How to Name Your Compound: place names in Zambia

Thanks to a friend of mine, I have become a regular at the huge second hand clothes market. The taxi driver I always use is not only reasonable but is something of a mine for information on the history of Lusaka. When driving me to the market recently he mentioned that it is on a large compound called ‘mandevu.’ Now I know ‘mandevu’ means beard in the local language Nyanja, so I of course asked why the compound was called, well, ‘beard’. He explained that mostly Zimbabweans had settled there years ago and they had the habit of shaving their heads but leaving their beards to grow. Zambians would refer to Zimbabweans as ‘the ones with beards’ and as a result the compound where they lived adopted the name ‘beard’.

We then went on to talk more about the names of the other compounds throughout Lusaka. One is called ‘Kanyama’. This means ‘meat’ and in years gone by it was where the slaughterhouses and butcheries could be found, even today there is meat for sale and braiis (barbeques) dotted along the streets. ‘Matero’ means slope and the compound with this name, is found, yep, that’s right, at the top of a slope. Another compound goes by the name ‘chaisa’ which apparently means ‘hit them hard’, my taxi driver wasn’t sure why it had this name. I like to think it harks back to when Zambians were fighting for independence, but perhaps I am being too fanciful!

Some compounds have English names such as ‘Garden’ or ‘George’ and apparently this was because there was a huge garden there or some well–off person lived in that area originally and owned all the land. My taxi driver mentioned a compound called Jack Laing which was of course named after the man who owned a farm there. This is harking back to the old colonial days when Lusaka was a small town that was mostly farmland. Now it is one of the fastest growing cities in sub-Saharan Africa. The naming of areas is more or less how it is done in other countries. In the UK we named our towns and villages after where they could be found, it’s just that they were named so long ago in arcane languages so we have long since forgotten that this village means ‘near a hill’ or that town means ‘marsh area by woods.’

It is things such as the origin of compounds that reminds one of how Lusaka has grown exponentially in forty-odd years. From farmland in the fifties and sixties, to large shopping malls nowadays, it will be interesting to see what the next forty years bring.

Read more:
The Chitenge – a Zambian fashion essential
The rains continue in Zambia
Which language should I learn?

About the author

Elizabeth Watkin
Elizabeth is a Brit living in Zambia with her American husband. She was an English teacher for many years, which is when she got the travelling bug; she has also been a VSO volunteer. She is now a freelance writer and education consultant as well as volunteer at a local art gallery.
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