Why the Name: Huambo?

Map of Angola

As you travel around Africa, have you ever wondered about the name of the second largest city of Angola, Huambo ?

Previously called Nova Lisboa (New Lisbon) after the capital of Portugal, Huambo got its name from Wambu, one of the 14 old Ovimbundu kingdoms of the central Angolan plateau. The Ovimbundu, an old tribe of Angola, which originally arrived from Eastern Africa, had founded their central kingdom of Bailundu as early as the 15th century. Wambu was one of the smaller kingdoms and was hierarchically under the King of Bailundu, though it enjoyed, as the other kingdoms, a considerable degree of independence.

The House of the Governor in Huambo (Source: Wikipedia)

Situated in the Angolan central highlands, Huambo is located near the headwaters of the Kunene River. It was founded in 1912 by Portuguese colons and was called Nova Lisboa until 1975, when it resumed its name of Huambo. It is located 600 km southeast of the capital Luanda, and 220 km east of Benguela; it is at high altitude, on a plateau 1800 m above sea level. Huambo is a main hub on the Caminho de Ferro de Benguela (CFB) (the Benguela Railway), which runs from the port of Lobito in Angola, to the Democratic Republic of the Congo‘s southernmost province, Katanga. It is the second industrial city of the country, and a big agricultural center.

If you ever visit Huambo, as you tour its neighborhoods, and get on the Caminho de Ferro de Benguela, remember that it was once an old Ovimbundu kingdom, Wambu, and reconnect with the feel of this ancient kingdom!

Why the Name: Mbabane?

Flag of Swaziland

Have you ever wondered about the meaning of Mbabane, the name of the capital of Swaziland? Have you ever wondered what the local people called their land, before the arrival of European settlers?  Well, I have. It sounds so off, to be called Swaziland, or the land of the Swazi people. Very often in world history, it seems as if a place or people gets its name from foreigners, rather than the indigenous people, i.e how could a place be called Léopoldville (Kinshasa), when the locals do not call it? How could a place be called Cote d’Ivoire? Was there not a local name for that area? After digressing a bit, I wondered about the name Swaziland, or the land of the Swazi people. How do the Swazi know themselves? Or how do they call their land? How do they call their capital?

King Mswati III of Swaziland (Source: News24.com)

The city of Mbabane gets its name from a local king, Mbabane Kunene, who lived in the region when the British colonizers first arrived there.  It is the capital of Swaziland, and the country’s largest city. It is located on the Mbabane River and its tributary the Polinjane River in the Mdzimba Mountains. It is located in the Hhohho Region, of which it is also the capital. The average elevation of the city is 1243 meters. Swaziland is a monarchy headed by King Mswati III, who was crowned King on 25 April 1986 and Ingwenyama of Swaziland. He reigns with his mother, Queen Mother Ntfombi Tfwala, the Ndlovukati and Joint Head of State of Swaziland since 1986. The country, Swaziland, gets its name from King Mswati II who helped expand and unify the area in the 19th-century.  Today, most people belong to the Swazi tribe, and the country is also known as kaNgwane, after King Ngwane III.

Whenever you find your way in Swaziland, do not forget to visit Mbabane, King Mswati III’s capital, and enjoy Swazi culture.

Why the Name: Comoros?

Flag of the Comoros

How many people know the country of Comoros? Have you ever heard about it? Have you ever wondered where the name Comoros come from? Well, I have… At first I wondered if it was like Cameroon, whose name comes from Rio dos Camarões, and so since Comoros seems to rime with Camarões, will Comoros mean Shrimp?

Well, my previous assumption was forgetting the fact that the Comoros, or rather the Union of the Comoros, had once seen the influence of Arabic sailors. So, the name Comoros comes from the Arabic word qamar, meaning moon! He he he… Comoros essentially means Moon.

Comoros_Map of the Comores 1747
Map of the Comoros, 1747

The Comoros is a sovereign archipelago island nation in the Indian Ocean located at the northern end of the Mozambique Channel off the eastern coast of Africa between northeastern Mozambique and northwestern Madagascar. Other countries near the Comoros are Tanzania to the northwest and the Seychelles to the northeast. Its capital is Moroni, on Grande Comore. The Union of the Comoros has three official languagesShikomori (Comorian), Arabic and French. The religion of the majority of the population is Islam.

