Mosi-oa-Tunya: the story behind the real name of Victoria Falls before a Scottish man named it after the Queen

Mildred Europa Taylor November 30, 2022
Victoria Falls. Photo: Wikimedia Commons/ Pavel Špindler

Also known as “Mosi-oa-Tunya” in Bantu which means “The smoke that thunders”, the awe-inspiring Victoria Falls is located on the Zambezi River on the border between Zambia and Zimbabwe.

Named after Queen Victoria of Britain by David Livingstone, a Scottish explorer and missionary who was apparently the first European to view the falls on November 16, 1855, Victoria Falls is the largest waterfall in the world based on its height of 108 meters (354 ft) and width of 1,708 meters.

Why is the Falls known as Mosi-oa-Tunya?

Scottish explorer Livingstone did name the falls after his reigning queen in 1855, however, the locals at the site — the Kalolo-Lozi people — had their own name for the falls at the time, Mosi-oa-Tunya. Its meaning, “the smoke that thunders”, is not surprising considering the plumes of mist around the heritage site as it roars over, according to photojournalists Marcus and Kate Westberg.

They wrote that Livingstone heard stories of the falls and decided to visit them by paddling down the Zambezi in a dugout canoe and landing on a small island at the lip of the falls. The island where he first set eyes on Victoria Falls would bear his name. The Scottish explorer would also later write of the falls in his diary: “scenes so lovely must have been gazed upon by angels in their flight,” as cited by Marcus and Kate Westberg.

But long before Livingstone saw the majestic falls, the site was home to the Tonga and Makalolo peoples, as reported by Marcus and Kate Westberg. Locals can be found on the outskirts of Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park, living in mud-and-thatch huts and catering to maize fields, the two photojournalists added.

In 2013, President Robert Mugabe’s party in Zimbabwe made calls to rename Victoria Falls, arguing that it was irrational that the falls had a colonial name. They indicated at the time that institutions bearing colonial names must be changed and given indigenous names. “David Livingstone was not the first person to see the Victoria Falls, they (the falls) must be rebranded Mosi-Oa-Tunya,” said one of the leaders of an association of ex-fighters for Zimbabwe’s independence, Jabulani Sibanda.

But others raised concerns that changing the name of the falls may affect tourism negatively. Today, some prefer to call the world’s largest sheet of falling water Victoria Falls while others opt for Mosi-Oa-Tunya. Whatever it is called, there have been fears that the site faces the risk of destruction. In 2017, there were reports of congestion caused by heavy trucks at the Victoria Falls border post in Livingstone, stating that it could reduce the lifespan of the facility.

The falls have been listed as a World Heritage Site by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), meaning they have official status and protection. Yet, the UN has also not been able to do enough to prevent them from being threatened. The property is currently protected under the National Heritage Conservation Act (1998) and the Zambia Wildlife Act on the Zambia part and the Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Act Cap. 20. 14 of 2008 (revised) on the Zimbabwean side, according to UNESCO.

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