Reason Behind Naming of Major Kenyan Towns

  • File image of a sign post.
    File image of a sign post.
  • Towns across the country have quite interesting names. Interestingly, some places were named during the colonial era and have stuck to date. 

    In other cases, towns were named after landmarks, influential people in the community or memorable events. Folk tales have it that some names given by the White settlers were difficult to pronounce, hence locals settled for their own near similar diction or elocution. 

    Today, takes a look at how major towns in Kenya got their names.


    Kenya's fourth-largest urban centre and the newest city in the country, the name Nakuru was derived from a Maasai word 'Nakurro', which means a 'dusty place'.

    The Maasai community are said to have arrived at the name in reference to the characteristically barren scrublands around the Lake Nakuru basin.

    Nakuru was established by the British as part of the White highlands during the colonial era and it has continued growing into a cosmopolitan city.

    It received township status in 1904, became a municipality in 1952 and in November 2021, President Uhuru Kenyatta awarded Nakuru city status.

    A file aerial view image of Nakuru Town in Nakuru County taken on June 3, 2021.
    A file aerial view image of Nakuru Town in Nakuru County taken on June 3, 2021.
    Nakuru County Government


    Kajiado got its name from the Maasai word 'Orkejuado' which means 'the long river'.

    The town was named in reference to the seasonal river that runs west of Kajiado.

    The original name for Kajiado was 'Olopurupurana', which means 'a round elevation' in the Maasai language.


    Kabarnet was named after a missionary from Australia by the name Albert Edmund Barnett.

    Barnett was a member of the Africa Inland Mission and came to Kenya in 1908 and lived in the area that is presently known as Kabarnet for many years, earning the respect of locals.

    'Ka' means homestead in the Kalenjin language. As such, Kabarnet means Barnett's home.


    The name Eldoret is derived from the Massai word 'eldore', which literally means stony river.

    The river bed of the Sosiani River is very stony, whence the town derives its name. Before the colonial era, the region was occupied by the Sirikwa, the Massai and the Nandi.

    An aerial view of Eldoret town.
    An aerial view of Eldoret town.


    There are two accounts as to how Bungoma, the headquarters for Bungoma County, got its name.

    One version suggests that the town was often used as a meeting place by Bukusu elders and they used drums (engoma) to alert people about the meetings. As such, it was referred to as a place of drums i.e. Bungoma.

    The second version is that Bungoma was once inhabited by the Bungomek, a clan of the Sabaot. However, they were chased away by the Bukusu but the name stuck.

    An aerial view of Bungoma town.
    An aerial view of Bungoma town.


    Kenya's second-largest city, 'Mombasa' got its name from the Arabic word 'Manbaça' which means the country which unfolds itself or a large expanse of land.

    The Swahili name for the city is 'Kisiwa Cha Mvita', which translates 'island of war.'

    It became a municipality in 1928 and assumed council status in 1959. 


    There are three theories as to how Kericho got its name. One is that it was named after a Maasai Chief known as Ole Kericho who passed away in the 18th century.

    Another account suggests that Kericho was derived from a medicine man known as Kipkerich who was among the first people to occupy the area.

    The third version is that it was home to the region’s first public hospital which was built by the British.


    Kisumu got its name from 'sumo' which is a Luo word that means place of barter trade'.

    It was elevated from a town to a municipal board in 1940 and later to a municipal council in 1960. 

    In 2001, the late President Daniel Arap Moi announced the elevation of the town to a city. However, Kisumu was never awarded a city charter, same to Mombasa. 

    An aerial view of Kisumu town.
    An aerial view of Kisumu town.