Kenya: What Does The Name Mean, Where Did It Come From?

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What is the meaning and origin of the name Kenya

As I delved into the meaning and origin of the name Kenya, I quickly found how intricate an undertaking this exercise was going to be. I even discovered the name is not just limited to the country that bears the name!

I have been passionately writing about this amazing East African country for a while now and never for once did I ask myself what the name Kenya actually meant or how it came to be that the country I live in would be known as so until a few days ago when a friend of mine brought up the topic that I then realised how little I knew about the name myself.

While I was trying to ask around and Google about it, a thought struck me that I should develop this into an article on Enchanted Landscapes Travelogue. As soon as I began to do my research, I quickly realised it was not going to be an easy task but 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 of deeper discovery as you ask yourself what does the name of my country actually mean.

Apparently the name Kenya is not local to the country it is named by. Instead I traced the name among the Hebrew where it means ‘animal horn’. The Russians also have the name where it means ‘harmless’ or ‘innocent’. In ancient English, like in Russia, the name means innocence.

The name is so popular that parents call their boys or girls, Kenya. 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 that since they found it difficult to pronounce kirinyaga, they put it down as Kenia, which was later adopted as the name of the whole British protectorate.

Kirinyaga means ‘holy place’. Some texts put the meaning of the word as the ‘mountain with ostriches’ (‘Kirinyaga’ is split into ‘nyaga’ which means an Ostrich, and ‘kiri’ which means with). It is 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 what is clear is 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 I found that awesome – to live in a holy land! That was something else.

But that is not all. I came across yet another parallel version that says, the name is derived from the Kamba word, ‘kiinyaa’ which, like Kirinyaga, was used to refer to Mount Kenya. The first missionaries, Johann Ludwig Kraft, and Johannes Rebmann, were led into Kenya’s interior by the famous Akamba long distance traders.

When they asked the name of the mountain, they were given the name ‘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. Thus Mount Kenya acquired a new Kamba name. This was to later become the name of the whole country.

As I finished my research (which I knew was far from over) I could not help noticing the mystery behind this 5-letter word that found a home in an equally mystical and beautiful nation whose treasures are yet to be fully grasped by the world. All I can say for now is that it is a beautiful name to a wonderful country. As to its single conclusive origin I am still on my journey of discovery.

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About Henry Muuthia

Henry Muuthia is a travel writer. He writes on travel in Kenya for a range of online platforms including Technorati, Google+, EzineArticles and ArticleBase where he has published several articles, mostly on Kenyan travel. He is a resident writer for Enchanted Landscapes Travelogue and also occasionally writes for Nakumatt's SmartLife magazine in the travel section.
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