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.”
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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.”
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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.