The Comoros with the map of Africa (Countryreports.org)

Comoros is a nation formed at the crossroads of different civilizations; it is almost like Madagascar in its cultural diversity: it was first inhabited by Bantu speakers from East Africa, and later its population was supplemented by Arab and Austronesian immigration. Islam was introduced around after the 650s AD. It was a major hub of trade and an important location in a network of trading towns that included Kilwa, in present-day Tanzania, Sofala (an outlet for Zimbabwean gold), in Mozambique, and Mombasa in Kenya. The country became part of the French colonial empire in the 19th century before becoming independent in 1975.

Comoros_Port of Moroni 1908
Port of Moroni, Comoros (1908)

The Comoros is formed by Ngazidja (Grande Comore), Mwali (Mohéli) and Nzwani (Anjouan), three major islands in the Comoros Archipelago, as well as many minor islets. The capital and largest city, Moroni, is located on Ngazidja. The archipelago is situated in the Indian Ocean, in the Mozambique Channel, between the African coast (nearest to Mozambique and Tanzania) and Madagascar, with no land borders.  In addition, the country has a claim on a fourth major island, southeastern-most Mayotte (Maore), though Mayotte voted against independence from France in 1974, has never been administered by an independent Comoros government, and continues to be administered by France (currently as an overseas department). France has vetoed United Nations Security Council resolutions that would affirm Comorian sovereignty over the island.


The main export of the islands are vanilla, ylang-ylang, and clove. The Comoros are the world’s largest producer of ylang-ylang.

So, if you ever visit the Comoros, imagine the moon! Enjoy its sandy beaches, and its lovely people!

Why the Name: Khartoum?

Aerial view of Khartoum in 1936

What comes to mind as you say the name of the capital of Sudan, Khartoum? Well, for me, I imagine the great Nubian Empire with its queen Amanishakheto or King Taharqa; I imagine big sand dunes, and of course history… so much history, the history of one of the greatest African kingdoms, one which dominated ancient Egypt for centuries. So how far am I from the real meaning of the name Khartoum?

The origin of the word, “Khartoum“, is uncertain. There are many interpretations. One of them states that the name khartoum is derived from the Arabic khurṭūm (tuskstrunk or hose) for elephant tusks, or it could be referring to the narrow strip of land extending between the Blue and White Niles [not sure how trunk or hose could be thought to be a strip of land].

Pyramids of Nubia
Pyramids of Nubia (Wikipedia)

Captain J.A. Grant, who reached Khartoum in 1863 with Captain Speke‘s expedition, thought the name was most probably from the Arabic qurtum (قرطم safflower, i.e., Carthamus tinctorius), which was cultivated extensively in Egypt for its oil to be used as fuel [not sure why a city in Sudan will be named for a plant which is cultivated in its neighbor’s country]. Some scholars speculate that the word may be derived from the Nubian word, Agartum (“the abode of Atum“), the Nubian and Egyptian god of creation. Other Beja scholars suggest “Khartoum” is derived from the Beja word, Hartoom (“meeting“). Additionally, the dream interpreting magicians in Genesis 41:8 are referred to as חַרְטֻמֵּ֥י (Khartoumei) [as you can see Black Africans are in the Bible everywhere].

So, which one of these interpretations is the most accurate?

Khartoum, today (Source:Wikipedia)

The city as it is known today was established in 1821, 24 kilometers north of the ancient city of Soba, by Ibrahim Pasha, the son of Egypt‘s ruler, Muhammad Ali Pasha, who had just incorporated Sudan into his realm. Originally, Khartoum served as an outpost for the Egyptian Army, but the settlement quickly grew into a regional center of trade. It also became a focal point for the slave trade. Later, it became the administrative center of Sudan and official capital.

