Why correcting names of our lakes, mountains and towns matters

Dear Tingasiga;
His Majesty iNgwenyama Mswati III Dlamini has decreed that his realm, hitherto known as Swaziland, shall henceforth be called the Kingdom of eSwatini (or Umbuso weSwatini). He gave two reasons. First, a return to the roots was long overdue. Second, His Majesty was tired of his kingdom being confused with Switzerland.

As expected many, including some of his subjects, have greeted the royal declaration with derision. They cite the need for royal attention to the kingdom’s grim development indices to be more urgent than a change in the kingdom’s name.

Their argument is well grounded, of course. eSwatini, officially classified as a lower-middle income country, is a classic rich nation of poor citizens. More than 63 per cent of its 1.3 million citizens live in poverty.

Fully 30 per cent of emaSwati (the people of eSwatini) are living with HIV/Aids, the highest prevalence in the world. Life expectancy at birth has dropped to 49 years.

These depressing facts and the complete absence of political freedom in what King Mswati III declared to be a “monarchical democracy” in 2013, can easily dampen one’s celebration of what would otherwise be good news from eSwatini. However, His Majesty’s decision is right and long overdue. The identity of a people matters. Removal of all negative traces of colonialism, even symbolic ones, matters. Continued acceptance of the insult betrays those who gave their lives in the struggle for our freedom.

We have a duty to expunge the arrogant actions of men who believed that the advent of the European in sub-Saharan Africa was the beginning of history and civilisation on our continent.

They could not be bothered to learn and adopt the correct names of their conquered territories. An approximate name was sufficient for their purposes. So, for example, where the Batswana lived became Bechuanaland; Basutoland for the Basotho; Somaliland for the Somali; and Swaziland for emaSwati or Swazi. Had the Baganda not been lumped together with neighbouring territories, we would have had Bagandaland or Wagandaland.

It was worse in West Africa where descriptors of commodities that the Europeans were harvesting along the coast became the names of their colonies. We had the Gold Coast, the Slave Coast and Ivory Coast. In areas where artificial creations gathered multiple nations into single colonies, local names were mutilated to baptise the new countries.

Examples include Uganda (from Buganda) and Kenya (probably from Kirinyaga, or Kirenyaa or Kiinyaa – all referring to the great mountain in that country where God lived). The British Central Africa Protectorate was baptised Nyasaland, after the Chichewa word for “lake” that probably also referred to the Nyasa people.

The worst, of course, were cases where colonies were named after the Europeans. Northern and Southern Rhodesia were the prize colonies of Cecil John Rhodes. The colonialists demonstrated their greatest arrogance in naming lakes and mountains, which they claimed to have “discovered.” Examples from Uganda include Lake Nalubaale, which became Victoria; Lake Rweru or Rwitanzigye, which became Edward; Lake Mwitanzige, which became Albert and Lake Kasheenyi, which became George.

Various mountain peaks in the Rwenjura range are named after an assortment of British people who never climbed them. Other natural formations and areas became misnamed because of a mixture of arrogance and carelessness. The great Rwenjura Mountains became Rwenzori. The volcanic Ibirunga (Birunga) became Virunga, a consequence of the soft “b” which, to the European ear, sounded like “v”.

Among the Birunga, the great Mount Muhabura (the guide) became “Muhavura”, a meaningless misnomer. Its smaller sibling, Mugahinga, lost a vowel to become Mgahinga. Even today, road signs and tourist brochures continue to misspell them.

My home district in southwest Uganda, the last to be incorporated into the Uganda Protectorate, was named after ikigyezi, a Kinyarwanda/Kifumbira word meaning a pond. Ikigyezi gave the name to the place in Bufumbira where the British established their first camp on June 19, 1909. The new district quickly became mispronounced and misspelled as Kigezi (Key-gay-zee) instead of the correct name, Kigyezi (Chee-jay-zee).

Other place names in my neighbourhood that were rendered meaningless by this carelessness include Kabaare (Kabale), Kamuheesi (Kamwezi) and Muti. This last one was the name of a place in Nkore whose grasslands caught the Englishman’s eye. Upon being told that the grasslands were called emburara, the Englishman heard “m-mba-ra-ra”. The meaningless name stuck. The correct one – Mburara – is a hard sell to even the locals who know its meaning. Fortunately, many societies have corrected these errors of colonial arrogance. They are too many to list here, for they are found on every continent where European colonialists reached.

A few examples from Africa will illustrate the point. Cities and towns: N’djamena (Fort Lamey), Banjul (Bathurst), Kinshasa (Leopoldville), Kisangani (Stanleyville), Lubumbashi (Elizabethville), Bukavu (Costmansville), Webuye (Broderick Falls), Muranga (Fort Hall), Nyahururu (Thomson Falls), Manzini (Bremersdorp), Kabwe (Broken Hill), Gweru (Gwelo), Mutare (Umtali), Harare (Salisbury), Maputo (Lourenco Marques), Luanda (Sao Paolo Assuncao da Loanda), Gaborone (Gaberones), Malabo (Santa Isabel).

The countries: Ghana (Gold Coast), Togo (Togoland/Slave Coast), Botswana (Bechuanaland), Lesotho (Basutoland), Malawi (Nyasaland), Zimbabwe (Southern Rhodesia), Zambia (Northern Rhodesia), Burkina Faso (Upper Volta), Benin (Dahomey), Namibia (South West Africa).
Interestingly, Field Marshall Idi Amin Dada, former Ugandan president, attempted to reclaim the identity of some of Uganda’s treasured gifts of nature. Unfortunately, vanity got in the way of a good idea, and he renamed one lake after himself (Lake Edward) and another after Mobutu Sese Seko, the Zairean dictator.

However, he got it right when he named our great falls after Kabarega (Murchison Falls) and reclaimed our national park from Queen Elizabeth. Though he misnamed it Rwenzori National Park (it should have been Rwenjura), his heart was in the right place.

His educated successors promptly reversed Amin’s decisions and put a smile on the faces of the sons descendants of the colonialists. Yes, the British screwed us up and we happily perpetuate their misdeeds. Happily, it is not too late to emulate iNgwenyama of eSwatini on this front. Correct identity matters.

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