Saturday, 14 September 2019 22:51:11

The Origin of the Word "Shenzi"

A Look at Who Early Visitors to East Africa Thought We Are

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 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" - people who pee streets or overlap in traffic.

"Shenzi" is a commonly used word in Eastern Africa, and it is also one of Kiswahili's oldest.

An online search shows that, in Kiswahili, the word "Shenzi" means a barbarous, ill-mannered, uncivilized, or uncouth person.

Unknown to many of its users, the word "Shenzi" came from "Zenj", the Arabic word for "black people".

East Africa had interacted with the Arab world for thousands of years before Europeans arrived. As far back as the 4th century, Arab traders travelled to East Africa in search of slaves, gold, and ivory. Some of the maps they used still exist, and most refer to the coastline of today's Kenya, Tanzania, and Mozambique 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, so 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 shaped 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 colour, 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 European breeds.


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