Something that has always intrigued me as I traveled in various countries is the meaning of the name of towns, cities, rivers and areas. Often we don’t bother to understand their meaning. For example, over several years I have lived in Connecticut – which is a word in the Algonquin language for “place of the long river.”

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Piroque on the Tsiribihina River.
Apparently is river is actually crossable!
In the same language, Massachusetts means “at the great blue hill,” referring to a place southwest of present day Boston. In the Sioux language, Mississippi means “big river” and Missouri means “river where one needs a canoe.”

Bishop Donald Pelletier sent me some reflections on the names of various places in Madagascar:

“To give a word a negative meaning in the Malagasy language, the word “tsi” is used. A number of towns, villages, rivers and locations are given a negative name using this “tsi.”

“At times it is easy to understand why a negative connotation would be given, while at other times the exact reason for doing so isn’t really clear. The largest river in this area is the Tsiribihina – meaning “not crossable” – probably because of the large number of crocodiles inhabiting its river and banks.

 

“The town of Tsimaloto – “Not-dirty” – really lives up to its name, for there is crystal clear water that gushes from a dark cave. We can understand why the town is named “Not-dirty” because of the water that flows there.

But the town of Tsimafana – meaning “Not-hot” – is an example that challenges one’s understanding. In reality it is just as hot in Tsimafana (Not-hot) as in any other town of the area! It is certainly not cold!

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In the background is Bongolava Mountain which
– with reason – meant “old-people-cannot-climb-it.”
Over the years, Missionaries have made long, tiring trips to Tsimazava – meaning “No-light” – and one could easily understand that such a lost and isolated village should be named “No-light.” Recently the fathers began revisiting Tsimazava (No-light). With the people, they thought it would be better to call it Soamazava – (Good-light). With a new Catholic community that prays there every Sunday, the light of faith does shine in the darkness. I don’t think we can officially change the name of the town but at least the church will be called Soamazava, “Good-light.”

Years ago we actually changed the name of the place called Tsiafakantitra – meaning “Old-people-cannot-climb-here” – because on one August day I climbed there to prove that an old person can make it to the top! This high hill – where we will make the Shrine to Our Lady of La Salette on the western slopes of the Bongolava Mountain – is accessible for even the elderly to climb, albeit at a slower pace than the youngsters. So it is now called Afakantitra –“Old-people-can-climb-it.” However, we are not thinking of changing the names of all the towns.

In Ankavandra, there is a town called Tsiafapapango – “a-hawk-cannot-reach-this-high.” Every time I fly out of Anfavandra, I hold my breath until the plane climbs over that summit! No, I’m not about to compete with the hawks!”

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The town of Tsiafapapango, meaning
“a-hawk-cannot-reach-this-high.