How Nigeria and other African countries got their names

By CHRISTINE MUNGAI

How Nigeria and other African countries got their namesMost countries in Africa have some benign origins behind their names – Cote d’ Ivoire for the lucrative ivory trade which used to happen there, Liberia from the Latin libre for free, in reference to the country’s origin as a colony for freed slaves, or even the self-descriptive South Africa or Central African Republic. But there are some crazy stories behind some names – and the Portuguese have a lot to do with them: Benin: In the colonial era, Benin used to be called Dahomey. Dahomey, or Dãn Homé in the local Fon language, means “the belly of Dan”. According to royal tradition, the name came to be when a Fon prince named Dakodonu, wanting to expand his territory, demanded land from a local chief named Dan. Dan sarcastically asked of the Fon prince, “Have I given you so much territory and yet you want more? Must I open my belly for you to build your house on?” Dakodonu responded by skewering Dan in the stomach with a spear, and then actually went ahead and built a palace upon Dan’s entrails. Thus the royal palace came to rest “on the belly of Dan”. Upon independence, the name was considered not inclusive enough because the historic kingdom only comprised the southern territory, home of the Fon people. Thus the “neutral” name Benin was chosen, named after the city and kingdom of Benin located in present-day Nigeria, which actually has no relationship to the modern state of Benin. Botswana: Named after the Tswana people, the county’s dominant ethnic group. In the colonial era it was called Bechuanaland, Chuana or Chwana is how the European explorers transcribed the name Tswana. The origin on Tswana itself is unclear, some reports indicate that English explorer David Livingstone derived it from the Setswana word tshwana which means “alike” or “equal”, which is how the Tswana described themselves (any coincidence that Botswana regularly wins all the democracy accolades in Africa?). But other sources indicate that while the Tswana adopted the name, it was a descriptive word they had learned from the Germans and British—a chicken or egg scenario. Burkina Faso: Means “the land of honest men”, a majestic name from combining two words from two different languages – burkina meaning honest, upright or incorruptible in Mosi and faso meaning father’s house or land in Dioula. The name was chosen by the Marxist revolutionary Thomas Sankara when he seized power in 1983, to replace the colonial name Upper Volta; which described the territory’s geographical position north of the Volta river. Volta itself is from the Portuguese for “twist/ turn” which is how the Portuguese gold traders exploring the region described the river for its tortuous route. Cameroon: Means “shrimp” from the Portuguese Rio de Camarões (“Shrimp River”); a reference to the ghost shrimp or mud lobster (Lepidophthalmus turneranus) that burrows in river estuaries and off the coast of the country. Every three to five years, vast swarms of the shrimp erupt in river estuaries, lasting about ten to fourteen days, and providing a delicious feast for locals. When the Portuguese explorers landed in 1472, they witnessed a swarm in the Wouri River. According to FAO, L. turneranus is “probably the only crustacean for which a country is named”. Cape Verde: From the Portuguese Cabo Verde, or Green Cape. But Green Cape didn’t actually refer to the modern-day island of Cape Verde, but the nearby Gorée Island in Senegal. For some reason, Cape Verde adopted the name (perhaps to lure Portuguese settlers into emigrating?)—but ironically, Cape Verde actually suffers from scant rainfall and has few natural sources of fresh water, a cold Atlantic current creates an arid atmosphere around the archipelago. The natural vegetation is dry forests and scrubland; most of the country is too arid for agriculture. Chad: Chad actually means “lake” in Kanuri, a language widely spoken in the area. The country thus derives its name from Lake Chad—which is tautological (“Lake Lake”). Gabon: Means “cloak” from the Portuguese gabão, a kind of cloak with sleeves and a pointy hood. Apparently, as the country’s Komo river flows into the sea, it forms a delta whose shape when viewed from the sea looked like a gabão to the Portuguese explorers. Guinea: There are many theories to this one, but the most accepted is that it is from the Berber wordghinawen, aginaw, or aguinaou, meaning “burnt one” or “black”, which is what the Berbers used to describe the lands south of the Sahara or “black Africa”. Kenya: From the Kikuyu K?r? Nyaga, a contraction of K?r?ma Nyaga meaning “Ostrich Mountain”, apparently because the snow-capped peak and dark volcanic rock of Mount Kenya reminded the Kikuyu of the black-and-white spotted plumage of an ostrich. When the British explorers came to Kenya, the neighbouring Kamba community acted as their guides as they had a long tradition of trade, shuttling goods between the coast and the interior. But the Kamba do not have the “r” or “g” sound in their language and called the mountain Kei-nya; Kenya is the only country in Africa named after a mountain. Madagascar: Some say that the legendary Marco Polo stopped on this island on his way to Asia, and erroneously thought he had reached Mogadishu, which is extensively mentioned in ancient texts as it was a thriving trade centre. Thus he called it Madeigascar or Mogelasio, this eventually became Madagascar about the 16th century. But some historians doubt that Marco Polo actually visited this island at all, considering he is suspected of making up chunks of his journey, or discrepancies were introduced during the copying and translating of his manuscript—this was before the printing press was invented. The people of Madagascar are called the Malagasy, and they call the island Madagasikara, but no Malagasy-language name predatingMadagasikara appears to have been used by the local population to refer to the island, although some communities had their own name for the land they inhabited. Niger/ Nigeria: Named after the Niger river which flows through West Africa. The consensus among linguists now is that “niger” is traced to the Tuareg word n’eghirren, meaning flowing water, but for a long time it was thought to have been from the Latin niger, meaning black, a reference to the dark complexion of Africans. Sierra Leone: In 1462, a Portuguese explorer Pedro da Cintra sailed down the coast of West Africa and saw a long range of mountains in what is now the Freetown Peninsula whose shape resembled a lion, calling the land “Sierra Lyoa” meaning Lion Mountains – this became Sierra Leoa, and later the British called it Sierra Leone. But it is unclear why the mountains reminded the explorer of a lion – it could be that their peaks resembled the teeth of a lion, or that they somehow looked like a bunch of sleeping lions, or that thunder which broke out around the mountains sounded like a lion’s roar.

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