What does the name “Kilimanjaro” mean? To be honest, nobody really knows exactly. It’s completely open to interpretation and many people have come up with plethora of ideas. You can break the word Kilimanjaro up into many parts, and each dominant group — the WaChagga and the Masai — have their own historical interpretation.
One of the most popular interpretations is breaking the word apart. In Kiswahili, the dominant language of Tanzania, the word Kilima means “small hill”, and while the word njaro means “greatness.” In theory, it could mean great, small hill. But one thing is for sure, Kilimanjaro is no small hill. It’s huge! Another interpretation is that the first part of the word Kilimanjaro – kilima – is a corruption of the Swahili word for “mountain,” which is mlima.
Njaro also means “caravan” in the language of Kichagga, which is from the WaChaggas, who settled around the base of the lower slopes of Kilimanjaro, and are the most dominant ethnic group today. According to the caravan interpretation, Kilimanjaro was a classic caravan route for slave traders, explorers and other people headed into the interior of Africa. Many of the WaChagga people went on to become drivers and leaders of caravan routes that came from Dar es Salaam and Zanzibar to Kilimanjaro and then into the interior.
According to ancient myths of the WaChagga too, “Njaro” is also the name of a demon who was living on the summit and caused the cold snow. And, Njaro could also be derived from the Swahili word ngara, which mean “to shine.”
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In the Masai, another dominant ethnic group in Tanzania, Kilimanjaro is called Oldoinyo Oibor, which is called the white mountain. In the language of Masai, the word for water is “ngare.” Given that Kilimanjaro is a water source for much of the Masai territory that lies north and east, this could be true too.
If you are interested in reading a great analysis with some historical interpretation, read the “Meaning of Kilimanjaro“