Kilimanjaro – What does the name really mean?

kilimanjaro in the distanceOver the years Kilimanjaro has become synonymous with exotic adventure. Yet, surprisingly, the powerful name has no agreed-on translation. In the local Chagga dialect it can mean “Mountain of Greatness” or even “Mountain of Caravans.” In Swahili, Kilimanjaro might be “Shining Mountain,” “Mountain of the Cold Devils,” or even the unlikely “Little Mountain.” The nearby Maasai tribes call it the “White Mountain.” In the end, the translation many people have settled on is from the Swahili word kilima, which means “top of the hill,” and njaro, which presumably refers in some way to the snow. But no one really knows for sure. The origin of the name doesn't really matter though.  Once you start climbing it I'm sure you'll come up with a few of your own translations.  Share your personal nick-names for Kilimanjaro on our Facebook page.
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  1. Wacira Karuri
    October 4, 2013 | Permalink

    OMG what the hell is Jarnief Gardien talking about? I am a kikuyu and oral historian and the name “Kilimanjaro” have nothing do with Arabic or swahili. The mountain is not visible from anywhere in the Coast where the waswahili people live, so why would a swahili named it?

    “Kirima” is a kikuyu word which means mountain. If its a small mountain, or a hill, its called “Karima”.. and if its a bunch of mountains, the plural word is “irima”.
    “Njaro” comes from the Kikuyu word “Njeru” which means white…Even today, you can go to Kikuyu land and you find people with names like “Karima” or “waKarima”, meaning “son of Karima” and “Njeru” or “wanjeru”meaning “Son of Njeru” of “son of the white”

    From Kikuyu land, whose central governing point was and still is central Murang’a, about 40 or 60 miles north of Nairobi, on a blue sky clear day, 4 mountains are visible and they were all have kikuyu names. These are Mt. Kenya to the North, Mt. Kilimanjaro to the South, barely visible but quite visible from Dagoreti hill in Nairobi) Mt. Kilimambogo to the east, and Aberdares ranges to the west.

    Mt. Kenya was known as “kirima-nyaga”. “nyaga” is a kikuyu word meaning “Ostrich”, so the term “kirima-nyaga” literally means “the ostrich mountain” or “Kirinyaga”. The Kikuyu also called the mountain, “kirima-kia-ngai” meaning the “mountain of God”… or “kiringai” and this is because of several reasons. (1) the Kikuyu believed God lived in Mt. Kenya, thus Kikuyus sometimees called it “Kiringai” meaning, “its got God” or “Gods dwelling”… (2) other times they called is “kirinyaga” meaning, “its got an ostrich” because when looking at the mountain from the south, it looked like a kneeling Ostrich.. thus, “Kilima-Nyaga”.. Today, the county in which the mountain stands is called “Kirinyaga”…well the Akamba who were in constant contact with the Swahili people who ventured into the interior looking for ivory and slaves could not barely enter Kikuyu land…The akamba traded with the Kikuyu and during times of drought, (and they still do that today), they came to Kikuyu land to trade for food. Even though Kikuyus and Kambas understand each others languages, Kamba could not and still do not pronounce kikuyu names properly. Instead of saying “Kilima-nyaga”, or “Kiri-nyaga” they said, “keenyaaa” and the white guy “Dr. Ludwing Kraff” who was the first European to reach Akamba land heard, “Keeenia” but when Dr. Kraff tried to expressly pronounce the word, it sounded like “Keenya” thus, today, Kilima-nyaga” or kirinyaga is now known as Mt. Kenya.. When the British decided to develop a colony in what was then the east african protectorate to pay for the railroad construction to Uganda, they named the colony after Mt. Kenya because they found the land adjacent to Kikuyu land to be the most likely to attract settlers from England.. The present day country of Kenya comes from this name “Kenya” which is a white mans corruption of the word “kirinyaga”.. Therefore, this has nothing to do with Arabic or swahili origins.

