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The Meaning of Kilimanjaro


Notes by J. A. Hutchinson

From the time of the earliest explorers, visitors have been intrigued by the name Kilimanjaro. The visitor who enquires today will probably receive from most Wachagga the same answer which was given to the early explorers:- It is not a Chagga name. The Wachagga themselves have no name for the whole mountain. They have, however, names for the two peaks, commonly known as Kibo and Mawenzi. These are more properly written, in Kichagga, Kipoo and Kimawenze , and the meanings can be explained. Kipoo means " spotted "; a reference to the black rock which stands out here and there against the snowfield; Kimawenze means " having a broken top, notched "; describing the jagged appearance of this peak. The very well-known Chagga story of how Mawenzi acquired this appearance is retold in the extracts from Bruno Gutmann's work, translated elsewhere in this journal.

In spite of Chagga insistence that the name Kilimanjaro is a foreign importation, even they accept that this is now the name by which the mountain is internationally known. They listen with, I think, some private amusement, to the innumerable theories advanced to explain the name, and will discuss the merits and demerits of these theories. At the same time, the older generations at least, regard any attempts to derive the name from Kichagga roots as decidedly suspect and as inventions made long after the event by enthusiastic youngsters.

This is not therefore an attempt to find the long-sought answer and to offer a definitive or authoritative explanation. It may however, be of interest to summarize some of the theories so far advanced!

All the early attempts at explanation are based on breaking down Kilimanjaro into two elements: kilima and njaro , on the assumption that kilima at least is the Swahili for ' mountain '. The Wachagga themselves find this difficult and confusing, since in Swahili 'mountain' is properly mlima , and kilima is a diminutive meaning ' hill .' It is possible to assume that the diminutive is used to indicate affection, though it is difficult to understand why a stranger should wish to express such affection. It is also possible to postulate that an early European visitor, whose knowledge of Swahili was not extensive, changed mlima to kilima by analogy with the two Chagga names; Ki bo and Ki mawenzi.

The first attempt at explanation comes from the missionary Krapf, who saw the mountain from a distance but left his co-worker, Rebmann, to visit Chaggaland. In his Missionary Labours (1860), Krapf writes , "The Swahili of the coast call the snow-mountain Kilimanjaro, " mountain of greatness ." It may also mean "mountain of caravans" ( kilima —mountain; jaro —caravans), a landmark for caravans seen everywhere from afar, but the inhabitants of Jagga call it Kibo, ' snow ." He makes no attempt to explain in what way Kilimanjaro can be interpreted 'mountain of greatness' in Swahili, nor how he combines, kilima, Swahili, 'hill', with jaro , Kichagga , 'caravan'. Moreover, as has already been stated, Kibo in Kichagga does not mean 'snow', which is kora , he says that Kivoi, a chief of the Kamba tribe, whom he visited in 1850...." had been to Jagga and had seen the Kima ja Jeu , mountain of whiteness , the name given by the Wakamba to Kilimanjaro in contra­distinction to the Kegnia (Kenya)." More correctly in the Kamba dialect, this would be kiima kyeu , and this possible derivation has been popular with several investigators.

Joseph Thompson, in his Through Masailand (1885) writes, "The term Kilimanjaro has generally been understood to mean the mountain ( kilima ) of greatness ( njaro ). This is probably as good a derivation as any other, though not improbably it may mean the white mountain, as I believe the term njaro has in former times been used to denote whiteness, and though this application of the word is now obsolete on the coast, it is still heard among some of the interior tribes." Unfortunately, Thompson does not substantiate this claim, or make any attempt to explain the use of kilima for mlima .

A. G. Fischer, in his "Report of a Journey in the Masai Country" in the Proceedings of the Royal Geographical Society , Vol. VI. 1884, will have none of this. He writes , "The word (Kilimanjaro) does not mean either 'mountain' or "greatness", but signifies Njaro Mountain, by which among the inhabitants of the coast, an evil spirit is meant." Sir Harry Johnston, in his Kilimanjaro Expedition , 1886, likewise explains the name as being from kilima, 'mountain' , and njaro , the name of a demon , supposed to cause cold. This name, he says, is known only to the people of the coast and is unrecognised in the interior.

Hans Meyer, the first known European to reach the summit of the mountain, also subscribes to the idea of a spirit or demon. In his Across East African Glaciers , 1891, he says, "We awoke in capital trim for our climb to the summit, and this time, Njaro, the spirit of the mountain, was propitious we succeeded in reaching our goal." Again on , " Njaro, the guardian spirit of the mountain seemed to take his conquest with a good grace, for neither snow nor tempest marred, our triumphal invasion of his sanctuary."

In Chagga folklore, there is ample evidence of their belief in spirits which dwell in or on the mountain, but, for the Wachagga, these were usually kindly and well-intentioned. There is, admittedly, also mention of a guardian spirit who would destroy anybody who presumed to climb beyond a certain limit. But there is no evidence of a spirit called Njaro, either by the Wachagga themselves, or by the coastal tribes. Wachagga to whom I have spoken, are willing to presuppose the existence of a man, possibly a chief, called Njaro, but there is no record of such a person, and once again, the compound with the difficult Swahili kilima , would be unexplained-(The Kichagga for 'mountain' is fumvu ).