Black Pharaohs of Nubia
Black Pharaohs of Nubia

Khartoum is located in the middle of the populated areas in Sudan, and is part of the tri-cities composed of Khartoum proper, and linked by bridges to Khartoum North and Omdurman to the west, with an overall population of 5 million inhabitants. Khartoum and Sudan as whole, were the home of several ancient flourishing civilizations, such as Nubia, the Kingdom of Kush, Kerma, Nobatia, Alodia, Makuria, Meroë and others, most of which flourished along the Nile. During the pre-dynastic period Nubia and Nagadan Upper Egypt were identical, simultaneously evolved systems of Pharaonic kingship by 3300 BC. Khartoum is home to amazing museums, including the largest museum of Sudan,  the National Museum of Sudan, where one can be immersed in the rich culture of Sudan and the different eras of its history. Among the exhibits are two Egyptian temples of Buhen and Semna, originally built by Queen Hatshepsut and Pharaoh Tuthmosis III, respectively, but relocated to Khartoum upon the flooding of Lake Nasser.

Well, if you visit Khartoum, don’t forget to visit the National Museum of Sudan, and learn of the great African civilizations that flourish there, reclaim your history, African history, and above all enjoy the warmth and hospitality of the people of Khartoum!



Why the Name: Nouakchott?

Map of Mauritania

What comes to mind when you say the name of the capital of Mauritania, Nouakchott? Well, to me, instant thoughts of sandy dunes, the Atlantic ocean, and the desert come to mind. So does its name come close to any of these?

Nouakchott or‎‎ Nuwākshūṭ in Arabic, is originally derived from the Berber Nawākšūṭ, or “place of the winds,” and is the capital and largest city of Mauritania, as well as being one of the largest cities in the Sahara. From the different transcriptions, the name of the city, Nouakchott or Noiakchott gave rise to different translations, among which 5 principal ones:

  • Mauritania_flag
    Flag of Mauritania

    place where water appears when a well is dug

  • land where shells abound
  • place with salted pasture
  • place where the wind blows
  • without ears

Chott may mean beach or foreshore or batture. Noua in hassaniya Arabic (Moor dialect) means “bay.” Thus, Nouakchott literally means “the beach of the bay.” Even though the Mauritanian shoreline does not present any bays on the outskirts of Nouakchott, the shape of the coastline is slightly hollow there.

Aerial view of Nouakchott 2002 (Wikipedia)

Nouakchott was a small fortified fishing village (ksar) in pre-colonial times and during French rule. Early in colonial times, the city was a French military camp where Mauritanians were not allowed to stay. In 1958, it was chosen by Moktar Ould Daddah, the country’s first president, as the capital of the nascent nation of Mauritania. The village was selected as the capital city for its central location between Saint-Louis, Senegal, the city from which the colony of Mauritania was governed, and Nouadhibou, Mauritania’s second largest city.

Fishermen in Nouakchott (Wikipedia)

Nouakchott is located on the Atlantic coast of the Sahara Desert. It is largely flat, and only a few meters above sea level. It is daily exposed to sand dunes. Nouakchott is built around a large tree-lined street, Avenue Gamal Abdel Nasser, which runs northeast through the city centre from the airport. It divides the city into two, with the residential areas in the north and the medina quarter, and shantytowns to the south. The main neighborhoods are Arafat, Dar Naim, El Mina, Ksar, Riyadh, Sebkha, Tevragh-Zeina, and Toujounine.

Camel market in Nouakchott (Wikipedia)

Today, the city is the heart of the Mauritanian economy and is home to a deepwater port and one of the country’s two international airports. It also hosts the University of Nouakchott. If you visit Nouakchott, don’t forget to visit the camel market, a very big attraction in a country where a lot of its population is nomadic.

Why the Name: Lubumbashi?

Map of DRC with Lubumbashi highlighted

Have you ever wondered what the name of the second largest city of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Lubumbashi, meant? Well, growing up, I always loved the sound of it as it rolled off the tongue: LUBUMBASHI: so full of power… so full of ummph, like thunder! So do you think the name has anything to do with power? or thunder?

Express to Rhodesia from Elisabethville’s train station (trains-worldexpresses.com)

The area as it is known today has been inhabited for centuries, but the modern-day city itself  was ‘founded’ by the Belgians in 1910 under the name of Élisabethville (sometimes Elizabethville, both in French, or Elisabethstad in Dutch), in honor of their queen Elisabeth, wife to king Albert I. It was affectionately referred to as É-Ville. It was the second city of the Belgian Congo, after Léopoldville. Élisabethville functioned as the administrative capital of the Katanga Province. It was also an important mining, commercial and industrial center, and a center of education and health services. The work and businesses related to the mines made Élisabethville the most prosperous region of the Congo during the final decade of Belgian rule. Today it is the mining capital of the entire country, with its production in copper, cobalt, zinc, gold, Tin, etc.

