The tone of this article can be quite clear for a local but an outsider may need to read further. The title is a proverb which roughly translates as A Name guides, a Taper Lights. It highlights the ‘silent echo’ names have in our society. Parents and everyone else consider naming carefully. They want it to be beautiful and simultaneously meaningful. As part of the identity, it is good to know what our names mean and parallel to that finding out about the names of the places we live in or we belong to makes our living more meaningful.
Places take their names for different reasons and in association to events. I came to know that Eritrean villages, towns and cities have their origin of names that is more or less related to the topography of the land, nearby rivers, particular type of trees growing in these places or people living in them.
I was thrilled to see a book of Eritrean place names inaugurated a few months back. The book, written by Teklemariam Beraki and Shishay Birhane, is entitled trgumn ameabablan asmat botatat Ertra, and details the stories behind the names of Eritrean towns and how the names evolved over time. The book is the first of its kind and will be of great importance in narrowing the gap between the old and the new generation. The sources of this book are the Abeyti adi or the elders and the few old references available. The book is something that people should be proud of when they discover about their origin of places. When I read this book it made sense for me why these towns are still called by those ancient names. The majority of the names of these towns and villages are related to the environment and the people. Without such references, one cannot identify, understand or tell a name of a town bluntly because the stories make the towns.
The first few pages of the book discuss Ertra which the Italians named after the ‘Red Algae’ found in the Red Sea. If you keep reading the next few pages you find the central region towns and villages where the capital city of Asmara is first mentioned. The word Asmara is plural and refers to women who unified four villages to form the city. The story is quite long but the general background from where Asmara is named is the unity of these women. The slum neighborhood called Aba Shawl came from a man who used to swear by his horse named Shawl. This man was named Engda and was the secretary of the chieftain of that area. Formerly the place was known as Gnbar Aba Awts which people later came to call the house of this man Enda Aba Shawl. Aba stands for ‘father’ and Shawl is the name of the horse. Through time the name spread and you find the place called as so. Another huge neighborhood is Akrya. This is believed to have come from the Arabic word Akir that means the End. If you take a snapshot of this place from the top you can see it is at the end of the city. Nearby is Haz Haz, found on top of a mountain. The name of this place dates back to a battle between a local chieftains(Raesi) Weldenkiel against an invading Ethiopian Raesi Hailu. Raesi Weldenkiel’s army chased the enemy in this mountain saying Haz Haz which means “Seize them”. Since then there evolved a neighborhood called by this name, and connects three neighborhoods: Akrya, Mihram Chira and Maitemenay. Maitemenay is also one of the biggest neighborhoods in Asmara. The name was given by the people who used to live there enjoying the good climate around but were always wishing for one thing – water. Mai is water and temenay refers to their wish; hence Maitemenay. Tsetserat is a neighborhood located behind the Orrota Hospital. Tsetser in Tigrinya means pebble and since this area used to be full of pebbles, it retained the name Tsetserat.
What surprised me most was the story of Mai Bela. Commonly and mistakenly people take Mai Bela to mean sewage water but the story is different. The name came from the words of a pregnant Queen named Saba who asked her servants to bring her water saying Mai Bela (ask for water) when she delivered a baby on her way back to Aksum from Israel.
Further the pages of the book move towards places such as Wekiduba. Weki is a Blen word for Hyena (found in the area) and Duba refers to the forest that used to be in the place in the past; so by combining these two words we have the village of WekiDuba. Serejqa is another Blen combined word Sara and Juiqa which mean eat, drink and get clothed. This place is named so because the place was known for its cold weather people couldn’t tolerate.
Tera Emni (line of stones) is a place found in the Southern region and the name for this place is basically brought from the stones aligned there. Mendefera is the capital of this region and its history tells that the area was a very dense scary forest where people never dare to enter. Thus, plainly the word is a question by itself. “Men defera”? “Who dares it (to the forest)”?The Italians decided to turn the forest into a town to spread their empire and establish something out there. They dared to step into the all-time scary forest; this is why it was named Men defera? until today. Further to the south there is a village named Emni Haili, again named after a round stone that is difficult to lift though not too hefty. This stone is annually brought to the Eritrean Festival to challenge people to lift it up, and not all people manage to do it.
Emba Soira is known as the highest mountain in Eritrea. The word Soira is a Saho word and it means lofty and looking at the mountain anyone would agree with the name given. Senafe is another southern regional town which is named after the Yemeni caravans who travelled towards this land. At some point they looked back and couldn’t trace their way back home and they asked, “Sen’a Fen”?, “which way is Sen’a?” referring to the capital of Yemen, their home town.
In the Anseba region we find a town named Ela Ber’ed. The area is known for the many white cattle known as Ela Ber’ed. The next big town you find after Ela Ber’ed is Keren, a charming town surrounded by a chain of mountains. The word Keren in Arabic means Chain of Mountains. Another town named after the Blen language is Deraqui and the word means Pottery. It is called so because people did and still use the soil of the village for making Potteries.
Liban is a village blessed with incense. This incense is extracted from trees and stones. Using incense is a commonly seen tradition in our culture. Aqurdat is a town found in the Gash Barka region and its name is a Tigre word for an insect known as Qurdid. This insect troubled the people of the place by sticking to the body of their livestock and sucking the blood. Later, the town took the name of the insect. Gogne is a kunama word for Corner. The village has taken the name because it is located in a corner of a mountain. Shambqo refers to Ownership in Kunama. In the old days Kunama people started to live in the area and declared everything found in the area as their ownership. Molqi is the name of a place which I found funny when I was reading. It is a formal Tigrinya word for Mumlaq which contextually meant out of position. People who were travelling on a plain land that seemed with no end and they said, “Anta Moliqna ember” referring to their helpless legs as they were super tired and unable to finish the journey.
Sawa is an Arabic word for togetherness pronounced as ‘Se wa’. For a while the place was known as center for unified military activities. The name is given to address to the unified activities done together. Sawa is now a town of academic excellence and military training.
It is said that the Italian word Vafanculo is the origin for the naming of the village Fanko. There was an event when the Italians blocked some rivers to make a dam and, unfortunately, the power of the reserved water bursted the walls and they were disappointed, and the name gradually developed into Fanko. What would you name a place with no inhabitants, no vegetation, no nothing? Tigre people found such an area and they called it “Alebun” and, hence, the village Alebu which means “nothing available”. Af’abet is an interesting story I found out while reading the book. It is originally a word uttered from a Tigre shepherd when he couldn’t reply to a foreigner who asked what the place was called. The Tigre man couldn’t understand his words and said Af Abet, “the tongue couldn’t talk” and since then the place has been called Af’abet.
Omhajer comes from an Arabic word Um Hajer meaning Mother of Stones. The area is full of stones. Nefasit is a town found underneath the Debre Bizen monastery. This town is located between Bizen and the eastern Arbe Robue mountains. It is called Nefasit because wind blows between these mountains from different directions at different times. Assab is derived from an Afar word Asbuy which means a place of Salt.
It is interesting to know the names of the towns and villages of the country one is living in. It is of great importance to know how people came to name them and that is part of our history.