An explanation which has been widely accepted is based on the introduction of the Masai word njoro , meaning ' springs ', or possibly ' water '. Monseigneur A.Le Roy, in his book Au Kilimanjaro, (1893) after discussing other theories, relates the following story: "At Toveta , walking one day with some native children, we were asked by one of them if we intended to stay long on Kilima-ngaro .... "What did you say: kilima-ngaro! " — "Yes".— "But what is ngaro ? — " Ngaro, ngare , in the language of the Masai and even in our own, means ' water '. And we call the big mountain over there, ' The Mountain of Water ', because it is there that all the rivers here and round about rise." We concluded that we had found the true meaning. At Toveta, situated more or less at the foot of the famous mountain, the traders from the coast will have heard kilima-ngaro , and repeated, with a slight modification, kilima-ndaro at Mombasa, and kilima-ndjaro at Pangani ." This theory has its attra­ctions, but still leaves the kilima element unexplained, and perpetuates the somewhat unlikely compound, part Swahili , part Masai .

A further interesting theory has been put forward by Anton Nelson, past Pre­sident of the Kilimanjaro Mountain Club. He points out that for centuries the approach to Mombasa by sea was by dhow, which cannot tack very well against the wind. Sailors therefore wanted to be sure that, although keeping well off the land on account of the wide coral reef, they did not miss the narrow entrances through the reef to the infrequent shore settlements. Well north of Mombasa, near the ancient city of Gedi, early seafarers sighted a conspicuous beacon by which to fix their position - a dune of white coral sand, standing about two hundred feet above the darker vegetation. This dune, according to Mr. Nelson, is marked on the charts, Kilimanjaro. He then postulates that Rebmann's coastal porters, having marched for several weeks across the nearly waterless bush to the Teita hills, would first sight the mountain as a white dome rising above the darker ridges. Knowing nothing of ice and snow, they would describe the sight in terms of the only similar thing they knew, the well-known sand-dune, Kilimanjaro! This theory obviously has possibilities if one accepts the idea that the name is of non-Chagga origin and was, therefore, very probably, invented by porters from the coast. But it leaves unexplained how Kilimanjaro means 'a little white hill" even in Swahili, although the diminutive aspect is here satisfactorily explained. Unfortunately I have been unable to ascertain from Mr. Nelson the date of the chart on which he claims to have seen the name used. If this chart, in fact, ante-dates any mention of the name Kilimanjaro as the name of the mountain, then the investigation of its meaning among the coastal peoples might be fruitful. In this context, it has been pointed out to me (by a Mchagga!) that there is also a mountain in the Uluguru range called-Kilimanjaro! Which Kilimanjaro came first?

Dr. Reusch, in an article in T.N.R., accepts the derivation, Swahili, kilima njaro, 'the shining mountain', though without explaining the njaro element. Mr. H. A. Fosbrooke, whose considerable help in the preparation of this paper is gratefully acknowledged, concludes, after examining all the theories, that the name is of Kamba origin. He says that in the Kamba language the word ki-ima , is used for both ' hill ' and ' mountain ', thus overcoming the difficulty of the diminutive. From Johnston's Comparative Study of the Bantu and Semi-Bantu Languages (1919) , he takes the Kamba root for ' white ' to be -au or -eu , related to Taveta -ewa , Sambaa -zelu , Zaramu , -zeru . He therefore concludes that Thompson was right when he said that in former times the term njaro had been used to denote whiteness, but not all linguists agree that this is a logical conclusion. This brings us back to the kima jajeu of Krapfs Kamba informant.

A completely new line of approach can be obtained if one abandons all these attempts to start from kilima, Swahili, ' little hill ', or somehow, 'mountain', which inevitably produce the difficulty of explaining njaro . The Kamba theory apart, the great demerit of all the other theories is that they explain njaro from languages other than Swahili, thus producing a rather unlikely hybrid.

The term kilema in Kichagga , means ' which defeats '; kilelema 'which has become difficult or impossible ', i.e. which has defeated. Njaro can then be derived from njaare , a bird , or, according to other informants, a leopard , or, possibly from jyaro , a caravan .
According to one Chagga informant, the old men tell the story that long ago the Wachagga, having seen the snowy dome, decided to go up to investigate; naturally,they did not get very far. Hence the name: kilemanjaare , or kilemajyaro , or possibly kilelemanjaare etc.- 'which defeats,' or which is impossible for,-the bird, the leopard, or the caravan.' This is attractive as being entirely made up of Chagga elements based on an imaginable situation, but the fact remains that the name Kilimanjaro is not,
and apparently never has been, current among the Wachagga as the name of the mountain. Is this then only, as other Wachagga suggest, a latter-day attempt to find a Chagga explanation when pressed to do so by a foreign enquirer? Is it perhaps arguable that the early porters from the coast, hearing the Wachagga say kilemanjaare or kilemajyaro , meaning simply that it was impossible to climb the mountain , imagined this to be the name of the mountain, and associated it with their own kilima! Did they then report to the European leaders of the expedition that the name of the mountain was, their version of the Kichagga, which, further assimilated by the European hearer, finally became standardised as Kilimanjaro?.

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