    Mt. Kilimanjaro was known by Kikuyus as “Kirima-kia-njeru” or “kirinjeru” meaning “the white mountain” or literally, “the mountain of white” because from Kikuyu land, it looks like a white mountain…The mountain is also visible from Akamba land and just like mt. Kenya, they were the first to come into contact with porters and explorers travelling from the Coast into the interior so when they were asked, “what is that? they said, “Keemajaro” and the Dr. Kraff heard, “kilimanjaro” and so they recorded it as Kilimanjaro”

    Mt. Kilimambogo is the highest peak that borders Kikuyu land and Akamba land. The kikuyu called it “kirima-kia-mbogo” meaning, “the buffalo mountain” because that is where the African bufaloes grazed and roamed the flatlands bordering present day Machakos which was formerly Akamba Chief Masaku’s Camp, on the south and Mbeere on the North.. The Akamba called is “Keemambogo”..Today, you can see the mountain from Thika town, 20 miles north of Nairobi on the Thika-Garrisa river.

    Aberdare ranges were named after a town in England but British settles due to the vast expansion of free fertile land which later came to be known as the “white highlands” after the establishment of the Kenya colony.. the british found the ranges so similar to the ranges off the village of Aberdare in England where all the aristocrat farmers lived that they named the range “Aberdare”..

    well before then, it was known as the “irima-cia-Nyanda-rua” which means, “the mountains of the spreader of hides” because from Kikuyu land, the range looked like a “hide spread out to dry in the sun”… with its hooks “nyambo” protruding from the sides, (which is what is Mt. Longonot on the south, and the Mau Escarpment to the north) and during the dry season, the landscape turns golden brown like a dried cow hide.. thus kikuyus called is “Nyanda-rua” or the “the hide drier” range.

    And that is where these names comes.. they have nothing to do with arabic or swahili.. My God… where do these so called researchers get this stuff?

    • Ganief Jardien
      November 7, 2013 | Permalink

      Greetings & Respect fellow African , Wacira Karuri and a very good day
      to the Community in this discussion forum Blog ,. Which I believe the Site hosts have
      erected in a spirit of Providing Information on a Significant World Heritage Site ,
      namely , Mount Kilimanjaro .

      Firstly ,My Name is Ganief Jardien and not ” Jamief Gardien ” .
      I appreciate the valuable Oral Tradition in the local native tongue
      which you have so graphically analysed . The ” Lost in Translation ” effect is
      a Common and only Very Human Phenomenon.
      Kilimanjaro , according to you originally should read ” kirima-kia-njero ”
      The explanation is plausible and the LINGUISTIC TOOL which you have employed
      is LOGIC , which is the BASIS of LANGUAGE EVOLUTION .
      Now , the PREMISE and POINT of Departure on which I based my exegesis
      of the NAME “Kilimanjaro ” are from the GENERAL INFORMATION and
      Local References on THIS VERY WEBSITE ( see introduction ” Kilima = on top of the Mountain ( Swahili )
      as well as from other WEBSITES , Travel Adventure sites , etc.

