Saturday, 26 July 2014

Origins of African Capital Cities - Part 1

A look at my website will show more than half of my published works have been on the subject of place names. Etymology is a subject which has always fascinated me and this blog has reflected such most weeks. As it has been a good while since I have looked at toponymy (the study of place names), I thought it time to put that right.

It was over two years ago I looked at the origins of the names of the names of the African continent. There were two posts looking at first A to L and then M to Z. It makes sense to use the same split for the capital cities of these nations and therefore this week we shall examine A to L with the remainder to come next week.

Algeria is first alphabetically, with the nation named after its capital. Algiers comes from the Arabic al-Jaza'ir which means 'the islands' and reminds us this city was built on four islands which were joined to the mainland in 1525.

Angola’s capital is Luanda, thought to be a reference to the earliest inhabitants for lived on the island of Luanda and describes ‘the place of the net’ and of course this refers to the number of fishermen who lived here. As a Portuguese territory it was known as Ilha dos Cabras or ‘place of goats’.

Benin is another influenced by Portuguese, for the capital of Porto Novo gets its name from the Portuguese for ‘new harbour’. It was they who founded the port in the sixteenth century.

Botswana’s capital is Gaborone, named after Chief Gaborone Matlapin who ruled when the town was founded in the late nineteenth century.

Burkina Faso’s capital is Ouagadougou, a name dating from the fifteenth century when the area was inhabited by Ninsi tribes who referred to the area as Kumbee-Tenga. When, in 1441, the Yonyonse hero Wubri led the tribe to victory over the Nunsi, he renamed the settlement Wage sabre soba koumbern tenga meaning “the village of the head war chief’. The modern spelling is entirely down to French colonial influence.

Burundi’s capital, largest city and chief port is Bujumbura. Known as Usumbura until independence in 1962, when the earlier name meant ‘place of confusion’, the change of name was inspired by two territories in the west of Burundi. Both mean the same thing, the change simply phonetic differences between Swahili and a closely related tongue.

Cameroon’s capital is Yaounde, When occupied by the Germans it was known as Jaunde, Yaounde is the French version, both from the Yaunde or Ewondo people native to this part of the continent.

Cape Verde is governed from the city of Praia, this former Portuguese colony taking the Portuguese word for ‘beach’.

Central African Republic’s capital of Bangui stands on the Ubangi River. Both names come from the Bobangi (also related) word for ‘rapids’ and also marks the upriver navigable limits.

Chad is governed from N’Djamena, a capital city named from the Arabic Nijamina or ‘place of rest’.

Comoros’ largest city and capital is Moroni is near Mount Karthala, an active volcano giving the meaning of ‘in the heart of the fire’.

Cote d'Ivoire’s administrative capital city is Yamoussoukro, a taken from the name of Queen Yamouusso and the former village of N’Gokro. The economic capital is Abidjan, a name with an obscure etymology and thus has seen a creative explanation for its origin. It seems an old man from here was carrying a load of branches when he met a European explorer. In a language the local man had no chance of understanding the explorer enquired as to the name of the local village. Misinterpreting the question as a challenge he took to his heels and shouted min-chan m’bidjan which the European noted as Abidjan. Unfortunately the phrase was not the name of the village, for min-chan m’bidjan is, in the Ebrie language, telling him “I just cut the leaves!”

Democratic Republic of the Congo has the capital Kinshasha, this a version of a village named Kinchassa which once stood near this site. Both are from a Bantu word of unknown meaning. As a city Kinshasha was founded as Leopoldville, named after King Leopold of the Belgians.

Djibouti was originally known as French Somaliland although today it is known by the same name as its capital city, itself from an Afar word gabouri meaning 'plate'. This is a ceremonial plate, woven from palm fibres and placed on a pedestal.

Egypt may be an ancient name but its capital was named as recently as 969. We can be certain of this date as it was when the city was conquered by the Arabs who called it Misr-al-Qahirah or ‘Mars the victorious’ as the Roman god of war was visible on that night.

Equatorial Guinea has the capital Malabo, a city founded by the British in 1827 as Port Clarence. Reverting to Spanish control in 1969 it was named Santa Isabel only to be changed four years later when President Francisco Macias Nguema arbitrarily decided to rename the place with an ‘authentic’ African name of no etymological value.

Eritrea means we need to look at Asmara, a name translating as ‘the four made them unite’. The four were women, living around here some 2,500 years ago. It is said the population were formed of four clans who lived in four communities. These four were forever arguing and fighting and it was not until the women of the respective clans sat down and decided the only way forward was to unite that peace reigned and the new name was coined.

Ethiopia has the capital Addis Ababa, this from Amharic addis ‘new’ and abeba ‘flower’.

Gabon’s capital of Libreville was founded in 1848 for free slaves and is named from the French libre ville ‘free town’.

Gambia’s capital is Banjul was formerly called Bathurst but when, in 1973, it took a local name it was decided to revive Banjul which is said to mean ‘rope mats’.

Ghana’s capital of Accra is thought to derive from the Akan nkran meaning ‘black ant’. This name was originally applied to the Nigerian tribesmen who settled this region in the sixteenth century.

Guinea is governed from Conakry, a city named by the native Susu people as being ‘over the waters’ or ‘on the opposite bank’.

Guinea Bissau’s capital is Bissau, a city named from the island on which the original settlement began, itself from the tribe who lived here, and who were named from their former chief.

Kenya’s Nairobi is thought to be named from a small stream known to the Masai people as Enkare Nairobi ‘cold water’.

Lesotho’s capital of Lesotho grew from small beginnings in the middle of the nineteenth century. The name means ‘place of red sandstone’, the original settlement stood on a rocky sandstone headland.

Liberia is from the Latin liber 'free' for this was where American slaves were allowed to return to their homeland and freedom from 1822. Monrovia, the capital, is named after the 5th president of the USA, James Monroe, who was in office in 1822 when the settlement was founded.

Libya is the oldest name on the continent and the capital of Tripoli is not so very far behind. Named after the the three component cities of Oea, Sabratha and Leptis Magna, it comes from the Greek tripolis or ‘three towns’.

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