How 10 African Countries Got Their Name

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Written by Peter Pedroncelli
African Countries
Colonization influenced how some African countries were named. Some changed their names once they gained independence. A man smiles during Ghana’s 50-year independence celebrations at Independence Square in Accra, Ghana, Tuesday, March 6, 2007. (AP Photo/Olivier Asselin)

Colonization influenced how many African countries were named, but some changed their names once they gained independence.

Zimbabwe was originally named Rhodesia for British colonialist Cecil John Rhodes. The country rid itself of its settler name in 1979, but statues of Rhodes stayed standing throughout Souther Africa, inspiring a movement, #RhodesMustFall, in 2015.

A campaign to remove a Rhodes statue at the University of Cape Town got global attention and led to a wider movement to “decolonize” education in South Africa.

It’s not often that we stop to think where the names come from that we take for granted in Africa.

Some countries, like Kenya, are named after landmarks while others, like Liberia, are named for what the newly independent nation represented to its people.

Here are the stories behind the names of 10 African countries.

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Liberia

The colony of Liberia was started by the American Colonization Society in 1820 which began repatriating free former slaves from the U.S to Liberia. Liberia is named for the liberty it provided its new African-American citizens. In 1847, freed slaves issued a declaration of independence that was modeled after the U.S., creating the Republic of Liberia, according to Afrolegends. The new country’s capital city Monrovia was named after the U.S. president James Monroe, one of the supporters of the American Colonization Society.

Cameroon

Cameroon was named by an unknown Portuguese explorer in the 15th century who came across the Wouri river, one of Cameroon’s largest rivers. He renamed it, Rio dos Camarões, which translates to “shrimp river”, for the abundance of shrimp in the Wouri, according to Britannica. That name remained, evolving to become Cameroon.

Sierra Leone

As with many countries, Sierra Leone’s name was based on what early explorers experienced when they visited the area. Fifteenth-century Portuguese explorers believed that the mountains in that part of Africa looked like a lion’s teeth and the impressive roar of thunderstorms in the region reminded them of a lion’s roar. That led to the area being called Sierra Lyoa, which translates into “lion mountains”. The country would eventually adopt that name, changing it to Sierra Leone.

Kenya

Kenya’s colonizers, the British, have a role to play in how it got its name. The British asked the native Kikuyu people what they called an impressive snow-capped mountain that is an imposing feature in that part of East Africa. The Kikuyu people called it Kirinyaga, meaning “Where God dwells”. The British struggled to pronounce Kirinyaga, so they called it Mount Kenya. The country would eventually be named after the second tallest mountain in Africa.

Mozambique

The Southern African country was eventually colonized by the Portuguese, but before that, the ruler of the area was an Arab Sheikh named Mussa Bin Bique. When the Portuguese arrived, the sheikh’s name stuck, kind of, and the Portuguese called the country Mozambique, according to Quartz.

Mali

The West African country of Mali got its name from the original Bambara word for hippopotamus, which evolved to also mean “the place where the king lives.” In Malian culture, the hippopotamus signifies strength. According to Malian legend, the founder of the Malian empire, Sundiata Keita, changed himself into a hippopotamus when he died so that he could continue to live among his people in the Sankarani River.

Nigeria

Along with mountains, rivers have played a role in the naming African countries. Nigeria and Niger were both named after the Niger River that flows through both West African countries. The river was originally referred to as Ni Gir, directly translated to mean “River Gir” in a local language.

Gabon

Gabon’s name came from the shape one of the first places European explorers saw and associated with that part of Africa. Portuguese traders who arrived in the 15th century named it Gaboa, meaning “coat” in Portuguese, based on the shape of the Como River Estuary, which to them looked like a coat with sleeves and a hood.

Ghana

Ghana, which was previously known as the Gold Coast under British colonial rule, renamed itself upon independence from Britain. The new name is based on the ancient West African Kingdom of Ghana which flourished from the sixth to the 13th century. The ancient kingdom was not connected geographically to the modern country of Ghana. It was located where modern Southern Mauritania and Mali are now.

Sudan

The Arab legacy in Africa, with ancient traders and explorers traversing the continent, influenced some of the names of African countries. Sudan got its name from the Arabic phrase, Bilad as-Sudan, which translates to “land of the Blacks”, according to Quartz.