What does it mean to be dizzy with disorientation? What does it mean to be white in Africa? What does it mean that there’s one word that not only means both things, but implies them to be the same thing? What does mzungu
“Local term I’ll remember most clearly: muzungu, which in Nyanja means “white dude” (roughly). I’ve spent much of the last week in the compounds, the dirt-poor neighborhoods of Lusaka — no running water, no electricity, no real roads, just poverty and death. Whenever I’d roll through in my taxi, on my way to an interview, I’d hear it from every direction: Muzungu! Muzungu! Normally said by six-year-old boys in a totally friendly and welcoming fashion (although occasionally by drunken teenagers in a less friendly way).”
This is what the word originally meant to me; maybe this is what it meant to Henry Morton Stanley, at least when he was writing. But it doesn’t have to mean that. Maybe it doesn’t even have to be related to that.
Saida Karoli’s “Mapenzi Kizunguzungu”:
Or this, “Kizunguzungu” by Carter:
I have an interest in knowing.
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Addendum: Friend of the blog Wayne Marshall has posted some of the email conversation we had about the term zunguzungu here. His interest in those syllables comes from what seems like a completely unrelated direction, the meaning the meme “zunguzung” has in the context of movements both cultural and physical between Jamaica and the Bronx, what the term translates and how it signifies within the larger story of hip hop’s development as a global cultural form. The story he tells — read it here — is fascinating for its own reasons, and might turn out to be connected to the story I’m interested in (if that) by nothing other than the similarity between the sounds. That’s where I’d put the safe money. But, then, it’s also a big world, with lots of stories, and as an ethnomusicologist like Wayne might be the first to point out, sometimes sounds actually do mean something!