Meaning of some places in Oshiwambo (Part 1)

By Petrus Angula Mbenzi
September 2013



The evolution of names of places and their propagation seems to be a worldwide phenomenon. Kadmon (1997: 35), writing on place names in Europe, states, semantics can be diachronic, dealing with the historical aspect of meaning.


Many geographical names in use today originate in antiquity and their development from earliest forms, through numerous variations and transformations, can be traced up to the present. Names of places names may change with the passage of time.


The prime agent leading and resulting in toponymic mutations is military conquest, as well as political changes. If a region is conquered by military force, or been liberated from the grip of a colonising power, or has undergone a revolution, the geographical names of its nature, especially those of its man-made features, if not left intact, will undergo one of the three processes. Some features are mainly destroyed and their names are either completely wiped out or, at best, preserved as ruined names.


Before Namibia became independent, Owambo land was regarded as the war zone, because of the fierce fighting that took place between the South-West African force and the Swapo fighters. Several buildings, especially shops, were destroyed or deserted as a result. For example, “Nependa” (the brave one) became a shop’s name.



This shop was destroyed and its owner had to go into hiding as a result. Another shopping complex soon followed.  It was named “Onamagongwa” (the un-ripened fruits). The owner of the complex was assassinated by unknown men during the war. After his death, his shop became bankrupt and then auctioned to the highest bidder a few years later. The new owner renamed the place “Punyu”(free of charge).


Some names were changed after independence for political reasons. For example, KamhakuHospital was changed presumably because it bore the name of the tyrannical leader of the Aambalantu tribe. Some school names were also changed because they bore tribal names, such as the Ombalantu and the Ongandjera secondary schools whose names were changed to those of their tribal leaders.


Several schools have had to be renamed after people since then. Unfortunately, naming a place after an individual does not give it the privilege nor the blessing  of the  international organisations, such as the United Nations, except in exceptional cases. However, renaming is only recommended provided that there are sufficient grounds for doing so and it does not become a breeding ground for conflicts and unnecessary squabbles.


Some features, especially those of the important or famous places [particularly populated ones, such as cities and towns] sometimes have their names summarily changed by decree in some countries.


Some names fell into disuse in the Owambo before independence, such as “Eembwinda lya Nuutushi”, in Uukwambi and “Omulilo” in Ondonga.


The reasons given for the disappearance of certain names ranged from unpleasantness to political hegemony. The disappearance of place names cut across Namibia due to political conquests. For example, Otjomuise was renamed Windhoek; Onatshiku was renamed Elim; Itenge was renamed Caprivi, etc. Although the four Os (Ohangwena, Oshikoto, Omusati and Oshana) are not a new phenomenon, their renaming appears to be on the rise at present.


Such changes may lead to opaqueness of history as historical events are inherent in place names. In semi-literate societies or illiterate societies, names serve as reservoirs for historical events. It is thus necessary to present the semantics of place names as a record for future reference and to preserve cultural heritage.


Some place names are basically left intact, except for some phonetic adaptations and perhaps abbreviations, to make them more pleasant to the new inhabitants. This situation occurred among the Aawambo, because the Aakwanyama had conquered the Aakwambi and defeated them. The Aakwambi would escape and as a result, a large part of their area was occupied by the Aakwanyama.


The Oshikwambi place names underwent a phonetic adaptation to suit the phonological pattern of the Oshikwanyama. For example, “Ohaingu” is the name of a parish, school, village and tribal district of Uukwanyama. It is in Engela Constituency in Ohangwena Region. This place was originally occupied by the Aakwambi-speaking people who withdrew due to the skirmishes between the Aakwambi and the Aakwanyama.


According to oral tradition, the Aakwambi were sent to this place one by one but were captured and never returned to Uukwambi. The Aakwambi became suspicious and would ask, “Kwa hi ngu, kwahi ngu. Ina galuka ko ko kuma ano oku na tye?” (So and so went there but none of them ever returned. What happens there?) 


The Aakwambi named the place “Okwahingu– (loosely translated to “this and that one went there”). Through language indolence, one sound “kw-” was dropped and the name became “Ohaingu. This is not the only name, which was corrupted due to the invasion of the Aakwanyama but “Ohalushu(a place of bushes) is also the corrupted form of “Oharushwa”. However much this name has been phonetically corrupted, the meaning has remained intact because it has only been phonologically adapted to the Oshikwanyama dialect.  PF