Malachite specimen from Katanga, on display at the Royal Ontario Museum (Wikipedia)

In 1965Mobutu Sese Seko with his campaign to identify himself with African nationalism or “Zairianization” politics assumed power of Congo, which he renamed Zaïre. In this push, he renamed Élisabethville as “Lubumbashi” in 1966 and, in 1972 renamed the Katanga Province as “Shaba.” It was named Lubumbashi after the local river by the same name Lubumbashi. It is also called the copper capital. Copper mining in Katanga dates back over 1,000 years and mines in the region were producing standard sized ingots of copper for international transport by the end of the 1st Millennium AD.

Aerial view of Lubumbashi (Source: Aerocam Congo)

As was customary in sub-Saharan colonies, the city center of Élisabethville was reserved for the white (European-Only Neighborhoods in African Cities before Independence) population. This consisted mainly of Belgian nationals, but also British, Italian, and Jewish Greek communities. The black population lived initially in a so-called cité indigène called quartier Albert (now: Kamalondo), south of the city center and separated from the white city by a 700-metres-wide neutral zone. With population growth, new indigenous neighborhoods were created. These still form the main suburbs of present-day Lubumbashi: Kenia, Katuba, Ruashi. In addition to these 3, 4 more communes have been added to this day: Kamalondo, Kampemba, Lubumbashi, and la Commune Annexe.

Fountain at the Place Moise Tshombe in Lubumbashi (Source: Congo-Autrement)

Today, the city of Lubumbashi is affectionately called by locals, L’shi or Lubum, and its inhabitants are known as the Lushois. French is the official language, but the main language spoken by most is Kiswahili. Lubumbashi lies at high altitude at about 1,208 meters (3,963 ft) above sea level, which gives rise to a cooler climate. It is a cosmopolitan city, with people from all over Congo, neighboring countries, and Europeans, Chinese, Americans, etc who mostly come for the mining industry; this has given rise to a gastronomical melting pot as well. The city is also host to one of Africa’s greatest soccer club: The  TP Mazembe (Tout Puissant Mazembe). The club’s chairman is former Katanga governor Moïse Katumbi Chapwe. It is a vibrant city. To learn more about Lubumbashi, the cosmopolitan city named after its local river, check out the articles  Lubumbashi urban mosaic, Presentation of Lubumbashi. Enjoy the video below on Lubumbashi, the mining capital of DRC!

Why the Name: Harare ?

A street of Harare, then Salisbury, in 1930

Many cities around the globe have had their names changed during colonization times (by Europeans colonizers) and were made to carry names foreign to the local people, as denoted in Bombay (Mumbai), Léopoldville (Kinshasa), and Canton (Guangdong) to name just a few. Ever since independence, many of these cities and countries have been renamed to reflect the local culture. Harare is one such city. Harare, the capital of Zimbabwe (which used to be Rhodesia during colonial times), used to be named Salisbury.

So what’s in a name? Well, a name is everything, and characterizes who you are, and your connection to the place. So why shouldn’t Bombay remain Bombay…. Why the need to change it back to Mumbai after over a century as Bombay? Well simply because Mumbai or Guangdong is the way the local people call it, and these cities and their names should be seen through their eyes and not those of a foreigner who oftentimes loathes the local people, and sees them as inferior.

Harare’s skyline today (Wikipedia)

Back to Harare… During the time that the British with the infamous Barbarian Cecil Rhodes ‘colonized’ the place, it was known as Fort Salisbury. The city was founded in 1890 by the Pioneer Column, a small military force in the service of the British South Africa Company, and named Fort Salisbury after the British Prime Minister Lord Salisbury. It retained the name Salisbury until 1982, when it was renamed Harare on the second anniversary of Zimbabwean independence.

zimbabwe_mapSo Harare, the most populous, and capital city of Zimbabwe owes its present-day name to a local Shona chief by the name of Ne-Harawa, whose name meant “He who does not sleep.” The name of the city was changed to Harare on 18 April 1982, taking its name from the village near Harare Kopje of the Shona chief Ne-Harawa. Prior to independence, “Harare” was the name of the black residential area (indigenous area where the Black locals where allowed to live) now known as Mbare. It used to also be known as the Sunshine City.

