How Tanzania came to have its name

Nii Ntreh Apr 13, 2020 at 09:00am

April 13, 2020 at 09:00 am | History

Nii Ntreh

Nii Ntreh | Associate Editor

April 13, 2020 at 09:00 am | History

The Zanzibar archipelago is a successful tourist destination for Tanzania. Photo Credit: Agoda.com

The East African country of Tanzania is one of the few countries in the world whose name is a portmanteau. That is, “Tanzania” is a word formed out of two independent words that represent different entities.

This creative linguistic product is more than just a literary achievement. In the name Tanzania, its creators found a way to blend two of the most important aspects of national unity – identity and homelands.

Tanzania was not founded as a unified polity in 1961. It was in 1964 that the different parts of Tanzania were brought together.

The larger territory, Tanganyika, gained independence in 1961 from British control. The smaller half, an archipelago of islands known as Zanzibar and Pemba, became independent in 1963.

But the People’s Republic of Zanzibar and Pemba lasted not more than a year. On April 26, 1964, it joined Tanganyika and so the new united republic became Tanzania.

What was found in 1964 is itself a nomenclature steeped in amazing cultural history.

Tanganyika is Swahili for “sail in the wilderness”. It is thought that the phrase is a reference to Lake Tanganyika, the mainland’s largest water body which is also a national symbol.

Zanzibar on the other hand, is an amalgamation of two Arabic references, namely Zanj (zenji) and barr.

While Zanj, which roughly translates as “black”, was a medieval Arabic term for the peoples and lands of southeast Africa, barr is Arabic for shore or coast. Zanzibar is thus, “coast of the black (people)”.

So why did the two territories unite?

At the time of independence, Tanganyika had the bigger military necessary for warding off external aggression. The Zanzibaris knew they could do with that help.

Zanzibar did not have much diversity by way of means of economic sustenance. Tanganyika on the other hand, had a bigger market and labor force.

But apart from the issues of security and economics, Tanganyika and Zanzibar have a shared history going back to about the 12th century. Swahili, for instance, is spoken both on the mainland and on the islands.

The influence of both Arab explorers and British colonizers is also palpable in Tanganyika and Zanzibar. Furthermore, Zanzibar is only about 8,000 miles from Tanganyika.

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