How Kenya came to have its name

Nii Ntreh March 09, 2021
Portrait of a Maasai warrior in Africa -- Photo: Shutterstock

The East African country of Kenya is famous among westerners for safari tourism. For sports enthusiasts too, Kenya is noted for producing world champions in long-distance running over the last few decades.

The country of more than 52 million inhabitants is also respected highly on the continent due to the leadership roles it plays in the east and in Africa at large. But Kenya is not simply a place of present relevance; it was the site of some of the most exciting paleontological and anthropological discoveries that confirmed from the 1930s that the earliest humans evolved in Africa.

Kenya also comes up as a widely used name among African-Americans, apart from being the fatherland of America’s first Black president, Barack Obama.

So how did a country steeped in prehistory, well-reviewed by global tourism advisers, and important to African-American identity come to be called Kenya? The name comes from the language of the Kikuyu, a Bantu group that is the biggest in Kenya. The Kikuyu referred to the highest point they ever saw as Kirinyaga, meaning ‘mountain of whiteness’ or ‘white mountain’.

Kirinyaga’s cap is a point upon which snow rested, sometimes, all year long. Now, we have come to know it is the second-highest mountain in Africa and it is part of the East Rift mountains which does include Kilimanjaro, the volcanic mountain and Africa’s highest point.

The British who eventually colonized Kenya in the 19th century could not mention Kirinyaga and corrupted it into Kenya. Even still, it was not until the 1920s that the geographical space which is now the sovereign country was recognized as Kenya Colony. Formerly, the British called the area and other parts of Africa’s east, the East Africa Protectorate.

Kenya gained independence from British rule in 1963 led by Jomo Kenyatta, a Kikuyu man. Incidentally, his name had nothing to do with what the country is called. He was named Kamau but took the name Jomo (burning spear) and Kenyatta (a traditional bead belt), later on in life.

Last Edited by:Francis Akhalbey Updated: March 9, 2021


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