The Berlusconi in Us All: Bunga Bunga's Real Meaning

Behind the name of the Prime Minister's debauched and allegedly criminal parties are the injustices of a troubled nation

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Zoubeir Souissi/Reuters

Think back to September of 1998, when prosecutor Kenneth Starr released a report detailing then-President Bill Clinton's affair with his intern, Monica Lewinsky, and America alternately blushed and grew indignant at the lurid details: a stained dress, a wayward cigar that "tasted good," a confounding insistence by Clinton that nine blow jobs did not constitute "sexual relations."

Now close your eyes and imagine the Zippergate narrative with a few extra twists. Say police caught Monica jumping a metro turnstile and carrying a few grams of coke, after which Bill called to get her off the hook, claiming she was related to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. And that, instead of submitting to impeachment trials, eventually cooperating with prosecutors, and apologizing to his wife, Clinton bragged about how America's interns are the prettiest, and nicknamed his encounters something along the lines of "sucky-sucky."

Open your eyes. You're in Bunga Bunga Land, Silvio Berlusconi's world of fantasy and impunity. The scandal-ridden Italian Prime Minister today faces trial, and up to 15 years jail time, for allegedly paying for sex thirteen times with Karima el-Mahroug, who at 17 years old was at the time below legal age, as well as abuse of office. At the center of the case are what have become known as Berlusconi's "bunga bunga" parties: bizarre, orgiastic gatherings at his mansion outside Milan.

Until October 28, 2010, the phrase "bunga bunga" was a scarce presence online. It appeared on a few Indonesian news websites; "bunga" means flower, and "berbunga-bunga" means joy in Bahasa Indonesia. Then Italian newspaper La Repubblica broke the news that el-Mahroug, a voluptuous 18-year-old exotic dancer, told Milanese prosecutors that the Italian Prime Minister, now 74, held regular orgies at his Milan estate. They included a sex game called "bunga bunga." They also included minors. Now a search for "bunga bunga" turns up more than four million results, and its own blog, But what does it actually mean?

What the hell is "bunga bunga"?

The story of bunga bunga begins over a century ago with a prank by Irish aristocrat Horace de Vere Cole. According to news reports from 1910, Cole and a group of friends dressed in blackface, pretending to be the Abyssinian royal family, and traveled to Weymouth, England, to inspect British warships. Yale English Professor Wes Davis wrote, "It's unclear where the Mirror reporter got the idea that the fake Abyssinians had used the phrase 'Bunga, bunga,' but after the account appeared, the words soon turned up in music hall songs, and boys used them to taunt naval officers on the streets."

Cecilia Robustelli, a linguistics professor at the University of Modena, told me, "In Italian, when you want to imitate Africans, you use very nasal sounds." Robustelli is aware of the Abyssinian backstory, but, she said, "I doubt Berlusconi knows anything about that -- that's a bit too intellectual, I'm afraid."

More likely, she suggested, Berlusconi, as with many Italians, is familiar with "Civilization," a song from the late 1940s whose chorus runs "Bongo, bongo, bongo, I don't wanna leave the Congo." Berlusconi is also know for telling an old, vulgar joke about two colonial officers who are captured by a sodomitic African tribal chief who forces them to submit to "bunga bunga." In his updated version -- political humor at its finest -- the colonial officers are replaced by two opposition ministers.

El-Mahroug, the exotic dancer who unleashed BungaGate, told prosecutors that "Silvio told me that he'd copied that expression -- 'bunga bunga' -- from Qaddafi: it's a rite of his African harem."

Robustelli said the phrase's repetitive structure gives it an "iconic value."

"When you repeat a word, you tend to express an inner involvement in what you do, like a mother to their child: 'Mangia, mangia!' It means do it, and do it again. When you hear the sound of bunga, it's like when you push something: Bunga!"

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Anna Louie Sussman is a New York-based freelance writer for major U.S. magazines and newspapers, and the senior editor and writer for

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