      Assuming your analysis to be TRUE and based on Indigenous Folklore and the local KIKUYU
      Vernacular Interpretation . The CORRUPTION of the Original FORM , according to your
      Historical Sources ” Kirimanjaro ” is MISSPELT and MIS-TRANSLATED into , amongst others , the English
      as well as in the SWAHILI Dialect . Now , although ” Kirima ” in KIKUYU means ” mountain ”
      ” Kilima ” in SWAHILI also means ” hill ” or ” hillock ” , THUS , although , the ORIGINAL FORM
      in the LOCAL NATIVE TONGUE of KIKUYU has been ” Lost in Translation ” the ESSENTIAL MEANING
      and CONCEPT has been PRESERVED . So , in Swahili Terminology ( LOGICAL TERMS)
      the Swahili Form ,” KILIMANJARO ” to a SWAHILI-SPEAKER is BOTH Logical and Preserves andCONVEYS the Essential Meaning .
      The ” njeru ” which according to you means ” white ” or ” snow ” ( which Conveys the ESSENTIAL Meaning of VISIBLE , or CLEARLY VISIBLE as opposite
      to ” dark ” ) , Now , if one has to draw the NEAREST COGNATE word in the VAST & RICH ARABIC VOCABULARY , is ” Jahr ” in Arabic which
      means ” CLEAR ” ” MANIFEST ” ” BOLD ” ” Loud and clear ” ” EVIDENT ” -( “johar ” also means ‘ Matter , Natural Element or particle ( like snow , for example ) .
      this is Clearly cognate with ” njeru ” = white or snow
      ” jaar ” in the Arabic means a Fortress , a Mountain Refuge , hence , a Bold , Imposing and impressive Bulwark .
      This is only ONE of THOUSANDS (if not millions ) of Examples of Words ” Lost in Translation ” .
      The ” UHURU PEAK ” Means ” freedom ” Peak , from the Swahili ” uhuru ” , which was derived without a Shadow of Doubt
      from the Arabic root ” hur ” or ” gur ” , which means ” free ” , “liberty ” .
      HISTORY acknowledges the Trans-Saharan Trade Route across AFRICA , conveyed via CAMEL CARAVANS from Timbuktu in Mali to
      neighbouring African Kingdoms , the Niger-Congo Belt , Ethiopia (Abyssinia ) as far as Egypt , which , NATURALLY Conveyed NOT only essential goods ,
      like Salt , Cloth ,Gold , etc. BUT also to CONVEY Information , Knowledge , Culture , Language ,
      Furthermore , The English Language , which is the LINGUA FRANCA and VEHICLE , of the Modern Media
      EVOLVED from its PREDECESSOR , Classic Latin-Greek ( and Old German ) , which were the Lingua Franca
      of the OLD WORLD . During the Middle Ages , Arabic was considered to be the LINGUA FRANCA , and
      the ENGLISH VOCABULARY is ample TESTAMENT to the INFLUENCE of Arabic ; the Essential Characteristics of a LINGUA FRANCA
      is that it is a LEARNED LANGUAGE , that is , its ETYMOLOGY and Evolution of Words is based on LOGIC and FACTUAL DATA and
      Algebraic deductions ( incidentally ” algebra ” is derived from : ” al + jibra ” , in Arabic )
      , e.g ” paragraph ” = para + graphos ( ” graphos ” in Greek = letter , symbol ) ; ” garaph” in Arabic and HEBREW means ” letter ” or ” curve ” . ” ALPHABET = ” alpha ” + ” beta ” ( two letters in GREEK alphabet ”
      Alif + ba + ta = the First Three letters in the Arabic and Hebrew languages .
      CLEARLY there is MUTUAL RESONANCE and a COMMON THREAD which BINDS these CLASSICAL Adamic Languages – they seem to ORIGINATE from a COMMON SOURCE .

      P.S. – WC if you feel so strongly motivated by the MISCONCEPTIONS surrouding the NAME of Kilimanjaro WHY has no one approached
      the AUTHORITIES and put up a PLAQUE or Tourist Totem expounding the NATIVE ROOTS in the KIKUYU Tongue . Why wait till a CLOUD
      of Mystery to Cast its Shadow on this Magnificent Volcano . Its quite a Simple Effective Means , its uncalled for Controversy to well up
      over such a grandiose Topograpy .

