From Mtito Andei to Kirinyaga: How different towns got their names

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Mtito Andei

Kenya has intriguing tales about how some of its places, towns, and locations got their names, including its official name, Kenya.

Once upon a time, Kenya was known as the British East Africa Protectorate. It was given this name by the Imperial East Africa Company, a company that was given the responsibility by Britain to set up and administer the colonial asset.  

When taking over the administration task, no name such as Kenya existed among the tribes making up the protectorate area.

When Ludwig Krapf claimed that he had found the name Kiinya (referring to today’s Mt Kenya) among the Kamba (during his documented visit to Chief Kivoi in 1849), it was challenged when he presented it back at home. 

With the continued struggle for a piece of East Africa’s legendary history, explorers upon explorers had different views on the locals’ name for the mysterious landmark that they came across during their exploration escapades.  

Captain Hinde and Mackinder were later to nail the coffin of the debate when they confirmed that indeed, the Kamba had a name (Kiinya) for the mountain, the Agikuyu referred to it as 'Kirinyaga', meaning “mountain of whiteness”, because of its snowcapped peak. When the word is split into two – “kiri”, and “nyaga, it translates to the mountain that has (kiri) ostriches (Nyaga).  

Kirinyaga County

Upon taking over the administrative task handed to it by the British, IEAC divided the colony into territories (provinces), and later when it became a British Colony, it was named Kenya, after corrupting the Kamba and Kikuyu names.  

On record, are debates that happened locally and at the headquarters on the name to be given to the colony.  

Many of the present names of places and locations are shrouded in legend, while others are named after prominent names, culture, or historical events. For example, the town of Wote, the capital of Makueni County, and the former Eastern Province. Wote town is named after the Kiswahili word for “all”.  

During the colonial era, the town was the command centre for the colonial District Officer, who periodically called meetings for all area residents who would come and gather outside his office to receive instructions. With time the residents concocted the phrase “Wote” about the DC’s periodic summon to all.  

Further down the former Eastern Province is Marsabit whose name has a similar historical connotation as that of Wote. The story is that the name is derived from the Amharic phrase “Marsa Beit” which translates to “Marsa’s home”.

The narration says that there lived a famous, important, hardworking, and benevolent farmer who visited the location so many times, fell in love with it and finally settled around Mount Marsabit’s slopes.  

Locals started referring to his settlement (home) as “Marsa’s home”, which would later evolve into the name of the growing town.  

Today, the former outpost of urban civilisation in the northern Kenya desert, which is situated on an isolated extinct volcano (Mount Marsabit) is known as Marsabit.