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Pundamilia - What's in a Name?

By , 2006.
Last updated on 13-Jul-2006

Greg Steeves,

Pundamilia - What’s in a Name?


My local cichlid club holds a monthly photo contest. Recently Les Kaufman judged Victorian month. From a quote he made regarding one photo came the inspiration for an article on a topic seldom written about. “In this sense, it is especially appropriate that the species bears the name of Tanzania's beloved "mwalimu" (Swahili for "teacher").” What an interesting bit of information. I’m going to try to shed a little light on that. Hopefully, after reading this, you will never have to mumble this species’ name under your breath again.

Let’s start with a very brief discussion on the genus name, Pundamilia. I just did light research on this but found fairly consistent information. Pundamilia is a derivative from another Swahili term meaning “zebra” or “zebra-like”. The information becomes a little more variable in regards to correct pronunciation. Poon-da-ME-lee-a (as in moon) was the most common with Pun-da-ME-lee-a (as in fun) a close second. I can’t say here which is correct. I’ll probably use both and be right 50% of the time.

Now, let’s get into to the details for the species name, nyererei.

First, what does it mean?

It actually is not a translatable word like "mwalimu". It is an honorific to the first President of Tanzania, Julius Kambarage Nyerere. Mr. Nyerere’s place in Tanzanian culture is much like we think of George Washington. Tanganyika and Zanzibar united during his term to become today’s Tanzania. He was instrumental in removing the dictator, Idi Amin, from power in neighboring Uganda. Ultimately, his economic policies were unsuccessful but, his legacy for truly serving the people with the power of the presidency is why Tanzanians and other Africans remember him. I read many anecdotes of his term in leadership and each one reinforces his basic goodness and efforts to improve the lives of his people. One of my favorites had to do with a bunch of bureaucrats going to a meeting in a town some distance from the Capital. The bureaucrats wanted limos or buses to take them. Mwalimu made them walk and spend nights in the homes of regular citizens to remind the bureaucrats what everyday life was like for the people they were serving. Realizing his country needed an infusion of new ideas, he became one of Africa’s very few leaders to voluntarily step down. This allowed for one of the rare changes of power in an African country unaccompanied by chaos or violence. Unlike many other leaders he did not steal millions or have multiple Swiss bank accounts. He retired to a small farm where he lived, taught and continued being a voice for the people until he died in 1999.

Now, how do you say it?

I’ve seen so many variations in my search on this man’s name. Here are just a few of them:
From Australia’s
From &”ura’ra (bold = line over them.)
From, & ----nye-re-re (each e as in pet)
You getting the idea that nobody knows how to say it? Here’s a bit from Englishman Clive Allen: “I would also draw your attention to that name Nyasaland. That odd combination of N andY is very common in Africa and it is the closest that our alphabet can get to describing the actual sound made in many African languages. Europeans will pronounce it as Nigh-assa-land or Nee-assa-land, using the Y as a vowel, but it is in fact a consonant. The correct pronunciation is (as closely as I can describe) Nnnn-yah-sah-land. This is true wherever N and Y are seen together so that the once President of Tanzania (ooh, another Z!), Mr Nyerere, is not Mr Nigh-uh-rare-eeh (as inevitably pronounced by European news broadcasters) but Nnnn-yeh-reh-ree.”
With so many options available to choose from on the internet, I decided to go directly to the source----and ask Africans how they say it. Fortunately, I work in a large multi-national corporation. I was able to ask my question to Nigerians, Kenyans, Ethiopians…unfortunately no native Tanzanians but, Mr. Nyerere is such a beloved figure throughout Africa that all these people knew instantly who I was talking about (even though I’m afraid I butchered his name in my questions!). This, then, is how the name is pronounced in Africa:
nye= nnnyeh (think of the Russian “nyet” for the rolling ny sound/same “e”sound as in pet or them)
re-re= reh-reh---I’d like to be able to use something simple for us southerners like Ray-Ray so that even Jim-Bob would understand but it’s much more subtle than that. It ends up using the same “e”sound as in pet or them.
Add slight emphasis to the first two syllables and you have it: nnnnyeh-reh-reh.

Now let’s complicate it and get the scientific, Latin “i” stuck on the end of it. How to pronounce the “i” and where to place the emphasis become issues. I am much more familiar with Latin in regards to plants. Here’s a brief snippet from a botanical website I go to:
“Commemorative names (eponyms):
Taxa may commemorate personal names or surnames such as Alice Eastwood's Daisy, Virginia's Warbler, and Wilson's Honeycreeper. These names are treated as latinized possessive nouns (Alice's = aliciae, Wilson's = wilsoni). The classical accent may be determined by the Latin form of the name. If Wilson were latinized as Wilsonius the pronunciation of wilsoni would be "wil-SO-nye." If Wilson were latinized as Wilsonus, the pronunciation of wilsoni would be "WIL-so-nye." Archival records indicate inconsistency in latinization of names, so some flexibility exists in pronunciation, and there is precedent in both classical and modern Latin for conservation. Thus "WIL-so-nye" (Rule 2c ) is preferable to "wil-SO-ni," whereas andersoni is best treated as "an-der-SO-ni" rather than "an-DER-so-ni."
aberti = "a-BER-tye" = Rule 2a
aliceae = "al-IS-ee-ee" = Rule 2c
calderi = "CALL-de-rye" = Rule 2c
hendersonii = "hen-der-SO-nee-eye" = Rule 2c
lewisii = "lew-ISS-ee-eye" = Rule 2c
virginiae = "vir-JIN-ee-ee" = Rule 2c”

I know of several native plants using eponyms; Gregg’s salvia=Salvia greggii ‘GREGG-ee-eye’ and Drummond’s phlox= Phlox drummondii ‘druh-MUN-dee-eye’ for examples. Unfortunately they both end in a hard consonant. There is one that may help; Swasey’s berberis= Berberis swaseyi ‘SWAY-zee-eye’. Using that as a benchmark, I would say “nnnyeh-reh-reh-eye” is appropriate. That leaves us with 3 choices for the emphasis: “NNYEH-reh-reh-eye”or “nnnyeh-REH-reh-eye”or “nnnyeh-reh-REH-eye” Using the phlox example and how it sounds rolling off my own tongue as I sit here like some kind of moron saying it aloud, I’m going with “nnnyeh-REH-reh-eye” I figure I’ve got a 1 in 3 chance for being right! Either way it’s sure to be more accurate than what I used to say, “Nigh-er-eye”, and closer to the tribute to this unique man that was intended.


Steeves, Greg. (July 13, 2006). "Pundamilia - What's in a Name?". Cichlid Room Companion. Retrieved on January 16, 2019, from: