on the Kiyanrwanda language, Kimenyi mentioned that in Rwanda there is nothing like a family name as names are individual. Similar to Burundi, women do not change their last names in Rwanda.
Times are changing and the naming approach could possibly change or are changing. However, this information leaves me asking myself, “how much of African tradition do I know?”
It is important to mention that Kirundi (Burundi language) and Kiyanrwanda (Rwanda language) are similar languages that embody similar cultural practices.
Kimenyi, A. (1978). Aspects of Naming in Kinyarwanda. Anthropological Linguistics, 20(6), 259. http://www.jstor.org/stable/30027411
Olojede, N. Yay or nay? To have and to hold his last name after marriage. https://sheleadsafrica.org/to-hold-his-last-name-after-marriage/
Pittman, T. (2008, March 30). What’s in a name? In Burundi, everything. Los Angeles Times. https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-2008-mar-30-adfg-names30-story.html
Tatlow, K.D (2016, November 11). For Chinese Women, a Surname Is Her Name. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/12/world/asia/china-women-surnames.html