It is clear that both Nigeria and Niger get their names from the Niger River that flows through them. But what is not so clear how the river got its name. Some speculate that the name has its origin in the Latin word nigreos for black, others claim that the river’s name is rooted in the Berber / Tamajaq name for the river egerew n-igeruwen.
Both theories are traced back to Leo Africanus the Andalusian Berber who around the year 1526 wrote The History & Description of Africa in both Italian and Arabic.
Of the rivers in Africa, Leo says,
“The river of Niger, running through the land of Negros, called of old (as Solinus supposed) by the natural inhabitants Astabus, and (according to Marmolius) Hued Nijar in the Arabian toung, is now esteemed by Paulus to be Gambra, and by Cadamosta the river of Senega; but that both of them are deceived, it is evident but of the description of Sanutus, who putteth downe the two foresaid rivers severallie, and thinketh Niger to be that which is now called Rio grande.”
“This lande of Negros hath a mightie river, which taking his name of the the region, is called Niger; this river taketh his original from the east out of a certain desert called by the foresaid Negros Sen. Others will have this river to spring out of a certaine lake, and so to run westward till it exonerateth it selfe into the Ocean sea.”
In the Italian version the river is called Niger. However, in the Arabic version, the river is called nahr al-anhur. Now it is important to remember that Leo Africanus was an Andalusian Berber, born al-Hasan ibn Muhammad al-Wazzan al-Fasi who being expelled from Spain later took refuge in Rome. Nahr al-anhur is the literal translation from his native Berber language’s egerew n-igerewan, which means river of rivers. Furthermore, while Leo did not travel to all the places described in his Description of Africa, he did travel to Timbuktu where he would have actually seen the river and interacted with the people who lived around it including those Kel Tamasheq who spoke a dialect of his native language.
So what do you think? What is the most likely origin of the name Niger?
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