The destructive legacy of European colonialism in Africa remains in the names of different countries and places throughout the continent.
Written by Jessica Muchiri
Edited By Mateo Daffin
Photography by Torin Harris
A few weeks ago, I was placed in Covid isolation. Stuck alone for more time than any college student should be left to their own devices, I desperately searched for anything entertaining to do. Failing at my mission, I decided to do my homework. One assignment in my Middle East Politics class asked me to memorize a map of the Middle East and North Africa. As someone with an ardent interest in maps and geography, this challenge was exactly what I needed.
As I labeled the empty map, my eyes wandered over the African countries that I wasn’t assigned to learn. As I glanced over the countries below the Sahara, I found myself surprised that I could only recall a few names. Countries like Ethiopia, Nigeria, and South Africa came easily to me, but others stumped me. I had always regarded myself as a proud African, but what did I really know about this beautiful and expansive continent? Could I truly claim this title if my knowledge was limited to one region? Determined to redeem myself, I made it my mission to dig deeper and reflect on the names and histories of the countries in Africa.
First, I started with the region I knew best: East Africa. Growing up my mama and baba would tell me stories of how our people used to pray to Mount Kenya, the mountain which the country is named after. I didn’t find out until I was researching the Bantu expansion in high school, that our people actually prayed to Kirinyaga, mountain of whiteness, with snow frosted peaks. This name must have tasted too exotic on the tongues of European settlers because it has been nearly erased from history. I always knew the presence of outsiders permanently altered our landscape and government, but I was not entirely aware of the large impact that their presence had on the names of these people, places, and things. Invading a country for the sake of arbitrary political goals was evil enough, but defacing and destroying our culture is a whole other level of malevolence.
When it came time to study Central Africa, all I could recall was King Leopold II’s ironic choice to name his horrifyingly oppressive and violent piece of the African pie “Congo Free State.” In this supposedly “free state” Leopold II seized the Congo River Basin where he established systems of forced labor and constant mutilation. Yet just North of today’s DRC lies a country many in the diaspora are not familiar with: Central African Republic or République Centrafricaine. This name alone is enough to raise questions about its origins, seeing as the name is in French but the most widely spoken native language in the country is Sango. What was formerly a French colony named Ubangi-Shari (after the rivers that run through it) became the center of Barthélemy Boganda’s movement to unite romance-language speaking countries in the region. As Former President of the Council of Government of the CAR, Boganda sought a brighter future for Central Africa. Despite all other nations in the region declining the offer to unify their territories, under advice from a French advisor, Ubangi-Shari became République Centrafricaine. As a result of 19th century occupation, French now serves as a lingua franca in CAR, and was the only official language up until the early 1990s. If colonial rule had never been introduced to the region, the Central African Republic would have a completely different name and official language. In the blink of an eye, these colonizers imposed a foreign culture on their subjects and claimed this land as a distant appendage of their empires.
Other names of African countries were chosen so arbitrarily that it’s hard to believe that imperialists weren’t poking fun at the people of these nations. In the case of Cameroon, Portuguese explorers renamed the Wouri River, Rio dos Camaroẽs, or river of prawns. While Europeans may have thought they had found a name befitting of the river, their inability to adhere to local monikers is extremely telling of their lack of respect for the indigenous people and cultures. Thus the current title reduces the name of a country with over 26 million residents to shrimp. Another instance of this phenomenon happened with Gabon. The country was named after the Portuguese word for coat (gabão) because its shape appeared similar to the silhouette of a jacket with sleeves.
When I first started my assignment by looking at North Africa, I never thought I would fall down a rabbit hole of obscure etymology. Although these stories are entertaining, they draw questions as to how different our maps would be if indigenous peoples were given their rightful authority over the future of their nations. Had the colonial era not been so detrimental to the African , people like me would not be left trying to piece together their own pasts. Today, there appears to be very few indications of countries pushing for a name change that aligns with their pre-colonial cultures, with the most recent example being the Kingdom of Eswatini (formerly the Kingdom of Swaziland). This makes sense as many pre-colonial cultures were eradicated or transformed into hybridized cultures through imperialism. Words are a mighty weapon. When wielded by the wrong people they have the power to erase centuries of history and create new legends.