The Art of Naming

Maxine Sibihwana


“Let us make humankind in our image…and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air…over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.” – Genesis 1:26

Long ago, a godly body took the shape of water and poured itself into the rich grounds of Eastern Africa. Obweruka, ancestral lake of the Congo catchment, reigned supreme, rivalling Tanganyika in size and depth with an extensive 27,000- square-kilometre surface. Home of diverse species, answer to many geological and evolutionary questions, the birthplace of mountains. Obweruka’s reign is crucial to our understanding of creation, which lives on the lakes she spawned over time.

Obweruka was ripped apart when the earth beneath raised her to mountains. The result of eager crystalline rocks rushing to see the world beyond the surface of the water, itching to fill every layer of the Earth’s atmosphere. Mountains who would command the clouds — the Cloud King. Many million moons later, the Cloud King sits in mighty stone form, sending rain into the plains and covering its head with blankets of ice. And the three sister lakes, Rutanzige and Mwitanzige and Dweru, daughters of Obweruka, protect and provide for abantu by eating locusts and swallowing the pain of enjara.

Rwenjura. Rwenzori. The Rainmaker, as the mountains are now known to abantu, stretch for 120 kilometres, from Bwera and Kasese, to Ntoroko on the banks of Mwitanzige. And Rainmakers they are indeed, plunging the lands in heavy enjura for up to 350 days of our “shared” Gregorian calendar. Resulting in plush vegetation; forest and farmland, and a less predictable kasana shining in the region.

Long ago, there lived the mysterious and mystical Chwezi Empire, who ruled the lands and lakes and mountains for 200 years. Some claim they fell into oblivion around the 16th century, for according to an old prophecy, if their beloved cow, Bihogo, should fall, then so would their dynasty. Bihogo fell. Luo and Bito tribes of the north invaded their land, and Chwezi was no more. No true known heirs to carry on the legacy. No one to pass on the secrets of the Earth they left behind, so say the European strangers who entered the land in the 19th century.

But Bachwezi were people of hunting and magic; people of this world and the next. They were the descendants of the even more enigmatic Tembuzi people, who also possessed powers so divine that some question their earthly existence to begin with. The Rwenzori Mountains are home to the Banyabindi, Bakonja, Basongora, and Bamba communities on the Ugandan side of the border. Am I to believe that none of these communities inherited the mystic culture of Chwezi? These communities who know our mountains, who know Semliki first as a forest and not a virus, who know Semliki’s spirit also exists as a river that flows from Rutanzige to her sister Mwitanzige. Am I to believe that the locals, with stewardship over the land, do not possess a deep knowledge of its characteristics and qualities?

Imagine a land endowed with powerful bodies of water, mountains who bring snowfall to the tropics, forests who deny you entry. The mysticism such an environment must hold, all to be stripped of its dignity and power by strangers who rename the land after foreign royalty. The so-called Mountains of the Moon, the African Great Lake Region, Edward, Albert, George, Victoria. These names may simply be indicators of landmarks to some, but I know that these names strangle the true history and ecology of these places. 

Each indigenous name gives indication to the climate, the wildlife, flora and fauna, and even the migration of peoples in their respective regions. What does Victoria give us other than a drought of our own culture, in our own mouths?


“The locusts have no king, yet all of them march in rank” – Proverbs 30: 27 

‘Mwitanzige’ — ‘the killer of locusts’ — is a name that can be traced back to the Chwezi empire. The story goes as follows: Kagoro, son of Kyomya (former Chwezi kings), named the lake when a plague of locusts devastated the Eastern African region. The plague was biblical in its reach, killing wildlife and crops from the east to the west of Uganda, down to northern Tanzania. The swarms died trying to cross the lake on their journey into what is now known as the Democratic Republic of Congo. Thus, the lake killed locusts.

‘Ombizoku’ — ‘a locust cannot cross’ — we find symmetry in the Lugbara name for the lake. We can deduce simply by name, that the lake is not a viable environment for the swarms, and they tend not to migrate beyond the Uganda-Congo border. This has held true now, when earlier this year, the locusts crossing the border into the Democratic Republic of Congo created fever and frenzy. It had been 75 years since their last transit into the central African nation.

