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Russian traveller Viktor Pinchuk (in Africa)

Also known as muzungu, mlungu, musungu or musongo, mzungu (pronounced [m̩ˈzuŋɡu]) is a Bantu word that means "wanderer" originally pertaining to spirits. The term is currently used in predominantly Swahili speaking nations to refer to foreign people dating back to 18th century. The noun Mzungu or its variants are used in Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Malawi, Rwanda, Burundi, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Comoros, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Mayotte, Zambia and in Northern Madagascar (the word changed to "vozongo" in Malagasy, but locals will still understand the word mzungu) dating back to the 18th century.


Literally translated mzungu meant "someone who roams around" or "wanderer."[1] The term was first used in Africa to describe Arab, Indian and European traders and explorers in the 18th century, apparently because they moved around aimlessly. The word mzungu comes from Kiswahili, where zungu or zunguka is the word for spinning around on the same spot. Kizunguzungu is Kiswahili for dizziness.[2] The term is now used to refer to "someone with white skin" or "white skin", but can be used to refer to all foreigners more generally.[3] The word mzungu in Swahili can also mean someone who speaks English.[4]

The possessive kizungu (or chizungu) translates as "behaving rich". However, in some areas, such as in Rwanda and Burundi, it does not necessarily refer to the colour of one's skin. Traditionally, Europeans were seen to be people of means and rich and so the terminology was extended to denote affluent persons regardless of race. It would therefore not be unusual to find any employer being referred to as mzungu. In the Bantu Swahili language, the plural form of mzungu is wazungu.[5][6][7] The plural form may be used to confer a respect, such as the use of the term azungu to refer to individual foreigners in Malawi's Chichewa language.[8][9] The possessive kizungu (or chizungu) translated literally means "of the wanderers". It has now come to mean "language of the wanderers" and more commonly English, as it is the language most often used by wazungu in the African Great Lakes area. However it can be used generally for any European language. Wachizungu, bachizungu, etc. – literally "wandering people" – have come to mean people who adopt the Western culture, cuisine and lifestyle.

Everyday use[edit]

Mzungu can be used in an affectionate or insulting way. It is used in Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda, Malawi Zimbabwe and Burundi. It is often called out by children to get the attention of a passerby.[10][11][12] For example, in Malawi, it is common for people to use the casual greeting Azungu boh! to individuals or groups of foreigners.[8]

Regional variations
Language Singular Plural Possessive
Swahili in the African Great Lakes Mzungu Wazungu Kizungu
Shikomori in Comoros Mzungu Wazungu Chizungu
Luganda in Uganda oMuzungu aBazungu Kizungu
Chichewa in Malawi Mzungu Azungu Chizungu
Chinyanja in Zambia Mzungu Bazungu Chizungu
Kinyarwanda in Rwanda / Kirundi in Burundi Umuzungu Abazungu ikizungu
Bemba in Zambia and Democratic Republic of the Congo Musungu Basungu Chisungu
Kisii language in Kenya Omusongo Abasongo Ebisongo
Sena in Mozambique Muzungu Azungu
Shona in Zimbabwe Murungu Varungu Chirungu
isiZulu in South Africa Umlungu Abelungu Isilungu
ikiRuguru in Tanzania Imzungu Iwazungu

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Chemi Che-Mponda. "Swahili Time". Retrieved 23 September 2015.
  2. ^ "What is a muzungu? Definition". Diary of a Muzungu - Uganda travel blog. Retrieved 23 September 2015.
  3. ^ [1]. What is a muzungu?. Retrieved on 2018-07-14.
  4. ^ Githiora, Chege (December 2002). "Sheng: Peer language, Swahili dialect or emerging Creole?". Journal of African Cultural Studies. 15 (2): 159–181. doi:10.1080/1369681022000042637. ISSN 1369-6815. S2CID 144446766.
  5. ^ H-Net Discussion Networks – Etymology of the term muzungu: reply Archived 2013-07-09 at the Wayback Machine. (2002-09-19). Retrieved on 2011-05-28.
  6. ^ The Wandering Wazungu. Retrieved on 2011-05-28.
  7. ^ Notas. The Janissary Stomp. Retrieved on 2011-05-28.
  8. ^ a b "The 12 Words You'll Hear in Malawi". Peace Corps. Retrieved 14 July 2018.
  9. ^ "Chichewa (Bantu)" (PDF). Blackwell Publishing. Retrieved 14 July 2018.
  10. ^ Harrisberg, Kim (25 December 2013). "Rwanda: A Mzungu's Thoughts On Justine Sacco".
  11. ^ "Mary Walker: Christmas in Kenya". Retrieved 23 September 2015.
  12. ^ Jens Finke (2003). Tanzania. Rough Guides. ISBN 9781858287836. Retrieved 23 September 2015.

External links[edit]