Sunday, 9 December 2018

Kenya Place Names Explained

Having blogged samples of my books on English place names and also examined the etymologies of the nations of the world and their respective capitals I thought it time I cast my net a little wider. As English place names share some links to other tongues it would be interesting to see if any of the elements contributing to our place names could be found elsewhere. Continuing an alphabetical tour of the world and a look at the largest Kenyan cities.


Nairobi derives its name from the River Nairobi, itself the Maasai phrase Enkare Nairobi or 'cool water'.

Mombasa, to understand this name we have to go back to pre-colonnial days of the Portuguese. Folklore speaks of the founding of the settlement by two rulers, the pagan queen Mwana Mkisi and Shehe Mvita. Mkisi founded Kongowea, the original settlement on what is now known as Mombasa Island. Mkisi comes from ukisi or 'holy' in the liLongo language. Similarly Kongowea is the Swahili form of Kongo. On the arrival of the Portuguese in 1502 the place first became known by two names: Mvita in Swahili and Manbasa in Arabic, both having the same origin and meaning.


Kisumu was founded as a trading post, with the name either from the local adhi kisuma 'I'm going to trade' or an Anglicised version of kusuma, the Maragoli word for 'trading'. Either way the name is true to its origins.

Eldoret is based on the Maasai phrase Ole Mpere N Tomito and means 'stony river'. This is the Sosiani, a tributary of the Nile.

Kikuyu is named after the Kikuyu people, they took their name from the Swahili Gikuyu meaning 'large sycamore tree'.


Kitui, a name also seen for Kitui County, comes from the many metalworkers who settled here before the Europeans arrived and describes 'a place where iron goods are made'.

Thika has two possible origins, either the Kikuyu word guthika 'to bury' and a reminder of two Maasai tribes who fought a great battle; or perhaps the Maasai sika or 'subbing something off the edge' and a topographical description.

Karuri derives its name from the main chief, the Karuri Wa Gakure.


Nyeri is where the British defeated the native Kikuyu warriors a little over a century ago. The Maasai warriors referred to this as Na-aier 'the little hill'.

Mumias is named after the King Nabongo Mumia, ruler of Wanga.

Ngong is the Maasai word for 'knuckles', a delightful reference to the four peaks of the overlooking ridge of land.

Litein is derived from the word liteito, a stone used for sharpening iron objects in the times before the Europeans arrived and showed the locals better ways of producing the casting.

Kericho may be from kerichek, a Kipsigis word meaning 'medicine' as this was where the first hospital was built by the British at the beginning of the 20th century. I say 'may' because this does sound rather stretching the truth.

Kakamega is a modern name, one apparently derived from a word meaning 'pinching', a description of the European settlers attempts to feed themselves the traditional maize meal dish without using cutlery. This does not seem overly likely.


Kapsabet comes from the local kap sabit or 'the place of life'.

Bungoma is from the Bukusu word engoma or 'drums'. This being the meeting place for Bukusu elders who would be summoned by the sound of the drums.

Webuye, possibly one of the best origins I have ever discovered, for it is named after a cobbler who once repaired shoes for the railway workers.


Note the spellings of the places are English as the piece is written in English.

2 comments:

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