Origin of the name "Gobabis"
Image: Central Business Area; Gobabis; 1956
Today, it is generally assumed that Gobabis is a Khoe-Khoe Gowab word meaning "drinking-place of the elephants" or "elephant's fountain". This assumption, however, is quite incorrect.
Dr Heinrich Vedder held that "Gobabis" was a corrupted version of the Khoe-Khoe Gowab words =|=khoa (elephant) and -bis (place),⁵ and this interpretation gained increasing popular acceptance - so much so that it is used in the majority of publicity materials produced even today. G.S. Nienaber and P.E. Raper, attached to the Onomastic Research Centre of the HSRC, on the other hand, argued that the true meaning of the town's name has nothing to do with elephants whatsoever. After extensive fieldwork and interviews with Nama savants and other knowledgeable persons, they arrived at the conclusion that "Gobabis" does not contain any element that can be linked to =|=goab, but that the name is rather derived from the word goba, which means "to discuss, deliberate, argue, quarrel", and that Gobabis, therefore, means a "place where people discussed, argued, disputed, where there was a row, an altercation..."⁶
linguistic arguments, thus, speaking against "Elephant's Fountain", although there are a number of historical facts on which a case for this name could be argued. In former times, the area around Gobabis and further north, along the Nossob River and the omurambas in what is today part of the Omaheke region, boasted a strong population of elephant⁷ and the settlement was not only a base camp for ivory hunters in the area for quite some time, but also operated as a trading post at which ivory was bartered (at three shillings for the pound) and stored. On account of the fact that ivory tusks tended to crack in the area's dry climate, they were, on occasion, actually kept in the fountain itself, a practice that could possibly explain the oral tradition which holds that the well-known elephant hunter Hendrik van Zyl dumped his tusks into the fountain to ensure that they did not fall into the hands of his enemies.⁸ Furthermore, oral tradition has it that the oldest name of the site is =|=khoandabes, "place where the elephant came to lick". One informant, Elias Gariseb, told members of the Onomastic Research centre the following: "When I became conscious of the world, the name was Gobabis, but before the Whites came, the old people called the place =|=khoandabis."⁹
The earliest recorded use of "Elephant's Fountain" is to be found in the journal of a Wesleyan missionary, the Rev. Joseph Tindall, who wrote on 6 August 1845: "Reached Gobabis which I named 'Elephant's Fountain' ".¹⁰ The decision to use this name could possibly be ascribed to the fact that "Place of Altercation" would not bode too well for the future of the mission station he intended establishing there. Whether this actually represents a renaming of the place, or whether it was merely a revival of the older, traditional name =|=khoandabes, cannot be determined.
The above indicates that the place had two names, the first being =|=Khoandabes, "Place where the elephant come to lick", and Gobabis, "Place of discussion, argument, dispute".
Oral traditions do not provide any indications of what the dispute may have been all about, but it must have been a dispute of some magnitude, for else such a place name would not have been used. In all probability, it took place well before the arrival of the first permanent residents, the Gai- || khaun (also known as the Amraal Oorlam) who moved to the Gobabis area with Rev. Tindall in 1845. Certainly, there were also disputes at Gobabis in later times, such as that between the Oorlam and the Mbanderu, who both laid claim to the fountain, and between European adventurers and the older inhabitants. Read more about Early Inhabitants