The Origins of African Country Names And What They Mean

The origins of African country names are predominantly Arabic and they generally denote geographic features or tribes. Some common country names include Sudan, Kenya, Nigeria and Somalia. The meaning of these names is often rooted in Arab history or mythology.

For example, the Sudanese name for their country means “land of the blacks.” Similarly, Kenya derives its name from the Kikuyu tribe who resided there prior to British colonization and Nigeria was named after a group of Nigerian hunters who trekked through central Africa in search of wildlife during the late 19th century.

Algeria – Named after the capital city Algiers or Al-Jazair (“The Island”) in Arabic. A reference to the small islands that once dotted the bay of the city.

Angola – When Portuguese mariner Diego Cao landed at the mouth of the Congo River in 1483, two distinct Kingdoms ruled the region. The Kingdom of the Bakongo reigned in the north. The Quimbundos Kingdom, also known as Ndongo, dominated in the western and central areas. The king of the Quimbundos was called “Ngola”. The region, taking its name from the king, became Angola.

Benin(Formerly Dahomey) named after the ancient Nigerian Kingdom of Benin. The former name Dahomey, pronounced Dan Ho Me (“on the belly of Dan”) was an ancient Kingdom located in the south of what is modern-day Benin Republic.


Botswana – A name used to collectively describe the Tswana, the country’s dominant ethnic group. Formerly known as Bechuanaland, Bechauna being an alternative spelling for Botswana.

Burkina Faso – Mossi for “Land of Incorruptible Men” was changed to this from Upper Volta in 1984. Upper Volta reffered to its geographical location in relation to the Volta river.

Burundi – Derives from Rundi (Kirundi) the language universally spoken throughout Burundi.

Cameroon (also Cameroun in French) – The name is derived from Rio de Camarões (the River of Prawns) the name given to River Wouri by Portuguese Explorers in the 15th century.

Cape Verde (Cabo Verde) – Named after the westernmost point in mainland Africa. The nearest point on the continent to this Island Nation.

Central African Republic (CAR) – It’s in Central Africa! Africa is believed to have originated from either the Latin word aprica (“Sunny”) or greek aphrike (“without cold”) and originally applied to North Africa. However as Europe discovered the extent of continental Africa, the term came to match its modern day usage.

Chad – The name appears to derive from the Lake which forms it South-Western border with Nigeria.

Comoros – The name “Comoros” is derived from the Arabic kamar or kumr, meaning “moon,” although this name was first applied by Arab geographers to Madagascar. It was adopted by French Colonialists to describe the Islands.

Congo – Named after the 15th Kingdom of Kongo which thrived on both banks of the River Congo, extending into Modern day Congo, Congo DR, Angola and Zambia.

Congo DR (DRC) – As Above. Also formerly known as Zaire a traditional local name for River Congo.

Cote d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast) – The Reference by European traders to the availabiilty of Ivory Tusks.

Djibouti – (Fomerly Territory of the Afars and Issas) Named after the Port capital.

Egypt – Direct geographical descendent of Ancient Egypt.

Equatorial Guinea – Guinea derives from the berber word aguinaw, or gnawa (“black man”), which Berbers (Nomadic Saharan Peoples) have used to describe most of West Africa.

Eritrea – The Latin phrase Mare Erythraeum (“Red Sea”) was used by Italy to describe its colonies in the horn of Africa. This later became Eritrea and was adopted by the country on independence from Ethiopia.

Ethiopia – Direct geographical descendent of Ancient Ethiopia.

Gabon – Gabon’s first European visitors were Portuguese traders who arrived in the 15th century and subsequent Portuguese references refered to it as Gabon after the Portuguese word gabao, a coat with sleeves and hood resembling the shape of the Como River estuary, where they first explored.

Gambia – Named after the River Gambia which flows through the Country.

Ghana – Named after the Ancient West African Kingdom of Ghana. See Ancient Ghana.

Guinea-Bissau – See Equatorial Guinea.

Kenya – Named after the mountain of the same name. and this in turn derives it name from The Kikuyu, who refer to the mountain as Kirinyaga, or Kere-Nyaga (“Mountain of Whiteness”).

Lesotho – Named after the Sotho People, the dominant Ethnic Group. Formerly known as Basutoland.

Liberia – Derived from the Latin word liber (“Free”) – Reference to the return of Freed American Slaves who founded the modern Republic of Liberia.

Libya – In 1934, Italy adopted the name “Libya” (used by the ancient Greeks for all of North Africa, except Egypt) as the official name of their new colony, which consisted of the Provinces of Cyrenaica, Tripolitania, and Fezzan.

Madagascar – The origin of the Madagascar is uncertain, some people believe the European Traveller Marco Polo (who never visted

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