How African countries were named: Kenya is derived from Mt Kenya

Did You Know

Kenya is said to have been derived from the old name of Mt Kenya that the Kambas told the early colonial explorers. Kii Nyaa, is the Kamba name for The Ostrich Mountain. The Kikuyu called it Kĩrĩnyaga, which means “the one with the ostrich”. The ostrich has black or brownish-grey feathers with patches of white just like the snow peaked mountain. It is the name colonialists corrupted to Kenya.

Liberia means liberty. It is the oldest republic in Africa created in 1847 by freed African-American slaves.

Guinea, Equatorial Guinea, Guinea-Bissau and The Gulf of Guinea are three countries and a gulf called the “armpit of Africa”. Some trace the name “Guinea” to a Tuareg word for black people: Aginaw. Others think it originally referred to Djenné, an old trading city in modern-day Mali. In the 15th century, Portuguese sailors used “Guiné” to describe an area near what is today Senegal. The Europeans referred to the West African coastline as “Guinea” in the 18th century. 

At independence in the early 60s, French Guinea became Guinea, Spanish Guinea became Equatorial Guinea, and Portuguese Guinea became Guinea-Bissau.

A Portuguese explorer was going down the Wouri River in Cameroun when he realised that the river had a lot of shrimps. He named the river Rio dos Camarões, the River of Shrimps. When the Germans later colonised the land, they retained the name Cameroun and the French and the British who later partitioned it after Germany lost World War I retained the name.

Ethiopia is derived from the skin colour of Ethiopians. Greek word, aithiopia, means “burnt-face” as a noun and “red-brown” as an adjective. Prior to the name Ethiopia, the country was named Abyssinia and the land is believed to have been Kush and Sheba in the Biblical times.

Gaboa means coat in Portuguese. In the 15th century, Portuguese traders arrived in Gabon and named it Gaboa because the shape of the Como River Estuary resembles a coat with sleeves and a hood. The capital Libreville has a large port on the northern bank of the estuary.  

Burkina Faso was originally called Upper Volta. River Mouhoun, which colonialists named Black Volta and Nazinon or Red Volta, flows through Burkinafaso to join Nakambe River or the White Volta at the upper end of Lake Volta in Ghana. That was the source of the name Upper Volta, which on August 2, 1984, Thomas Sankara changed to “Burkina Faso”, whose literal meaning is land of the upright (honest) men.

Madagascar, the second-largest island country after Indonesia, got its name from an error. Marco Polo, the 13th-century Italian explorer, who never even visited the land, saw it from far and mistook it for Mogadishu. He wrote it into his memoirs and the Italians transliteration of Mogadishu eventually evolved into the name Madagascar on their maps. Portuguese explorer Diogo Dias landed on the island in the sixteenth century and named it São Lourenço but the name Madagascar stuck. The people on the island speak Malagasy.

The Portuguese who ruled the land for four centuries before independence in 1975 named the country after an island of the coast of Mozambique. The island was ruled by a Swahili trader called Mussa Bin Bique or  or Mussa Bin Mbiki or Mussa Bin Malik. The island-town was the capital of the Portuguese colony until 1898, when it was moved south to Lourenço Marques, which became Maputo.

Zambia was known as Northern Rhodesia named after British coloniser Cecil Rhodes. It was renamed Zambia in 1964 after independence. This was inspired by the Zambezi river, which is said to mean “River of God”.

Zimbambwe derives its name from an ancient city to the northwest of the country. “Zimbabwe” derives from dzimba-dza-mabwe, translated from the Karanga dialect of Shona as “houses of stones”. It is a medieval city that is now a protected site.

Tanzania, which was formed when Tanganyika and Zanzibar joined to become one nation in 1964, derives its name from Lake Tanganyika. Henry Morton Stanley encountered name of “Tanganika” when he travelled to Ujiji on the shores of Lake Tanganyika in 1876. The locals who used the name were not sure of its meaning and said that it meant something like “the great lake spreading out like a plain”, or “plain-like lake”. Nyika is the Bantu word for plain.

The name Sudan is derived from the Arabic expression bilād al-sūdān (“land of the blacks”). This is how the area south of Sahara Dessert was referred to by Arabs who had taken over North Africa.

The name Eritrea is derived from the ancient Greek name for the Red Sea. Erythra Thalassa is the ancient Greek adjective for “red”. The name was first formally adopted in 1890, with the formation of Italian Eritrea as an Italian colony.

The name “Libya” first appeared in an inscription of Ramesses II, the Egyptian Pharaoh. It is derived from the name “Libu” given to Berber, African people who lived around the lush regions East of Libya. These tribes were referred to as “Great Chiefs of the Libu” who were led by King Meryey in the war against pharaoh.

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