Nyambura – what’s in a name?

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Nyambura – what’s in a name?



They call her Nyambura in her rural home of Kiambũrũrũ; a village in Kiambu County that has preserved memories of the colonial reserves and labour camps. Everyone else outside Kiambũrũrũ village calls her Wangari. Yes, like the late Prof. Wangari Mathai. The name Nyambura never ended up on her official documents. Having gotten used to being called Wainaina wa Nyambura whenever we visited Kiambururu, it was no surprise that I briefly named my daughter Nyambura. I proudly announced it to my in-laws until my mum arrived. It was my mum who “was being named” so she reminded us the baby girl should take up her official name – Wangarĩ. Both names are derived from the names of the daughters of Gĩkũyũ and Mũmbi. You may recall that the daughters were named Wanjirũ, Wambũi, Njeri, Wanjikũ, Nyambura, Wairimũ, Waithĩra, Wangarĩ, Wangũi and Wamũyũ.

Earlier, I had narrated a story of how during the colonial 1950’s “my maternal grandmother was dragged out and taken into forced labour. Her attempt to skip atleast one day of forced labour in Kiambũrũrũ, Githũngũri location had been foiled by her innocent 3 year old daughter. The family had been moved from their farms and into congested villages. The men were held in concentration camps (the Kiambũrũrũ shops are known as “Kambi” or Camp to this day!). These camps were officially called Work Camps while those held on suspicion of being Mau Mau fighters faced more dehumanising treatment in many other camps around Central Kenya and along the road between Nairobi and the Kenyan coast.

The daughter who foiled my grandmother’s attempts at escaping forced labour for a day is Nyambura – my mother. So how could my mother be both Wangarĩ and Nyambura? Well, I checked the family tree and found out that her father, Mr. Nelson Mbũrũ Nini, who used to work with the Nairobi City Council Water department at Sasumua Dam between 1956 when it was opened and 14th August 1971 when he passed away; was the son of Wangarĩ Nyambura and my greatgrandfather Mr. Nini Warima. As the first daughter of her father, my mother therefore took up both names of her paternal grandmother – Wangarĩ Nyambura Warima.

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So far, my questions were getting answered. But new questions started to come up as I navigated the family tree. I sought to know where my grandfather’s name “Mbũrũ” came from. Actually, I was more interested in the rare Kikuyu name ‘Nini‘. The name Mbũrũ was passed on from his father’s age group – the famous last raiders of Maasai land. The following story is told of how my maternal greatgrandfather acquired the name Mbũrũ:

‘Mbũrũ’ was a name given to an age group who were the last raiders of Maasai-land. They won the battle and returned home with lots of cattle, women and girls. They were still very young and it is on record that they refused to share any of their loot with those back home. It is told that at about 20-22 years of age, they were already cattle owners & polygamous, and that they refused to give their brothers a share. They remained feared and later highly respected.

Nini (Mbũrũ) ventured to Ndeiya where he had gone to graze his cattle. Ndeiya was pretty near the Maasai grazing territory, and therefore Nini, being a warrior at heart, was in effect taunting them to dare try and take his cattle away and fight him. But unfortunately he became ill and died somewhere near a place which is today known as Zambezi, near the Rironi area. Of course he had been accompanied by other ‘warriors’ who too sought grazing fields dangerously close to Maasai territory, but the fact that he went with them showed that he had guts!

That is the heroic history to the name of the man who married Wangari Nyambura, after whom my mother is named. Nyambura bore a son who carried on the name Mbũrũ wa Nini. It dawned on me that I needed to know where the woman named Nyambura had come from. So I went back to the family tree and bumped into this story that demonstrates how young she was when she met Nini Warima.

When Nyambura was a young girl, she and her older brother left their home area and went walking long distances in search of their extended family. One night, they stopped at a man’s ‘boma’ for the night as was the norm for travellers on long journeys. On seeing the little Nyambura, the man asked her brother if he could have the little girl in exchange for one cow. Her brother obliged and early the next morning he set off on his way to continue with his journey and left the little girl with the man. That man’s name was Nini, who would later become her husband. Nini entrusted Nyambura to the care of his family until she was of child-bearing/ marriage age when they then started a family.

I also learnt that the young Nyambura had been brought into a family that, by the 19th century, already had mixed heritage of Gĩkũyũ and Maasai. This was because Nyarũgũ, who was Nini Warĩma’s mother, was a maasai woman. As a child, I heard my mother and aunties mention our maasai lineage during family gatherings in Kiambũrũrũ. I have a vague recollection of my grandmother mentioning the same to me. It was great to read what descendants of my grandfather’s brother – Daniel Kimani Nini – had written about Nyarũgũ Warĩma, our matriarch from maasailand.

Nyarũgũ was pure Maasai, captured in an inter-tribal raid as a young girl and brought up as Kikuyu and subsequently married off to Warima when she came of age.

I therefore took interest when my friend Maria Galang’ reminded us of her lovely Gĩkũyũ name – Nyambura. She says it was given to her because she was born “when it was raining”. Well, maybe. But it is actually the Luo community that traditionally names their new born according to seasons. Her Gĩkũyũ people, however, name their children after the older generation grandparents, uncles and aunts. That means her maternal grandmother was most likely the person named Nyambura. If she is the first born daughter. Otherwise, she was named after her eldest Aunt on her father’s side if she was the second born daughter. But we know only Maria’s mother is Kikuyu so that would mean her maternal grandmother was Nyambura, if Maria is the first born or her mother’s sister is Nyambura if Maria is her mother’s second born daughter. Phew! That can get quite confusing! 

So, what does the name Nyambura mean?  Maria is right in that it means a person “of the rain”. Some like Avril, the singer, have taken it to mean “rainmaker” – which differs from what Maria Galang’ interpreted as “one who was born during the rain”.


Who is right? What is the true meaning of Nyambura? Or should we take both meanings and apply them wherever ‘the shoe fits’?

The clan named after Nyambura was the Ambura clan. It was also called the Ethaga clan, known to have been the rain makers in books such as Mĩhĩrĩga ya Agĩkũyũ (Clans of the Agĩkũyũ) first written in 1960. I still may need to check with other books like the 1938 book by Jomo Kenyatta – Facing Mount Kenya or Leakey’s “Southern Kikuyu Before 1903” and the 1974 book on History of the Gĩkũyũ, 1500-1900 by Geoffrey Mũriuki.

But no book of history should take away our heartfelt belief and experience of the meaning of Nyambura. Go ahead and make it rain! if that is what the name means to you. Just like my mother who is known for her extreme generosity among her friends and family. She has educated many in the family even when she had little to spare. She has given her time, energy and money over several decades as she invested in her siblings and other relatives. She loves her family with all she is. As their eldest sister, she can be relied upon to hold the family together through the most destructive of storms. She has a heart of gold and diamond rolled into one. Maybe that is why they call her Nyambura in Kiambũrũrũ. She always brings relief to the land and good harvest to the people. Just like her grandmother, Nyambura Wangarĩ.

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