The name Kilimanjaro is popular, not only in Tanzania but the world over. The mountain itself is famous for the right reasons and is featured in countless films like the famous Lion King, magazines, documentaries and even songs composed about this mountain. Standing above the clouds of Africa, like Mount Olympia in the Serengeti, you might also be wondering, how this mountain got its name. About how the mountain got its name and what the term actually means, there are several theories. There might be some validity to any number of hypotheses, which we shall address in more detail below. The majority of what we know was recorded by European explorers as they explored the area. Kilimanjaro’s definition is based on words from the Swahili, Chagga, and Maasai native languages of Tanzania.
No one is certain of the origin of the name Kilimanjaro despite intensive research into its origins, nor what it does signify, for that matter.
Who named it Kilimanjaro?
Although the meaning of the name Kilimanjaro is unknown, several ideas abound. By 1860, European explorers had adopted the name and claimed that the mountain’s Kiswahili name was Kilimanjaro. The peak is also referred to as Kilima-Njaro in the 1907 edition of The Nuttall Encyclopaedia.
In 1860, Johann Ludwig Krapf noted that coastal Swahilis referred to the peak as Kilimanjaro. He stated that Kilimanjaro signified either a mountain of glory or a mountain of caravans, but he offered no evidence to back this up. In the second sense, kilima denoted a mountain and jaro, a caravan. Again without evidence, Jim Thompson asserted in 1885 that “Kilima-Njaro has generally been believed to signify” the mountain of glory (kilima) (njaro). Additionally, he mentioned the snowy mountain, saying “but not improbable, it may indicate.”
Njaro means shining in the old Swahili dialect.
Similar to this, Krapf noted that a Wakamba chief he met in 1849 “had travelled to Jagga and had seen the Kima jajeu, mountain of whiteness, the name given by the Wakamba to Kilimanjaro.
This would be kiima kyeu more accurately in the Kikamba language, and this potential derivation has gained popularity among many researchers.
Some people think the word “kilima” means “mountain” in Kiswahili. This belief is incorrect since the term “kilima” really means “hill,” making it the diminutive of the word “mlima,” which is the correct Kiswahili word for mountain. The two Wachagga names Kibo and Kimawenzi may have caused an early European visitor with limited understanding of [Kiswahili] to modify mlima to kilima. An alternative perspective is to argue that the kileman in Kilimanjaro derives from the Kichagga words kileme, which mean to vanquish, or kilelema, which implies to be tough or impossible.
The word “jaro” would thus “then be derived from njaare, a bird; or, in the opinion of some sources, a leopard; or, potentially, from jyaro, a caravan” Given that the Wachagga people have never used the term Kilimanjaro, it’s probable that porters mistook the Wachagga proclamation that the mountain was insurmountable—kilemanjaare or kilemajyaro—for the mountain’s actual name.
Following the Kiswahili name components, the mountain was given the German name Kilima-Ndscharo in the 1880s when it was included in German East Africa. Hans Meyer ascended the highest summit of Kibo’s crater ridge on October 6, 1889. He gave it the name Kaiser-Wilhelm-Spitze (Kaiser Wilhelm peak).
After Tanzania was established in 1964, the mountain was given the new name Uhuru Peak, which translates to “liberation peak” in Kiswahili.
Is it a Chagga Name?
It makes sense to start your search for the name’s origin in one of the regional Tanzanian languages. We should concentrate on the dialect used by individuals who dwell in its shadow. They are the Chagga ethnic group.
True, there are no words in the Chagga language that the name Kilimanjaro has in common with. However, if we split it into two pieces, a few options become available. Kilima, which means “difficult or impossible,” is derived from the Chagga word kilelema, among other things. Jaro may have been derived from the Chagga words njaare (for “bird”) or jyaro (for “caravan”)
In other terms, Kilimanjaro’s name roughly translates to “That which is unattainable for the bird.” Or maybe “That which vanquishes the caravan.”
If this interpretation is right, these names are obvious allusions to the mountain’s immense size.
Although this translation is possibly the most plausible, it is not extremely persuasive on its own. This is especially true when you take into account the fact that, despite the name seemingly coming from the Chagga language, the Chagga people themselves don’t actually have a single word for the mountain.
Instead, they regard Mawenzi and Kibo as two different, distinct summits rather than Kilimanjaro as a one, cohesive mountain. (Incidentally, it is certain that the root of these two names is Chagga. Both words are derived from the Chagga words kipoo, which means snow, and kimawenzi, which means “having a jagged top or peak.”)
Might be a Swahili name…
Therefore, if Kilimanjaro isn’t Chagga in origin, Swahili would seem to be the most plausible basis for the name. The majority of Tanzanians speak this language. According to Johann Ludwig Krapf, a close friend and fellow missionary of Johannes Rebmann, Kilimanjaro may be a Swahili phrase that means “Mountain of Greatness.” Unfortunately, he is conspicuously silent when asked how he came to such a translation. He also proposed that it might be a hybrid Swahili/Chagga name that means “Mountain of Caravans.” (Jaro is Chagga for “caravans,” as we’ve previously explained.)
The numerous commercial caravans that would halt at the peak for water are hence perhaps the source of the name.
The primary problem with both of these hypotheses is that the word for the word mountain in Swahili is mlima, not kilima. Actually, the Swahili term for “hill” is kilima.
Or even a Maasai name?
Maasai is the third and least plausible dialect that Kilimanjaro might have descended from. This is the largest tribe in Kenya across the border. Njore, the Maasai term for spring or water, may have become confused with njaro through the years. Even if it were the case, no Maasai term equivalent to kilima exists in this context.
Also, the Maasai refer to the peak as Oldoinyo Oibor, which is Maasai for “White Mountain.” Indeed, Hemingway informed us at the outset of his – and our – book that Kibo itself is referred to as the “House of God.” Therefore, very few scholars think the name has Maasai roots.
One of the other hypotheses is that njaro means “whiteness.” Of course, this is referring to the snow crown that Kilimanjaro always sports. Or perhaps the bad spirit that resides on the mountain is known by the name Njaro. There are several legends of bad spirits residing atop Kilimanjaro who torture and even kill climbers, according to Chagga tradition. Johannes Rebmann, the first European to observe the peak, alludes to “Njaro, the guardian spirit of the mountain.” It should be noted, though, that there is no reference to a spirit by that name in the legends of the Chagga. We are therefore left in the dark. But it’s not significant, at least in that sense. The significance of the mountain to the 50,000 people who hike it each year is far greater than any name we might give it.
So where could the name Kilimanjaro have come from? Guess we will never know even who named it Kilimanjaro.