How Kenya Got Its Name

How Kenya Got Its Name

Kenya, a country known for its stunning landscapes, diverse wildlife, and vibrant culture, has a name with an intriguing history.

Have you ever wondered how Kenya got its name?

Let’s delve into the fascinating story behind the name of this East African nation.

The Origin of the Name

Kenya was named after its majestic mountain, Mount Kenya, which holds the distinction of being the second-highest peak in Africa.

The name “Kenya” itself has its roots in the indigenous Kikuyu language, spoken by the Kikuyu people who inhabited the region surrounding Mount Kenya.

The Kikuyu people referred to the mountain as “Kirinyaga” or “Kerenyaga,” which translates to “mountain of whiteness” in their language.

This name alludes to the captivating sight of the snow-capped peak of Mount Kenya.

The contrast between the dark rock and the glistening white snow resembled the feathers of the male ostrich, a bird known for its vibrant plumage.

The British Influence

Interestingly, the name “Kenya” emerged due to the linguistic challenges faced by the British during their colonial rule.

The British struggled to pronounce the original name, “Kirinyaga,” accurately. This difficulty led to the evolution of the name into its current form, “Kenya.”

The Role of Johann Ludwig Krapf

The earliest recorded version of the modern name “Kenya” can be attributed to the German explorer Johann Ludwig Krapf, who traversed the region in the 19th century.

During his journey, Krapf encountered a Kamba caravan led by Chief Kivoi.

It was Chief Kivoi who provided Krapf with the local name for Mount Kenya.

Chief Kivoi referred to the mountain as “Kĩ-Nyaa” or “Kĩĩma-Kĩĩnyaa.”

The resemblance between the mountain’s appearance and the striking black and white feathers of the male ostrich likely inspired Chief Kivoi’s choice of words.

In the archaic Kikuyu language, the term “nyaga” or “manyaganyaga” signifies an exceptionally bright object.

The Variations of the Name

Johann Ludwig Krapf recorded the name as both “Kenia” and “Kegnia.”

Another mention of the name “Kenia” appeared on an 1882 map drawn by Joseph Thompsons, a Scottish geologist and naturalist.

Thompsons depicted the mountain as “Mt. Kenia.”

Over time, this name gained acceptance and came to represent the entire country, serving as a pars pro toto.

During the early colonial period, however, when Kenya was referred to as the East African Protectorate, the name did not gain widespread official usage.

It was not until 1920 that the country’s official name was changed to the Colony of Kenya.

Kenya’s Original Name

Before it became known as Kenya, the country bore the name “Kirinyaga,” derived from the Kikuyu language. “Kirinyaga” translates to “mountain of whiteness,” capturing the enchanting image of Mount Kenya’s snow-covered summit.

The First European Encounter

The credit for the first European discovery of Kenya goes to the renowned Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama.

In 1498, da Gama arrived on the East African coast, venturing into the territory that would later become Kenya.

His voyage marked the initial contact between Europeans and the land that held the future nation of Kenya.


The name “Kenya” carries with it a rich history intertwined with the linguistic nuances of the local Kikuyu language and the British colonial influence.

It emerged from the indigenous name “Kirinyaga” and found acceptance through the efforts of explorers like Johann Ludwig Krapf and the mapping endeavors of Joseph Thompsons.

Next time you gaze upon the captivating landscapes of Kenya or plan a visit to its renowned national parks, remember the story behind its name—a name that captures the splendor and diversity of this remarkable East African nation.

Kenya got its name from the Kikuyu word “Kirinyaga,” meaning “mountain of whiteness.” The British, unable to pronounce it correctly, evolved it into the present-day name “Kenya.” The first European to discover Kenya was Vasco da Gama in 1498.



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