You’ll Never Believe How These African Countries Got Their Names

By Kelsey Marie


Almost every country in the world is named after either a feature of the country, an influential person or tribe, or a directional description of the land.

The majority of African countries’ names are reminders of early colonialism.

African countries also follow suit with their names except with more intricate and interesting storylines.

Here are interesting ways African countries got their names:

Burkina Faso

In 1984, the name ‘Burkina Faso’, meaning “land of incorruptible people” was adopted by the president at that time, Thomas Sankara.


Cameroon was first colonized by Germany, later being partitioned by France and Britain, but it was a Portuguese man who gave the country its name in the 15th century.

The Portuguese explorer was traveling across the Wouri river (one of the largest rivers in Cameroon) when he renamed it Rio dos Camarões (shrimp river) because of the abundance of shrimp he saw in the river.

The name stuck throughout the years, evolving into the Cameroon we know of today.


Prior to the name Ethiopia, the country was named Abyssinia. Ethiopia derived its name from the Greek form, aithiopia which means “burnt-face” as a noun and “red-brown” as an adjective.


In the 15th century, Portuguese traders arrived in Gabon and named it Gaboa (coat) because the shape of the Como River Estuary resembled a coat with sleeves and a hood.


The British were exploring and came across a snow-capped mountain in East Africa that the Kikuyu people called Kirinyaga (where God dwells).

Mt. Kenya
Photo by Bonface on Unsplash

The Brits had trouble pronouncing Kirinyaga and began calling the mountain Mt. Kenya instead.

Mt. Kenya ended up being the inspiration for the naming of the country Kenya.


Liberia is the oldest republic on the continent and became an independent country in 1847. The country was established by freed African-American slaves and was named for liberty.


The second-largest island country gets its name because of a clerical error by Marco Polo. That’s right, the 13th-century Italian explorer never even visited the land but it is said that he had mistaken it for Mogadishu and wrote it into his memoirs.

The Italians transliteration of Mogadishu eventually evolved into the name Madagascar.


The hippopotamus is a symbol of strength in Malian culture. The country got its name from the Bambara word for hippopotamus which also means “the place where the King lives.”

Legend has it that Sundiata Keita, founder of the Malian empire transformed into a hippopotamus after his death and continued habitation in the Sankarani River.


Mozambique was named after an Arab Sheikh, Mussa Bin Bique, who ruled the land when the Portuguese arrived.


Named after the Niger River, this country is a former French colony to the north of Nigeria.


Also named after the Niger River, this former British colony has the Niger river flowing through it.

Sierra Leone

In 1462, a Portuguese explorer was sailing down the coast of West Africa when the name for Sierra Leone was established.

The explorer, Pedro da Cintra came up with “Sierra Lyon”, or Lion Mountains. It is said because either the mountains resembled the teeth of lions or the roar of thunderstorms lead him to the land.

The British officially named the country Sierra Leone in 1787.


Zambia was once known as Northern Rhodesia and was renamed in 1964 after receiving independence.

The new name was inspired by the Zambezi river, which is said to mean “river of God.”

Travel Noire

Kelsey Marie

Kelsey-Marie is an NYC girl who currently lives in Johannesburg, South Africa. You can keep up with her on Instagram at @kelseydashmarie

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