We find symmetry in a local Bunyoro entomologist’s tale: the lake tricked the locusts by pretending to be a desert. Schistocerca gregaria — nzige the desert locust — tend to gather in hotter, dryer lands. As they attempted to make the journey over the lake into Congo, shapeshifting Mwitanzige was mistaken for a desert, and the locusts perished trying to rest on her surface.

With ‘Rutanzige’, a similar genesis. A locust killer, smaller than her sister at 77 kilometres long, as opposed to the mammoth Mwitanzige’s 160-kilometre length. Rutanzige also guards the Uganda-Congo border from locusts, protecting abantu from the dangers of famine, of enjara. Whatever Obweruka, the ancestral paleolake, left behind, it was not for nzige to find.

Alternatively, ‘Albert’ — a white European royal who never visited Uganda or Congo — is a name that can only be traced back to imperial greed. To two names in particular. Samuel Baker, an ‘explorer’, indigenous wildlife murderer, and Governor-General of the Equatorial Nile Basin. And Sass Flóra, a Hungarian enslaved orphan whom Baker purchased for marriage. Two beings who stumbled upon the ancient lake in the 19th century. They decided the lake was worthy of the man (though it is doubtful if the man was ever worthy of the lake).

Even ‘Mobutu Sese Seko’ and ‘Idi Amin Dada’ as Mwitanzige and Rutanzige were briefly known during the twin tyrannies of Sese Seko in former Zaïre and Idi Amin in Uganda, alluding to the greed of men. Leaders with eyes bigger than their stomachs.

No part of the natural world should be named after humans. We do not precede nature; we exist because of it. For even the Abrahamic God so loved the world that he created it first and Adam second.

So, I doubt that we should think the Earth around us did not have a name and purpose until our arrival. Respect your elders.


“For behold, I will bring a flood of waters upon the earth to destroy all flesh in which is the breath of life under heaven. Everything that is on the earth shall die.” – Genesis 6:17

The height of hubris is going to a place for the first time and thinking your eyes were the first to see its beauty. That the land, the trees — even the air — are yours to claim. To own. The height of hubris is 5,109 metres tall, known to the locals as Ngaliema but known to bandits as Mount Stanley, the peak of the Rwenzori Mountains of western Uganda and eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.

Ngaliema has many children; many summits and peaks. Margherita Peak, Alexandra, Albert, Savoia, Ellena, Elizabeth, Phillip, Moebius, and Great Tooth. Margherita Peak gained its foreign name after the first European-recorded non-consensual raid of the mountains. In their words it was an “ascent”. Truthfully, it is a violation of a land who did not invite you. It occurred in the year 1906, by an Italian-led company of men. This Italian man happened to be the nephew of Margherita, Queen Mother of Italy. The mountain peak was named in her honour, but I fail to see the sentimental value. The name is infertile. It truly gives us nothing. No indication of the types of minerals you may find in the region, no way to determine the climate or the ecosystem. Margherita sits on the edge of the tongue like a stranger, not confident enough to plant itself firmly in the mouth.

What Margherita really is, is an invitation. Italian scientific research and activity in the region may not have been so rampant had Ngaliema’s highest peak not been named after their former queen. In 2006, a full hundred years after the first Italian ‘ascent’ of the mountain range, a group of scientists reported concern about the reduced glacial activity on Rwenzori’s mountain tops. They only had ‘data’ from their predecessors 100 years earlier, and their most updated cartography was from 1955. They only had data gathered before Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo gained independence.

We find symmetry in modern-day environmental expeditions and colonialism.

Ngaliema was named after another stranger, Henry Morton Stanley. Sir Henry Morton Stanley was a Welsh ‘explorer’ — known to his people as a man with fingers in many pots: journalism, exploration, writing, cartography, military. Many words used to dress up the real title ‘colonialist’; a word that sits proud and naked for everyone to see whenever any of these strangers’ spirits are evoked by the names they left behind in our nations. He has somehow been credited with naming the Rwenzori mountain range, as if a word like that simply found itself in his usual lexicon. As if he did not take the word from the locals as a keepsake from the New World for himself.