A Conical tower at Great Zimbabwe

Situated at an elevation of 1,483 metres (4,865 feet) above sea level, Harare’s climate falls into the subtropical highland category. Administratively, Harare is a metropolitan province. It is Zimbabwe’s leading financial, commercial, and communications centre, and a trade centre for tobacco, maize, cotton, and citrus fruits. Manufactured goods include textiles, steel and chemicals, and gold is mined in the area.

National Heroes Acre (ZimbabweTourism.org)

My Dad visited Harare in the early 90s and loved every part of it. So if you ever visit Harare, remember that its name is for “He who does not sleep, and enjoy its streets full of Msasa trees which color neighborhoods wine red in late August, and other streets filled with Jacaranda and Flamboyant trees. If you love colonial architecture, you will have your fill. If you are in search of African arts, visit the National Gallery (a side note, if you ever visit the Atlanta airport, one of the transition corridors is filled with Zimbabwean Shona sculptures); for flora lovers, the botanic garden is full of species only found there. The Mukuvisi Woodlands reserve is not too far, and you can visit the Shona village of Chapungu Kraal, as well as check out the Epworth rocks, the National Archives, and the Heroes Cemetery.

Saving Zanzibar’s Heritage

Yesterday, just as I published my article “Why the name: Zanzibar?” the BBC published a photo-journal on “ Saving Zanzibar’s Heritage.” This made for a happy surprise, and showed the effort taken by locals to save and restore Stone Town (Mji Mkongwe in Swahili)’s architecture. So please check out the article on BBC HERE. Enjoy!

Sultan Palace in Old Stone Town in Zanzibar (1871 – 1875)

Why the name Zanzibar?

Map of Tanzania including Zanzibar (Wikipedia)

Zanzibar is one of the main archipelago of Tanzania, and actually the name Tanzania comes from combining the names Tanganyika and Zanzibar. It is situated on the Swahili Coast, adjacent to Tanganyika (mainland Tanzania). Located in the Indian Ocean, Zanzibar consists of many small islands and two large ones: Unguja (the main island, referred to informally as Zanzibar) and Pemba. The capital is Zanzibar City, located on the island of Unguja. Its historic center, Stone Town, is a World Heritage Site. So why the name Zanzibar?

The name Zanzibar comes from the Arabic Zanjibār (زنجبار), which in turn comes from the Persian Zang-bār (زنگبار), a compound of Zang (زنگ, “Black“) + bār (بار, “coast, land, country“), name given by Persian navigators when they visited the area in the middle ages. So, in essence, Zanzibar means the “land of the Blacks” or “the land of the Black people,” or “the coast where Black people live.”


Traders from the Arabian Peninsula, the Persian Gulf region of modern-day Iran (especially Shiraz), and west India probably visited Zanzibar as early as the 1st century. Zanzibar was used as a base for voyages between the Middle East, India, and Africa. In the olden days, the archipelago was known as Spice islands, and was world famous for its cloves (see the article I wrote So much for that clove in your food!) and other spices.

Vasco da Gama‘s visit in 1498 marked the beginning of European influence. In 1503 or 1504, Zanzibar became part of the Portuguese Empire. Zanzibar remained a possession of Portugal for almost two centuries. In 1698, Zanzibar fell under the control of the Sultanate of Oman. In 1832, or 1840, Said bin Sultan moved his capital from Muscat, Oman to Stone Town in Zanzibar City.

Zanzibar slave market

Malindi in Zanzibar City was the Swahili Coast’s main port for the slave trade with the Middle East. In the mid-19th century, as many as 50,000 slaves passed annually through the port. Many became rich through the slave trade, such as the notorious Arab slave trader and ivory merchant, Tippu Tib. Today, there are still vestiges of old slave forts in Stone Town.

Until around 1890, the sultans of Zanzibar controlled a substantial portion of the Swahili Coast, known as Zanj, which included Mombasa and Dar es Salaam. Beginning in 1886, Great Britain and Germany plotted to obtain parts of the Zanzibar sultanate for their own empires. Over the next few years, however, almost all of these mainland possessions were lost to European imperial powers.

