The Kilimani You Didn’t Know About

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Kilimani ward in Nairobi may have an interesting origin to its name. The operation meaning of Kilimani derives from the Kamba word ‘Kilima’ which mean mountain, i.e Kilima-mbogo (the mountain of Buffaloes) and Kilima-njaro (the mountain of greatness). Thence, Kilimani means higher ground. However, a piece of history may offer a different meaning and origin.

In 1498, Vasco da Gama was on his pioneering voyage to India when he came across men dressed in Arab-style robes along the East Africa coast. He realized that he must be on track to finding a route to India. Sailing further south, he came across a wide river joining the Indian ocean with a settlement of Muslim Africans. He was now convinced of the route and named the river ‘Rio don Bons Sinais’ (The River of Good Signs).

With his entourage, Vasco da Gama camped in the town for a while to gather more information on the settlement. When he asked the inhabitants how they referred to the place, they misunderstood his question and though he asked what they were doing. So they replied ‘kuliamani’ (we are cultivating). Vasco da Gama entered in his diary the name Quelimane (pronounced kelimani in Portuguese) as the name of the settlement. This was the first entry in history of a town along the Indian Ocean feed by a large river known as Kilimani.

Thus, the rivers that feed the larger river became known as the Kilimani Rivers and towns along this rivers were known as Kilimani. 400 years later, the German missionary cum adventurer Johann Ludwig Krapf scouted the origin of the Kilimani Rivers – he determined it would be the channel through which Central Africa is accessible from the coast of Indian ocean.

From that point, Kilimani was synonymous with an area with many rivers. When the British explorer, Ewart Grogan (whom Grogan downtown is named after) was making his walk from Cape to Cairo from whence he came upon the current area around University of Nairobi and shouted, “Hey, look it’s Chiromo” – he mentioned the area was similar to a village in Malawi known as Chiromo. The word Chiromo means joining rivers. Malawi also had another village known as Kilimani. It is entirely possible that Grogan ascribed the name Kilimani to the adjacent area given its numerous rivers and streams.

Today, there are areas referred to as Kilimani in Mozambique, Malawi, Tanzania, and Zanzibar. The City of Quelimane remains to be the Capital of the Zambezi province in Mozambique. The river Kilimani was renamed to Zambezi and it is the fourth longest river in Africa.

Cover photo by: Gkhisa






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  1. Some interesting bit of history there. I’ve seen an old Portuguese map at Fort Jesus that places a ‘Quelimani” place between Mombasa and Malindi but closer to Malindi. It has been theorized that the ‘Quelimani’ in reference might be Gedi town. Another theory is that Gedi had a big river nearby which drained into the ocean. This apparently explains their contact with the outside world despite their relative distance from the beach as is the case with other coastal towns. The river apparently changed course and it might be the Sabaki which drains some 20km north of Gedi at present. The Vasco Da Gama story might lend credence to these theories that are also used explain why the name Gedi is not mentioned in any historical records despite its magnificence.

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