I have written extensively about Kenya for a while now. Yet never for once did I ask myself what my country’s name actually meant. I never even asked about the name’s origin – until a few days ago. In a conversation with a friend, the topic popped up. At that moment I realised I knew very little about the origin or meaning of the country I grew up in – even born in.
I decided to right the situation with some research. A few resourceful people, including some older relatives, came to mind (and Google, of course). With megabytes of data in my study, one thing quickly became evident. It would not be an easy task. But my newly-found curiosity could not let me rest. I unearthed startling facts as I went deeper into the rabbit hole.
This article, by no means exhaustive, presents my findings after hours of digging. I hope it captures your attention or sets you on a course to deeper discovery. I can tell you now that the origin and meaning of our nation’s name carry numerous mysteries.
For starters, the name extends our local boundaries! I traced the name among the Hebrews where it means ‘animal horn’. I also found it in Russia. There it means ‘harmless; or ‘innocent’. The English, apparently, had the same meaning for the name!
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.
In a different version of the story I came across, the name Kenya might have been a colonial mistake of pronunciation. When the British landed in the country, they found the Kikuyu already calling the present-day Mount Kenya, ‘Kirinyaga’.
According to the story. since the British had difficulty pronouncing Kirinyaga, they put it down as Kenia. They later used the name to describe the whole British protectorate.
Kirinyaga means ‘holy place’. Some texts put the word’s meaning as the ‘mountain with ostriches’ (‘Kirinyaga’ when 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. That explains why they revere the mountain to this day. Kirinyaga also means purity.
I could not establish when the name Kenia later became referred to the whole country, but Kenia, which later was changed to Kenya, meant a holy place. For that reason, 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 felt like a deeply great honour.
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 famous Akamba people led the first missionaries to Kenya, Johann Ludwig Krapf and Johannes Rebmann into the country’s interior. You, of course, would know their fame stems from their long-distance trade experience. When the missionaries 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. Later, it became the name all knew the country by.
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. Kenya, Kenia or whatever other names this country went by, it remains a spectacular place of great adventures. While on this name quest, I realised the vast treasures Kenya had. Many of them, a well-kept secret waiting for the right moment to be unveiled.
As I pen it off, I can say that Kenya is a beautiful name for a wonderful country. As to its single conclusive origin, I am still on my journey of discovery. Stay with me on this blog as I reveal them one blog post at a t time. Meanwhile, let me know in case you happen to stumble upon some more interesting information.
Hello! I really like your writing so so much! It was interesting to note the richness of the country’s name. Quite an informative article.
If you are interested in etymological ‘forensics;..
The myth of linking ‘Kenya; to Kirinyaga only emerged after 1963 in the time of major revisions to the Kenya story that took root especially after 1965. The older ideas suggest that Kenya comes from, I believe Joseph Thompson’s encounters with the Maasai, who explain Kenya as a space-time of ancientness (is there such a word) rooted in eternity. Ol Donyo Keri was also the alternative and prevailing name of Mt Kenya in the era leading up to Independence, but mostly it was known as Mt Kenya.
Very interesting Voni. Would certainly like to hear more. may be by way of a story?
I support it’s origin is from kikuyu because the mountain is situated in kikuyu territory.
🙏 Thanks for rich research and penning it down.
Thank you. Glad you found it informative.
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