I have been passionately writing about Kenya for a while now, and never for once did I ask myself what its name actually meant or how it came to be that the country I live in would be known as so until a few days ago, a friend brought up the topic – then I realised how little I knew about the name myself.
As I gathered information from asking around (and Googling, of course), it quickly became evident that it would not be an easy task. Still, the resilience in me forged on as I unearthed startling facts that oiled my curiosity for more.
This article is what I managed to scrounge out of my hours of research. I hope it captures your attention or at least sets you on a course to a deeper discovery of the origin and meaning of our nation’s name.
Apparently, the name is not local to the country. I actually traced the name among the Hebrew where it means ‘animal horn’. I also found it in Russia, where it means ‘harmless’ or ‘innocent’. This, apparently, is the same meaning the name had in ancient English.
Kenya is so popular that parents give their boys or girls the name. In 2011, it ranked 802 out of the top 1,000 most popular American girls’ names.
According to one version of the story, the name Kenya was a colonial mistake of pronunciation. When the British landed in Kenya, they found the Kikuyu already calling the present-day Mount Kenya ‘Kirinyaga’.
The story goes like this. Since the British had difficulty pronouncing Kirinyaga, they put it down as Kenia. The name later described the whole British protectorate.
Kirinyaga means ‘holy place’. Some texts put the word’s meaning as the ‘mountain with ostriches’ (‘Kirinyaga’ is split into ‘Nyaga’, which means an Ostrich, and ‘kiri’, which means with). On Kirinyaga, the Kikuyu believe, the first man and woman (Gikuyu and Mumbi) originated from – hence the mountain is a revered place. Kirinyaga also means purity.
It is not clear when the name Kenia was later extended to refer to the whole country, but it is clear that Kenia, which later was changed to Kenya, meant a holy place; hence the country of Kenya is a holy place!
I do not know about you, but that really amazed me. To live in a holy land was truly something else.
But that is not all. My research landed me on yet another parallel version of the name’s origin. According to this version, the name comes from a Kamba word, ‘kiinyaa’. Kinyaa, like Kirinyaga, refers to Mount Kenya.
The first missionaries, Johann Ludwig Krapf and Johannes Rebmann, were led into Kenya’s interior by the famous Akamba long-distance traders. When they asked the mountain’s name, the Kamba said, ‘kiima kya kenia’ (the mountain of Kenia).
‘Kenia’ in Kamba means to glitter or to shine; hence the Akamba people referred to it as the mountain that glitters, or the shining mountain. Mount Kenya thus acquired a new Kamba name. This was to become the name of the whole country later.
As I neared my research, I knew I had barely scratched the surface of this mystical five-letter word. My beautiful home bore a name that raised more questions than it answered. I then realised the vast treasures Kenya had that the world had not even begun to grasp.
As I pen off, this much I can say – Kenya is a beautiful name to a wonderful country. As to its single conclusive origin, I am still on my journey of discovery. Let me know in case you come across some more information meanwhile.