FastFacts: How did Kilimanjaro get its name?

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FastFacts is a segment on our blog where we give you a quick rundown of facts or trivia related to our various locations. If there’s any particular place you want to hear more about, drop us a line at info@adventureabroad.com.au

Have you ever stopped to wonder what “kilimanjaro” means or where the name came from? We did! It turns out that nobody really knows exactly where the name came from, though there are a few theories. Here are a few FastFacts!

The Wachagga don’t have a name for Kilimanjaro

The Wachagga people, who live on Kilimanjaro itself, don’t even have a name for it! This is because instead of viewing Kilimanjaro as a whole, they consider it to be composed of two peaks, namely Kibo and Mawenzi.

The name Kibo comes from the Chaga word “kipoo” which means “spotted” and refers to the black rocks that stand out from the snow. Mawenzi on the other hand, comes from the word “kimawenze” meaning “jagged” referring to the jagged appearance of the Mawenzi peak.

It was first recorded as “Kilimanjaro” in 1860

A German missionary by the name of Johann Ludwig Krapf was the first to publicly refer to the mountain as “Kilimanjaro” in his book Missionary Labours. He claimed that Kilimanjaro meant either “mountain of greatness” or “mountain of caravans” from the words “kilima” meaning mountain and “jaro” meaning caravans, although he doesn’t explain how he came to this interpretation.

Nobody can quite agree on the root language

When Krapf claimed the name originated from kilima-jaro, he actually mixes two different languages. “Kilima” is the Swahili word for “hill” and “jaro” is the Wachagga word for “caravan”. He also erroneously claimed that the Wachagga name for the mountain was “kibo” meaning snow. As we already know, that is completely inaccurate!

Another theory is that the name was misinterpreted from the Wachagga claiming that the mountain was unclimbable. In Chaga, “kileme” means “that which defeats” or “kilelema” meaning “difficult” or “impossible”. “Njaro” may have derived from “njaare” meaning bird or, according to other sources, a leopard, or possibly even from “jyaro” meaning “caravan” All of these together would have produced “kilemanjaare” or “kilemajyaro” in the Chaga language to say that the mountain was unclimbable or undefeatable, which foreigners may have misinterpreted to be the mountain’s name.

Regardless of where the name comes from, Kilimanjaro is now a name that is recognized the world over. Now, the name Kilimanjaro calls to mind images of a majestic snowy giant, surrounded by the resplendent African savannahs.

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