Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Why Muzungu?

Ask ten people why foreigners in Rwanda are called abazungu (muzungu is the singular form), and you will get ten different answers. Some have told me that it means “white person.” Others say “person with light skin.” Still others say it means “rich person.”

I think, though, that I’ve finally heard the right explanation.

The Rwandans didn’t always call white people abazungu. Back when the Germans were the colonizers, they were called German. The French were the French. Et cetera.

But after World War I, when the Belgians came to take over the territory from the Germans, they were called Abazungu, not Belgians.

...Because the verb that Muzungu and Abazungu come from is “kuzungura,” which means “to replace, to take over.”


* * *
As a quick side note, the Kinyarwanda word for muzungu comes from the Swahili “mzungu.” Back in the days of Jomo Kenyatta, Kenya’s first president, there was a rebel movement called the “Mau Mau,” which was actually an acronym:

Mzungu Aende Ulaya
Mweusi Apate Uluru

Which means: “Conquerors return to Europe, black men recover independence.”

* * *
Of course, the Belgian presence here in Rwanda was so significant that the term muzungu stuck—and now everyone who is a foreigner, including those of African descent, is called a muzungu. I’m glad it doesn’t mean people are shouting “white girl!” to me everywhere, but somehow I don’t feel any better knowing that they’re calling me a conqueror, either.


Anonymous Anonymous said...


I just stumbled upon your blog
while trying to find english/kinyarwanda translation.
I sponsor a child Rwanda and wanted to write Happy Birthday in Kinyarwanda. Thank you for providing the translations. Your blog is also going to provide me with a better insight to life in Rwanda and it looks like I have two years worth of reading to do.
Thanks again, kathy

(Another Washingtonian that would love to ditch the rain and head to Africa to volunteer, if she didn't have a zillion pets.....)

7/16/2008 2:08 AM  
Blogger Morgan C. said...

Hey, Kathy,

Umunsi Mwiza is what many people say, which means "Good day"--but you might want to check the Kinyarwanda dictionary elsewhere on this blog (there's a link on the homepage) because I recall that I have another way of saying it there.

Good luck!

7/16/2008 2:48 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Isabukuru nziza. That's how you say Happy birthday in kinyarwanda...

7/17/2008 6:18 AM  
Blogger Morgan C. said...

Thanks, anonymous!

7/18/2008 6:05 AM  
Blogger Brian (brian_cooper at hotmail d o t com) said...

Two other explanations I've heard are both based on its deriving from kuzungu, a Swahili verb meaning something like "to turn".

1) The foreigners seemed crazy. (i.e. like their heads are spinning or they are dizzy, or crazy people turn their head back or forth or run back and forth from one place to another.

2) The foreigners were always coming and going.

7/24/2008 5:53 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Brian's explanation is what I've heard most - albeit from other Swahili speakers. "he who spins around in circles".

But the Kinyarwanda and Mau Mau explanations are pretty intriguing too.

10/05/2009 8:02 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

To be honest, it is probably derived from that (maybe) but nowadays most of us growing up in Rwanda just come to link the term with a white person or a black person who has very western culture tendencies, or lack of Rwandan/African ones lol..

I don't think anyone (including myself) looks at a white person and things 'conqueror' . Nonetheless, I understand the interest in working out its origin.

Good luck with your search, great blog.

11/04/2011 5:25 AM  
Blogger Magomu said...

Muzungu means oppressor

6/16/2014 7:09 PM  
Blogger Unknownblack said...

Muzungu means a lot of things to many people. In Bantu heavy areas like South Africa, Zambia and Zimbabwe it can be quite negative given their past with white people. However Bantus out on the fringes in places like east Africa and west Africa where they're not quite so dominant it's seen as a positive term for the most part. People in Kenya especially admire white people. I even come from a place that translates as the white place. They say my people moved their during colonial times. It must have been on the fringes too because they never really developed any overtly negative attitudes towards white people. There number one concern is culture. So the bible is forefront. The bible with spice of course.

8/16/2017 2:54 PM  

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