      Best wishes – Ganief Jardien

  2. Ganief Jardien
    July 21, 2013 | Permalink

    I am an researcher in the Arabic , Hebrew -African Language-Family , which seem to share a Common
    Foundation . ” Kilmanjaro ” in Swahili ” meaning ” ” Shining Mount ” – now ” mlima ” in Swahil means ” mountain ” ” kiliman” is generally ( and logically ) INTERPRETED as ” on top of the mountain ”
    In the Arabic language , from which Swahili draws EXTENSIVELY , (1) ” lama’a ” means to SHINE ; flash or be Luminous ” ( the ENGLISH word ” illuminate , “luminous ” in all aspects is cognate and derived from the Same Arabic root , that is ” lama’a ” = to illuminate ” – ” lumen ” in Greek = light = ki+liman in Swahili .
    “mlima ” in Swahili means a Montain , which is cognate with the Arabic Root ” lamma ” = a Collection , a Mass ,or Accumulation ; hence , by Logical inference a Mass or amassing of this Huge Volcano – incidentally , Kilmanjaro is a Volcano which gathers , collects or amasses Subterranean Lava rocks and can Potentially Erupt once it reaches its LIMIT .
    The Uhuru Peak ( one of the Kilimanjaro summits ) in Swahili means ” Freedom Peak ” which derives from the Arabic Root ” Gur ” , meaning ” free – Tagreer in Arabic means ” liberation , freedom ( as in Tagreer Square in Cairo which was the centre of the Liberation Movement in the Arabic Spring .

    the “jaro ” in Kilmanjaro is interpreted as ” Caravan ” or ” bird ” or ” leopard ” – hence , “Kilimanjaro ” would IMPLY ” gathering ” of the ” caravans ” of migrating birds .
    Now ” ajara ” in the Arabic means ” to serve as a “Shelter ” , ” Refuge ” ” Protection ” ” Bulwark ” ‘Buffer”, so Kilimanjaro , in this line of LOGIC would INTERPRET as ” Mountain Refuge ” , which , in terms of its Significant role in Weather ( a “mlima ” ( = mountain ) is a Buffer , protection , shelter against hostile sea winds , storms , etc.; it LIMITS violent outbreaks of climatic changes

    Thank you –

    I hope this Expositiion has Shed some ” Lumen ” ( = light ) on ” Ki-liman + jaro – “the Luminous Refuge” or ” Beacon of Light ” of AFRICA .
    PLEASE give feedback on this visionary interpretation .

    Ganief Jardien
    Port Elizabeth
    South Africa

    • ddorr
      July 27, 2013 | Permalink

      Wow, what a great addition! Thanks for sharing the details of your research.

      • Ganief Jardien
        August 4, 2013 | Permalink

        You’re more than welcome , Dan .

        Sorry for some Obvious Typing Errors !

        Thanks for hosting this Beautiful Concept of Kilimanjaro , on your page , forum, which, in many ways can be likened to a Totem-pole of World Freedom ( Uhuru Peak = ” Freedom peak ) a Climb , a ” Reach for a Dream ” . to echo our last President Nelson Mandela’s words on his Release from Robben Island after 27 years ” My Long Walk to Freedom “summarising the Human Spirit’s Indomitable Quest for freedom , liberty of mind , body and spirit ..

        The Chinese Proverb : ” a Picture Paints a Thousand Words ” , I reckon, has a Flip-side , considering the EVOLUTION of Language , it should read :

        ” a Word Paints ( conjures) a Thousand Pictures (images) ”

        I will contribute more of my research on the Significance and , Rightfully Powerful Name “Kilimanjaro ” if you wish ..

        Ganief Jardien
        Author , researcher in Afro-Semitic and Indo-European Languages
        Port Elizabeth ( in the ” Sunshine Coast ” ,Eastern Cape , Republic of South Africa )

  3. Reanna
    January 15, 2013 | Permalink

    Kilimanjaro means shining mountain

  4. January 3, 2013 | Permalink

    Great article, loves reading it. Please share some more information on it.

  5. Emma Tameside
    August 28, 2012 | Permalink

    I quite literally can not stop reading about Kilimanjaro, a few friends and I have recently started preparing for our own Kilimanjaro climb, hopefully sometime in September. The excitement leads me to countless articles on the subject haha! Although I’ve been interested in climbing Kilimanjaro for many years now, I never actually knew what the name meant. Hopefully I’ll be able to give you some feedback on my own translation after the climb!

    I’ll be reading further into this website, it’s definitely the sort of preparation I need, and I’m sure my friends will be as grateful for the resources! Thank you for the read.

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