Boma – the origins

I was recently involved in some discussions around the origin of the word BOMA.
During World War 1 it generally referred to a fort, military or government base. But it also refers to a place where animals were/are kept and today refers to a building which had administrative/military links. Specifically coming to mind are Boma ya N’gombe (place of the cow) in Tanzania and the Boma in Arusha which is today the Environmental or Natual History museum.

Before the on-line discussion, I hadn’t given the term much thought, having assumed that it was an African term – one I grew up with in SA, used alongside or instead of laager or kraal. So, I turned to my trusty ‘Dictionary of South African English‘: and this is what is says:

East African English from Swahili meaning stockade, enclosure, specific and extended senses have developed in SA English

The earliest reference the dictionary has is to Rider Haggard in Benita (1906)

There was another definition Xhosa word Bhoma which was used for a fruit orchard but which became confused with ibhuma or seclusion hut used during circumcision.

That wonderful source Wikipedia which can be helpful on some things gives some interesting further insight, namely that the idea of BOMA standing for British Overseas Management Administration is a complete myth.

A more reliable but shorter discussion can be found on H-Net
taking the meaning back to Krapf’s dictionary in 1882 and according to ‘Media Club South Africa‘ was used by Stanley in 1871 (How I found Livingstone).

Regardless of its origin, the term remains one used for a variety of situations making the context of its use a vital clue. The most recent use of boma in various forms that I’ve come across features in the novel A Celebration Husband by Maya Alexandri (2015).


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