African names can be very confusing for travellers to Africa, and even to travellers from Africa, and Botswana has it fair share of unpronounceable place names. Setswana names are difficult enough for outsiders to pronounce but when the origin is from the San dialects then the task become impossible.
Place of the giraffe and the search for meaning
Some years ago I was managing Nxabega Okavango Safari Camp in the Okavango Delta in Botswana and after the umpteenth time of been asked what the name stood for I began a search for the meanings of the strange names in the country.
I knew the name Nxabega meant Place of the Giraffe in honour of all the long necked creatures that frequented the area but finding out the meanings of all the other places became a task that quickly frustrated me into submission due to the lack of information and knowledge. For example I found that there was no information on what Chobe or Savute meant, but was happy to find out that Moremi was named for the tribe of the area.
Some time ago the topic again arose and I tried again, also to no avail. The stock answer was always ‘named after the river or area of the same name’. One of my friends even asked why it was so important that I wanted to know what the names meant.
Language of the original inhabitants
Many of the names in the safari regions of Botswana are of San origin, hence the thought that Botswana names in general are difficult. The Bushmen dialects have many clicks and the written language seems outlandish to most westerners.
Despite the frustration I did manage to find the meanings of some of the place names of Botswana such as the legendary Kalahari which is an anglicised combination of a few names relating to the aridity of the area. Kgala means "the great thirst", Khalagari and Kgalagadi meaning "a waterless place” seemed to have been combined to reach the iconic name Kalahari.
From this it can be derived that the name Makgadikgadi, the largest salt pans in the world, are also taken from the same set of words that refer to the dry desert environment.
The capital and the people of Botswana
One of the few other words I could attach a meaning to was for the capital of the country, Gaborone, which literally means ‘a good fit’ – the reason for which is not defined.
The majority of people in Botswana are of the Tswana ethnic group and the name Botswana means ‘place of the Tswana people’ with the predominant language of the country been referred to as Setswana.
My search for meaning will continue despite the frustrations as there has to be a source somewhere that will share the secrets of the origins of the names of the places in Botswana
By Leigh Kemp