It Was Used by Arab Slave Traders to Describe Black People
If you are from East Africa, you've probably called someone "shenzi" or heard someone refer to another as "shenzi type".
If you are Kenyan, you may have heard Francis Atwoli shout "Washenzi" in one one of his long speeches; or, if you love animals, you could be keeping a "shenzi" dog in your home.
Also, if you watched Lion King, you might remember that the name of the hyena character is "Shenzi".
A few years ago, a Kenyan formed an NGO called Ushenzi Initiative; and he said its goal was to lobby against "Washenzi" - such as those who pee streets or those overlap in heavy traffic.
"Shenzi" is a commonly used word in Eastern Africa, and it is also one of Kiswahili's oldest.
An online search showed that, in Kiswahili, the word "Shenzi" is used to refer to someone who is barbarous, ill-mannered, uncivilized, or uncouth.
Unknown to many of its users, the word "Shenzi" was derived from "Zenj", the Arabic word for "black people".
Before European arrival in Eastern Africa, the region had interacted with the Arab world for centuries.
As far back as the 4th century, Arab traders traveled to East Africa in search of slaves, gold, and ivory; and, in the ancient maps that they used, the coastline of today's Kenya, Tanzania, and Mozambique was referred to as "Zenj", meaning "the country of black people."
Later, they used the word "Zenj" to refer to the Bantu people who occupied this region.
However, the local population could not pronounce it in Arabic; and that is how "Zenj" became "Shenz". It is this version that later found its way into the Swahili language.
The attitude of the Arab world towards the Zenj was mainly influenced by the stories they heard from Arab traders; and this attitude found its way into popular Arab literature of the time.
Writing in the 10th century, Abi Bakr al-Maqdisi, a respected Arabic geographer of the time, described the Zenj people as follows:
"As for the Zenj, they are people of black color, flat noses, kinky hair, and little understanding or intelligence."
This description of Africans survived even during colonial time. In colonial times, Europeans encouraged Africans to get rid of their "shenzi" cows and replace them with breeds imported from Europe.
Now you know!