An aspiring model and part-time belly dancer claims she witnessed sex orgies at the villa of Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. Karima Keyek says Berlusconi referred to the parties as “bunga bunga” sex sessions and said he’d learned about them from Libyan President Muammar Qaddafi. The phrase has taken Italy by storm, but no one is quite sure whether Berlusconi made it up or if it’s a legitimate Libyan phrase. Where did bunga bunga come from?
Possibly from an old joke. The phrase bunga bunga has no meaning in Arabic nor in any of the Berber languages spoken in Libya. If Qaddafi did teach a sex act by that name to Berlusconi, he might have taken his inspiration from an old English-language joke. The joke, in short, involves three Westerners captured by a primitive tribe. The chief offers each of them a choice between death and bunga bunga. (In some tellings, the alternative is unga bunga.) The first two choose bunga bunga and are sexually tortured in various ways before being killed. The third, seeing what’s come before, selects death. At this, chief sighs heavily. “Death you have asked for, death you shall have,” he says. “But first a little bunga bunga.”
The phrase has gained currency around the world since the Berlusconi story broke, but it was occasionally used as slang for a sex act before then. Earlier references to “performing bunga bunga” in print and online suggest a group sexual assault. Urbandictionary.com, for example, contains a 2004 entry describing bunga bunga as a kind of “brutal anal gang rape.” In his 2009 book Iky’s Bipolar World, memoirist Randy Cassat tells the old joke and later uses the phrase to refer to anal rape in prison.
Bunga bunga didn’t originate with this joke, though. Colonialists in Australia referred to a particular region as the Bunga Bunga country, a name supposedly taken from the locals. (Modern Australians might be familiar with Lake Bunga, which still bears the name.) In 1843, the area become known for a mass murder, which may have been followed by cannibalism. Later on, Westerners—including the Bloomsbury group—started using the phrase bunga bunga to caricature the speech of primitive tribes, especially those of Australia.
It’s not at all clear how Qaddafi could have learned the joke. He famously hates the English language and doesn’t speak it publicly. (Berlusconi, in contrast, speaks English proficiently. He also indulges in the occasional off-color joke.) Still, the Libyan leader is known for his fondness for women. He has been accused of trading journalists access for sex. He travels with an elite corps of female bodyguards, many of whom wear makeup and high heels.
Bunga isn’t always a nonsense word. In Indonesian, a beautiful woman can be described as bunga desa, or the “village flower.” The verb berbunga-bunga means “to be frantic or wild with joy.” But neither phrase has any sexual connotation whatsoever, so it’s very unlikely that Berlusconi or Qaddafi was making a subtle Indonesian reference.
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Explainer thanks Tineke Hellwig of the University of British Columbia and Ellen Rafferty and Melisa Tjong of the University of Wisconsin-Madison.