Thrusting upward from the plains, its snow-capped peaks rising high above the clouds, Kilimanjaro has long been viewed as a symbol, a seat of mythic power, the home of gods and legends alike. For thousands of years, Kili has been captivating the minds of both Tanzanians and visitors. Learn more about myths surrounding Kilimanjaro:
The Maasai refer to Kilimanjaro as ol doinyo naibor, “the white mountain” or ngaje ngai, “the house of God.” They believed Kilimanjaro was protected by evil spirits who would freeze anyone who attempted to ascend it.
Between the second century and the 19th, only a handful of vague references to Kilimanjaro occur. Remarkably, the western world wasn’t even aware of the existence of Kilimanjaro until 1849, when missionary Johannes Rebmann wrote of a snowy mountain in the heart of Africa. That wasn’t enough to convince some people; Rebmann’s reports were initially rejected as fantasy by the Royal Geographical Society. It wasn’t until 1861, when further expeditions to Kili bore out Rebmann’s claims, that “opinion” of the existence of the mountain, and its snowy peak, changed.
Though explanations abound, no one is really certain of the origin of the name Kilimanjaro (they can’t even agree on which language it comes from!). We do know, however, where the names of the two highest peaks, Kibo and Mawenzi come from: the Chagga people, who have always lived on and around Kilimanjaro. “Kibo” derives from kipoo, which means “spotted,” a reference to the speckling of black rocks amidst the snow at Kili’s peak. “Mawenzi” comes from kimawenze, which means broken or notched—a reference to Mawenzi’s jagged top.
The Chagga also tell tales of a great cave high atop Kilimanjaro where elephants, realizing their time is near, go to die (as a kind of final defiance of poachers seeking their ivory tusks). If you find the cave, you’re allowed to take away a tusk, but you can’t get too greedy; if you waste time trying to find the largest or carry away more than your fair share, the story goes, you’ll be struck blind on the spot.
Kilimanjaro has inspired men to tell stories, to climb…and to sing, like South African band Juluka did in this 80s throwback.