Sultan Sayyid Abd Allah ibn Khalifa

In 1890 Zanzibar became a protectorate (not a colony) of Britain. This status meant it continued to be under the sovereignty of the Sultan of Zanzibar. From 1890 to 1913, traditional viziers were in charge; they were supervised by advisors appointed by the Colonial Office. However, in 1913 a switch was made to a system of direct rule through British governors. The death of the pro-British Sultan Hamad bin Thuwaini on 25 August 1896 and the succession of Sultan Khalid bin Barghash, whom the British did not approve of, led to the Anglo-Zanzibar War, known as the shortest war in history lasting 38 minutes.

The Harem and tower harbor of Zanzibar ca 1890

On 10 December 1963, the Protectorate that had existed over Zanzibar since 1890 was terminated by the United Kingdom. The United Kingdom did not grant Zanzibar independence, as such, because the UK had never had sovereignty over Zanzibar. Rather, by the Zanzibar Act 1963 of the United Kingdom, the UK ended the Protectorate and made provision for full self-government in Zanzibar as an independent country within the Commonwealth. Upon the Protectorate being abolished, Zanzibar became a constitutional monarchy under the Sultan. However, just a month later, on 12 January 1964 Sultan Jamshid bin Abdullah was deposed during the Zanzibar Revolution. The Sultan fled into exile, and the Sultanate was replaced by the People’s Republic of Zanzibar and Pemba. In April 1964, the republic merged with mainland Tanganyika. This United Republic of Tanganyika and Zanzibar was soon renamed, blending the two names, as the United Republic of Tanzania, within which Zanzibar remains a semi-autonomous region.

Beach of Zanzibar (Zanzibar.net)

Today, Zanzibar is world-renowned for its great tourism, with Stone town showing remnants of the ancient Swahili kingdom, and the melting pot of cultures (Persian, Arabic, Bantus, European), and its cloves. Enjoy the video below, and whenever you visit Zanzibar, remember that it is the Land of the Black people!

Why the Name: Alexandria?

View of the Corniche of Alexandria (Wikipedia)

It is about time we talked about Alexandria, the light of Egypt. So why the name Alexandria? If you thought about Alexander the Great, then you are absolutely right! Yes. The second largest city and major economic center of Egypt was named and founded by Alexander the Great.

3rd century BC bust of Alexander the Great (Wikipedia)

Alexandria was founded around a small Ancient Egyptian town around 331 BC by Alexander the Great. It became an important center of the Hellenistic civilization and remained the capital of Hellenistic and Roman and Byzantine Egypt for almost 1000 years until the Muslim conquest of Egypt in AD 641, when a new capital was founded at Fustat (later absorbed into Cairo). Hellenistic Alexandria was best known for the Lighthouse of Alexandria (Pharos), one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World; its Great Library (the largest in the ancient world; now replaced by a modern one); and the Necropolis, one of the Seven Wonders of the Middle Ages. Alexandria was the second most powerful city of the ancient world after Rome. Ongoing maritime archaeology in the harbor of Alexandria, which began in 1994, is revealing details of Alexandria both before the arrival of Alexander, when a city named Rhacotis existed there, and during the Ptolemaic dynasty.

The Great Library of Alexandria

To me, Alexandria, has always had a special place in my heart because of its Great Library. Imagine thousands upon thousands of ancient papyri, scrolls, and books on mathematics, philosophy, medicine, architecture, etc. Just the thought of it makes my eyes shine with light. Isn’t it thrilling? And then to know that this library had been burnt down by the army of Julius Caesar in 48 BC (more like a repeat of history: Palmyra, The giant Buddhas of Afghanistan, Timbuktu, …) also makes my heart ache at the thought of all this knowledge gone down in flames. Today, we remember the Great Library of Alexandria thanks to what poets and writers of the past said about it, but there are no vestiges of it. I also remember Alexandria because of the brilliant female mathematician Hypatia who chaired a department of philosophy and astronomy, and the world-renowned mathematician Euclid.

Today, Alexandria is Egypt’s largest seaport, serving approximately 80% of Egypt’s imports and exports. It is an important industrial center because of its natural gas and oil pipelines from Suez. Alexandria is also an important tourist destination. Enjoy the video below about Alexandria, the beautiful!