Places could be identified by names related to the activity that is most dominant in the area or connote a historical or cultural event that is consistent with the place.
In African societies, place names were not chosen on random whims. Apart from giving these places an identity and helping to distinguish one community from another, names of places were carefully selected to communicate meaning and significance to people.
Lagos, Nigeria. Pic credit: TN Experiences
Place names were deeply rooted in the cultural identity of Africans. Names given to places communicated the culture of the communities that occupied it.
Unfortunately, when Europeans started exploring the continent and eventually colonizing the continent, most of these places underwent name changes because the colonisers could not pronounce the original names.
Colonization took away the original names of value by either distorting its pronunciation or totally replacing it with new exotic names thus taking away the historical and cultural significance of these places.
Although it has been decades since most of the countries on the continent gained independence, some of its major cities continue to hold onto their colonial names and here are some of those cities.
The name Johannesburg is surrounded by many controversies regarding its origin. Some history documents say it was named after Johann Friedrich Bernhard Risik and Christian Johannes Joubert. However, many theories have come up to contradict this finding with the view that many people bearing the name ‘Johannes’ held positions of importance in the Zuid-Afrikaansche Republic (ZAR or Transvaal Republic) or were involved in the events leading up to the founding of the town. Precise record of the origin of the name is still not known. The city rose to prominence following the discovery of gold in June 1884 in Witwatersrand. Commonly referred to as Jo’burg, the city has risen to become the most prosperous and developed metropolis in Africa. Johannesburg is clearly of Afrikaans origin but its local name before it was given its present name remains unknown.
Nigeria’s largest and former capital city and also the largest city on the continent in terms of population was formerly called Eko and sometimes referred to as Onim. Eko which translates to war or military camp was named by the Awori people who were the occupants of the land before the arrival of the Portuguese. The name was changed to Lagos by the Portuguese who named it after the coastal city in Southern Portugal. The Portuguese used the place as a port for slave trade in the 1760s. Up until 1991, Lagos was the capital city of Nigeria. Nonetheless, it remains the country’s economic powerhouse.
Founded as ‘Ar-Ribat’ which means ‘Camp’, the city of Rabat was founded by Abd’al Mu’min in the 12th century as a fortified monastery where he could keep his soldiers during the jihad in Spain. Due to its military significance, it acquired the nickname Ribatu’l Fath which translates to ‘stonghold of victory’. It is one of the four regal cities located on the Atlantic Coast at the mouth of Wadi Bou Regreg opposite the city of Sale. The city of Ar-Ribat was later corrupted by the French to be Rabat after invading Morrocco and establishing a protectorate in 1912. The city attracted settlers as far back as the 8th century BC.
Port Harcourt (Igwe Ocha)
‘Iguocha’ from the ‘Ikwerre’ borrowed from Igbo “Ugwu Ocha” is the former name of one of the largest metropolitan cities in Nigeria, Port Harcourt. It means ‘bright skyline’ in Igbo. Port Harcourt is the largest city of Rivers State. The area was part of the farmlands of the Diobu Village of the Ikwerre people, a sub-group of the Igbo ethnic group. Port Harcourt has the major oil-refinery in Nigeria with two main refineries that process about 210,000 barrels of oil a day. The colonial administration created the port in 1912 to transport coal from Enugu. In 1913, Lord Lugard named the Port after Lewis Vermon Harcourt who was the secretary of state for the colonies at the time.