They say that Henry Morton Stanley was the one to place the Rwenzori Mountains on the map in May 1888. As if he is the one to find a three-million-year-old mountain, when you could say the mountain found him.

It is said that Claudius Ptolemy, another stranger, dubbed this mountain range the “Mountains of the Moon”. Apparently, he is the father of modern geography, he who believed the Earth was the centre of the universe. When your eyes allow you to see yourself at the centre of creation, then everything around you must be made for you. How swollen can one’s pride be, to make themselves that important. To give names to nature without asking it first. To be the father of modern geography, a practice that holds our lands hostage.

Geocentric, Eurocentric. Pig to man, man to pig. One and the same. ‘Rwenjura’ — ‘to make rain’ — heavy rainfall is expected in the region.

‘Stanley’ — a former agent of King Leopold II — tells us nothing about the landscape. ‘Stanley’ is barren.

Ngugi Wa Thiong’o once said in an interview that “modernity is rooted in African enslavement”. You could stop at the enslavement of abantu, the arbitrary way of looking at slavery. But slavery is a serpent that is so much bigger. So much more insidious. By hindering the linguistic development of indigenous people, local languages are rinsed out of our mouths. Yet, that is the part of the body that holds the knowledge of the world that we inhabit.

This arrested development continually chokes our relationship with the natural world; we lose the original meanings of local names, and therefore we lose the knowledge of what those names give us. Our traditional way of nomenclature never takes away from the beauty or the function of the landmark. After conversations with my father, I learnt that ‘Kiira’ — the Lusoga name for the Nile — loosely translates to ‘flood’. A powerful presence of water, an incredible source of life.

‘Nile’ is barren.

After conversations with one of my mothers, I learnt that ‘Kyoga’, the name of a shallow lake in central Uganda, loosely means ‘to wash’. ‘To wash’ could allude to its purpose, how it served the community around it. It could allude to how it washed its surroundings, like a flood, or how it behaved on its shores. It is not taught to us, so we may never know.

Kiira flows through Kyoga from Nnalubaale, or ‘Victoria’ as she is wrongfully known. Geologically speaking, she is a young lake at 400,000 years old. She has served her community as the mother of a God: ‘Lubaale’ is a traditional Luganda God, and Nnalubaale means ‘mother of Lubaale’. On Kenyan shores, Nnalubaale is known to the Luo community as ‘Nam Lolwe’ — ‘endless body of water’. A fitting title for the largest lake in Africa, the largest tropical lake in the world, and the second-largest freshwater lake in the world.

A divinely motherly spirit, a significant offering of fresh water, stripped of her name by John Hanning Speke, a colonial explorer who named it after his English queen.

Modernity is rooted in African enslavement.

The enslavement of people and mountains, rivers and lakes.

Different cultural practices, different anthropological behaviours, different tribes. But through learning the names that the locals gave to the lake, we learn more about its history. We learn more about its size, how its size was perceived by indigenous communities. How it was respected. A sacred space. But Nnalubaale is enslaved. Nam Lolwe is enslaved. ‘Victoria’ holds them hostage, her seemingly unquestionable authority limiting the local imagination from seeing the lake as anything other than an annex to her. Nothing but an annex to the British imperial rule. A sign of dominion.

For God so loved the world that he gave humanity dominion over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky. But who decides what that dominion means? Fish in the sea does not mean the sea itself. Birds in the sky does not mean the sky itself. The spirit of enjara must be alive and vibrating all through a person to thirst for ownership over mountains, lakes, and seas, especially those in lands that they are not native to. The Empire was so thorough, it created laws to enslave everything, including mythical creatures. There was a law concerning mermaids which decreed that even though we do not know if mermaids do in fact exist, the waters that we find them in are ours, and therefore, they are too. I ask again, how swollen can one’s pride truly be?

Jamaican poet Kei Miller, in his poem The Law Concerning Mermaids, said it best: “and maybe this is the problem with empires: how they have forced us to live in a world lacking in mermaids.” They have forced us to live in a world ploughed of diverse thought. A world where the seasoning is removed from language, so it is always served to us dry. So we always serve it dry. We are stuck; we cannot evoke the spirits native to the land, we cannot know the character of the natural world around us until foreign hands force-feed it to us. European empires will always leave us yearning for more; never being nourished by what they give us.


