Updated: Oct 31, 2020
What is in a name?
In Africa, names - whether of people or of places - carry culture and soul, history and hope. My mother is Ellen, born in Rhodesia, given an English name as was common practice in colonial times. I am Tendai, given a Shona name, as were most children born post-independence into a brand new Zimbabwe.
What of Mosi oa Tunya? Where does this vividly descriptive name for the famous falls come from?
At the eastern end of the Caprivi Strip, lies the “Four Corners of Africa.” It is the only international quadripoint on earth, where four countries meet - Namibia, Botswana, Zambia, and Zimbabwe. This region is home to the Lozi people, with the largest population today living in southern Zambia.
Lozi is a Bantu language that developed from a mixture of two languages: Luyana and Kololo.
The Luyana people migrated south from the Congo River basin, in the late 17th century-early 18th century and settled in the region of the Zambezi River near the falls. The Kololo people used to live in what is now Lesotho. After fleeing from Shaka Zulu in the 1830s, they conquered the Luyana. Consequently, a new hybrid language called Lozi emerged, and from it the name Mosi oa Tunya - “The Smoke That Thunders.”
It is interesting to note that the Tonga people, who inhabit the area from Kariba to Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe, as well as parts of southern Zambia, call the falls Shungu Namutitima (“Boiling Water”), a name that evokes similar imagery to the Lozi name Mosi oa Tunya. Other traditions refer to the falls as “The Place of the Rainbow” because of the many single and double rainbows frequently seen during the day, and lunar rainbows that can be seen at night.
What of Victoria Falls? Why is this the name by which the falls are known around the globe?
Enter David Livingstone on 16 November 1855, on his way to Quelimane on the coast of Mozambique.
Traveling along the mighty Zambezi in a fleet of canoes, guided by none other than the Kololo people, the Scottish missionary wrote of his experience (David Livingstone, Missionary Travels and Researches In South Africa, 1858):
“After twenty minutes’ sail from Kalai, we came in sight, for the first time, of the columns of vapor appropriately called ‘smoke,’ rising at a distance of five or six miles, exactly as when large tracts of grass are burned in Africa….no one can imagine the beauty of the view from anything witnessed in England. It had never been seen before by European eyes; but scenes so lovely must have been gazed upon by angles in their flight.”
It was Livingstone who named the falls after his British queen, Victoria.
Mosi oa Tunya/Victoria Falls is the world’s greatest sheet of falling water with a width of 1700m (height of 108m). The falls actually consist of five different “falls”. Four are seen from the Zimbabwean side: Devil’s Cataract, Main Falls, Rainbow Falls and Horseshoe Falls. One is seen from the Zambian side: the Eastern Cataract. As the Zambezi River plunges into a series of basalt gorges, a veil of mist rises into the sky and can be seen from more than 20 kilometers away.
Mosi oa Tunya/Victoria Falls is one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World - together with Aurora Borealis (the Northern Lights), the Grand Canyon (USA), Paricutin (Mexico), Mount Everest (Nepal & Tibet), Harbor of Rio de Janeiro (Brazil), and the Great Barrier Reef (Australia).
In 1989, the majestic falls were named a UNESCO World Heritage Site under two official names - Mosi oa Tunya and Victoria Falls.