I often wonder how places get their names. My interest was rekindled while I was working in Kwale, a rural area in the south-eastern most tip of Kenya, where I got familiar with the history of some of the places there. I was at the same time reading John Steinbeck’s East of Eden where he, at the beginning of the book, talks about how it is a duty and a privilege of the first explorers to name new places.
Places get names through various processes and the place name evolves over time. The primary division is between the names of natural features and the names of human settlements. The first explorers had to name the places in order to identify and map them. The names ranged from the names of the saints (San Francisco, USA) or the religious holidays celebrated at particular stopping places (Soledad – Solitude, USA). Then they named the places according to how the expedition felt at the time (Cape of Good Hope, SA), descriptively after the natural features (Horrible Hollow Hill, Tasmania), after the animals seen (Los Gatos – the cats, USA) or after the nature of the place itself (Rainbow Mountains, USA). It goes without saying that they also named the places after people (Georgetown, USA). But to me the most interesting are the names of places which describe things which happened there or as Steinbeck puts it: “each name suggests a story which has been forgotten”. An example of the latter is the story of Mwananyamala, a small African village and it’s name, a story which hasn’t been forgotten to this day.
The story goes like this: Back in the old days, when there were less people and their houses more scattered, a big population of lions lived in the area around the village. The lions would sneak into the village under the cover of darkness to look for food, mostly pigs which people raised. The people knew they were coming. They heard the footsteps and recognized the heavy breathing of lions in the dark. People would sit in their houses, too scared to move, too scared to breathe. Quietly, with a whisper, the mothers sang to their children to comfort them: “Mwananyamala!”, “Baby be quiet!”
So what’s the story of your current place of residence? I’m currently in Nairobi which name comes from Maasai phrase Enkare Nyirobi, which translates to “the place of cool waters”. (Today it could be called “the place of polluted waters”).