‘“Let there be light,” and there was light.’ – Genesis 1:3

In the beginning, there was Ruhanga, the first. The creator. Brother to Nkya.

From Nkya, there was Kakama; from Kakama was Bada; from Bada was Ngonzaki; and from Ngonzaki was Isaza — the last son of the Tembuzi. On Isaza’s descent into the afterlife, he left behind the pregnant Nyamate, from whose womb blossomed a child — Isimbwa.

Isimbwa grew up to become the father of Ndahura, the first known king of the Bachwezi and the Kitara Empire. Long did they rule. But they fell into oblivion around the 16th century, some claim, according to an old prophecy: if their beloved cow, Bihogo, should fall, then so would their dynasty.

Bihogo fell.

Nilotic tribes of the north invaded their land and Chwezi was no more. The Luo conquest seeped into the region, banishing the Chwezi to faraway parts of their fallen empire, disappearing into the underworld. And the Luo leader, Isingoma Rukiidi Mpuga, became the first Omukama of the Bunyoro-Kitara kingdom.

Bunyoro-Kitara, kingdom of light, descendants of Tembuzi, founded by Bachwezi, so the story goes.

On my mother’s side, I am Munyoro. Located on the shores of Mwitanzige, the Bunyoro ethnic group descends from a kingdom that touched land in Rwanda, Uganda, Burundi, northern Tanzania, and eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. In my ancestry, I carry a legacy of migration; of the overthrowing of a mystical empire, of guardians of the natural and supernatural world.

In my current form, I also carry the legacy of colonial education, of being the property of the British, of expendable people and scorched earth.

I learnt the names of powerful bodies of water, mountains who bring snowfall to the tropics, forests who deny you entry — in English. I lived 22 of my 25-year existence strangling the true history and ecology of the world around me. I let ‘Albert’ and ‘Victoria’ sit on the edge of my tongue like strangers and never questioned how they got there.

Modernity is rooted in African enslavement.

I allowed my mouth to be enslaved. My tongue was a dam blocking the rivers of knowledge and curiosity from flowing freely through my head and body. I allowed myself to think that language was meant to be served dry and in doing so, I learnt to live with the bitter sting of enjara. 

During colonialism, Ruhanga, the creator, was repurposed to refer to the Abrahamic God. Ruhanga is now known as the Runyoro word for God. ‘Omukama’ — king — was also given such a meaning. Until asking the questions I needed to ask to write this essay, I never even knew that two creation myths clashed along the plains of my mouth every time I offered a prayer. I grew up with Tembuzi legacies hiding between my teeth, itching to be brought to light.

‘Kitara’ — the light — let us now be enlightened. Let us go forward spitting the imperial names out and welcoming the indigenous names back into their rightful place. Rebuke ideas of dominion over things that predate us. Let there be a light that shines on our culture and on our history. Let us question false translations of our tongues. Let us question false prophets.

For God so loved the world that he created it first and abantu after. We should not think the Earth around us did not have names and purpose until our arrival. Rwenzori controlled the clouds before our arrival. Kiira quenched the plains before our arrival. Obweruka was the genesis of the African Great Lake Region and a powerful mountain, long, long before our arrival.

We should not wait for nature to live up to a name but offer names that live up to nature.

Mwitanzige is not just a name. It is an offering of history and anthropology. It is an example of non-Eurocentric geography. It is a marker of science and a cemetery of a lost empire.

Albert is simply a stranger.

Maxine Sibihwana is a Ugandan poet and writer based in London. She seeks to connect her historical heritage with her contemporary self by responding to African proverbs with a focus on relationships, the home, religious rituals, love, as well as exploring queerness. She recently completed a Master’s in Creative Writing at the University of Cambridge and has read her work at festivals such as Last Word at the Roundhouse, Erase Erase Erupt, Hay Festival, Brainchild, Latitude Festival, and the London Literary Festival. Her short story ‘God’s Warriors’ was published in AFREADA.

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