people of the aimless wandering


Wachizungu, Bachizungu, etc.

“people of the aimless wandering”

Dating back to the 18th century, this wonderful word literally translated meant “someone who roams around aimlessly” or “aimless wanderer.”

I am considering it as a possibility for a pseudonym for reasons I’ll set out later. The term was first used in the African Great Lakes region to describe European explorers in the 18th century, apparently as a result of their propensity to get lost in their wanderings in Africa. The word Muzungu comes from Kiswahili, where ‘zungu’ or ‘zunguka’ is the word for spinning around on the same spot. That dizzy lost look was perfected by the first white people arriving in the African Great Lakes. Muzunguzungu is Kiswahili for a dizzy person. The term is now used to refer to “someone with white skin” or “white skin”and has also come to mean people who adopt the Western culture, cuisine and lifestyle.

Mzungu can be used in an affectionate or insulting way. In Kinyarwanda and Kirundi, European people are also known as rutuku which means “red” (after their skin colour). The underlying tone for “rutuku” though is in reference to aggression. Though the literal translation is “red”, the underlying translation is “aggressor”, referring to colonialism and the plundering of local resources by the “white people.” Whilst mzungu generally refers to a white person, mlungu refers to the white foam ejected from an animal’s vagina when in heat and is only used in a derogatory sense. The term is similar to “vloeibees”, meaning flow-beast, in Afrikaans.

muzunguzungu is a wonderful word at so many levels. It has a musical quality to it, like a buzzing mbira with a delightful repetition both typographically and phonetically:

U-U-U-U-U    Z-Z   G-G    N-N


It’s etymology is both delightful and mischievous – and mildly insulting too: the dizzy lost look that characterised the early explorers, imperialists, soldiers, merchants, missionaries, slavers and settlers from Europe is still there in the bewildered-look of present-day pink-skinned (see rutuku above) and ‘white-socks & sandles’ tourists to Africa. The derogatory mlungu shows how language can be a weapon of derision and resistance – and while I am no language expert it seems to me mlungu is latent in muzunguzungu – but not disclosed. I suppose I am drawn in an english, slightly self-demeaning way to muzunguzungu. I am also conscious that by assuming a distinctly african word I may be accused of misrepresenting myself. Well there’d be nothing dramatic in that for we are all a jumble of conflicting masks – and having been born in Africa at least a tiny bit of me can lay claim to being African, as a child born in Wales of Nigerian parents could lay claim to being Welsh I suppose.

I am suspicious of that the word “Ubuntu”.  It seems to have been hijacked by my white compatriots – for all manner of commercial and “rainbow-nation-building” reasons. From “Ubuntu commercial Linux offerings” to “Ubuntu Jacuzzi’s”, “Ubuntu caravans” and “Ubuntu braai accessories”, the ubiquity of the word erodes it’s meaning through overuse. Perhaps soon we’ll be able to buy “Ubuntu ammunition” without any sense of irony. My guess is that the adoption of such words and our eagerness to incorporate them into our vocabularies (or logos, or motivational seminars) is, at some level, reflective of the white man’s unconscious desire to be wanted in Africa, to overcome his alienated dizziness as it were, to not be seen as rutuku and god-forbid, mlungu. So we name our holiday homes with a suitably african-sounding name and think we have become african, in much the same way that by wearing a Jeep-branded khaki shirt I enter a fantasy of cool Vietnam GI’s and rugged good looks – Camel man style. It feels good, even if It’s just a sort of ameliorative fantasy.

4 thoughts on “people of the aimless wandering

  1. Words morph, mutate, deform, grow, die. Some retain multiple meanings while others slough off meanings and fall into disuse. The mistake we all seem to make is confusing the word for the thing-initself. Thus the word “sauce”, while conjuring up images of thick tomatoey red stuff, is merely a symbol which enables us to imagine the thick tomatoey red stuff. The stuff itself is what it is in the absence of all names. And once you get into the quantum physics of it all, “sauce” is but a useful tool to describe an amalgam of herbs and spices – these in turn being tools to describe plant extracts, the word plant itself a symbol and so on into the sub atomic realm where all is energy and nothing is what it appears to be.


  2. Early in the twentieth century, physicists realized that atoms are composed of even smaller„subatomic„particles. An atom may be small, a mere billionth of an inch across, but these subatomic particles are a hundred-thousand times smaller still. Imagine the nucleus of an atom magnified to the size of a tennis ball. The electrons would spinning around it in orbits several miles across, making the atom itself the size of London or Manhatten. As the early twentieth-century British physicist Sir Arthur Eddington put it, matter is mostly ghostly empty space„99.9999999999999% empty space to be a little more exact. If you could take away the empty space then all the subatomic particles in all the six billion people on planet earth would pack into a volume only a little larger than a grain of rice.

    With the advent of quantum theory, it was found that electrons, protons, neutrons, and the other subatomic particles were themselves far from solid„and far from even being particles. On closer examination they appear to be just waves of energy, with no exact location in space„just a probability of being around at certain point in space and time. Solid matter had, literally, disappeared into empty space.

    “Why then does the world seem so solid? Why doesn’t the 99.99999…% empty space of my hand simply pass through straight through the 99.99999…% empty space of the table it is resting upon? The answer has to do with the forces that bind the atoms together. When my hand meets the table, the force fields in the atoms of my hand come up against the equally strong fields in the atoms of the table. The mutual repulsion of these billions of tiny, but immensely strong, force fields prevents my hand penetrating the table, giving rise to the appearance of solidness. But however real it may seem, this solidness is only how things appear to us; it is not an intrinsic part of matter.”


  3. There are quantum physicists who regard the arguments above as erroneous. The attempt to explain quantum physics in terms of newtonian physics is futile; the empty space is not empty in any sense that we understand the concept of emptiness.


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