AS the old saying goes, “if you do not know where you come from, then you don’t know where you are, and if you don’t know where you are, then you don’t know where you’re going”.
That is as true today with Africa’s relationship with nature, as it was in the past. Like elsewhere, as African cities have grown, most have taken a toll on the wildlife, wild lands, and environments that first made them over a hundred years ago.
The following African capitals, for example, are actually a celebration of nature. If you read the stories of their origins, you will find versions of these accounts:
•Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia: A familiar story, Addis Ababa, derives from the Amharic word meaning “new flower.” The location of Addis Ababa was chosen by the Empress Taytu Betul, and the city was founded by the Emperor Menelik II in 1886. In 1886, while Empress Taytu Betul admired the landscape, she saw a flower of remarkable beauty. She fell in love, and asker her husband Emperor Menelik II, to build her a house in the area. She named it “Addis Ababa”, and the rest is 130-year-old history.
•Accra, the capital of Ghana: Accra means “ants” in the Akan language, a reference to the numerous anthills seen in the countryside around Accra. In some areas of Ghana, they eat ants.
•Nairobi, capital of Kenya: The name “Nairobi” comes from the Maasai phrase “Enkare Nyirobi”, which translates to “the place of cool waters”. Some scholars say the name could also be derived from the Maasai expression “Ewaso Nyirobi” meaning “fresh water.” Given the recent dry and hot spells in Nairobi, how great would Nairobi be if it became a cool place with lots of fresh water again?
•Maseru, capital of Lesotho: Maseru means “place of the red sandstone” in Sesotho.
•Lilongwe, capital of Malawi: Named after the Lilongwe River, which flows through the city.
•Bamako, capital of Mali: Means “crocodile river” in Bambara. Crocodiles, though, are no longer common in Bamako.
•Nouakchott, capital of Mauritania: Believed to have originally derived from the Berber word Nawākšūṭ, “place of the winds”.
•Windhoek, capital of Namibia: At the start was known by two names: /Ai//Gams, (Khoekhoe: hot springs) and Otjomuise (Otjiherero: place of steam). Both traditional names reference the hot springs near today’s city centre. There are many versions of how the place got its modern name of Windhoek. One goes that the name Windhoek is derived from the Afrikaans word Wind-Hoek (windy corner); another that it was named Windhoek after the Winterhoek Mountains, at Tulbagh in South Africa. Whichever is the truth, it still remains inspired by nature.
•Lagos, once the capital before it was moved to Abuja, and now now commercial capital, of Nigeria: Derives from the Portuguese word for “lakes”.
•Bloemfotein, is the capital city of the province of Free State of South Africa; and the judicial capital of the rainbow nation. It’s one of South Africa’s three national capitals (the other two being Cape Town, the legislative capital, and Pretoria, the administrative capital): Means “spring of Bloem (bloom)”, “flower spring” or “fountain of flowers” in Dutch. But perhaps more interesting, the city’s Sesotho name is Mangaung, meaning “place of cheetahs.”
•Kampala, the capital of Uganda: Derived from impala, a medium-sized antelope that once roamed the area. Today the idea of impala in Kampala would sound very strange indeed to its residents.
•Khartoum, capital of Sudan: It’s derived from Arabic Al-Jartūm, meaning “end of an elephant’s trunk”, probably referring to the narrow strip of land extending between the Blue and White Niles.
•Lomé, capital of Togo: Has its roots in Alotimé which in the Ewe language means “among the alo plants”. The Alo is a tree whose trunk is still the main source of toothpicks in South Togo.
There you have it, for those who think that Africans have no strong relationship with nature, or somehow need more education and convincing about wildlife and wildlands. The question is more about rekindling and generational challenges.
As cities look for ways to modernise and grow their economies for their swelling populations, some are getting on to things like festivals and carnivals. This seems to be partly inspired by festivals like the famous Rio Carnival in Brazil, which last year attracted more than 1.1 million foreign tourists over a four-day period.
African cities, for their part, could create festivals that fall back to the history and spirit of their births, e.g. cleaning polluted rivers that gave them their names.
For young Africans, looking to situate what is unique about them in a globalised world, this could be one of the ways to get back to their roots, which they could trace through finding connections with nature and their heritage.
There are possibilities of modern history telling, as indeed around the continent we are seeing a few artists begin to dig into history to do comics, illustrated stories, to derive fascinating characters for mini-movies, made possible by cheap recording devices and inexpensive distribution on YouTube and, lately, Facebook.
In this way we shall find new sources of affection for our natural resources, that will ensure they are part of the lives of future generations.