Swahili for Travellers

Maasai cultural tourism.
"Hujambo", the Kiswahili word for "hello", is easily the most recognised greeting in East Africa, and is arguably the most recognised African word by people who have visited the region on safari.

First of all, is it Swahili or Kiswahili? It’s both! It’s ‘Swahili’ if you say it in English and ‘Kiswahili’ if you say it in Swahili.

Swahili is the lingua franca of East Africa. Together with English it is the official language of both Kenya and Tanzania. With more than 50 million speakers Swahili is the most widely used language in Africa, although only about a million people recognise it as their mother tongue.

Outside of Kenya and Tanzania the language is spoken in areas of Zambia, Democratic Republic of Congo, Uganda, Malawi, Somalia and Mozambique with smaller pockets of speakers in Rwanda and Burundi.

Origins of Swahili

Swahili dates back to the early days of trade, along the East African coast, with the local Bantu tribes communicating with the Arab sailors. For centuries, Swahili remained a coastal language. In fact ‘Swahili’ is originally an Arabic word meaning ‘the coast’.

Over the centuries it has developed into the lingua franca of the region, incorporating words from several languages as the trade route developed with more countries sailing and trading along the coast.

A large proportion of the language is derived from Arabic, but there are also influences from trading with the Germans, Portuguese, English, Indians and the French. The grammar and syntax are however purely Bantu (African). It is a language developed via contact with empire builders, traders and slavers over the centuries. Trade and migration from the Swahili coast during the nineteenth century spread the language to the interior of East Africa.

Christian missionaries adopted Swahili as the language to communicate and spread the gospels to the East Africans, so they helped spread the language too. In fact the first Swahili - English dictionary was developed by a missionary, which is why the written Swahili uses English phonetics.

As in all languages there are regional dialects, and Swahili is no different; the coastal Swahili uses different words and phrases to the mainland Swahili, and of course there are differences from country to country.

There is a Swahili saying: “Swahili was born in Zanzibar, grew up in Tanzania, grew old in Kenya and died in Uganda”. The most pure Swahili is still spoken on the coast, but especially in Zanzibar. in Tanzania the majority of the population converses daily in Swahili. In Kenya, in the city areas; especially in Nairobi, not everyone speaks it, and those that do use it, mainly use slang words. In Uganda, no one wants to speak it as it is perceived as being the language of the oppressor, especially after Idi Amin’s reign.

Swahili Greetings

Everybody around the world responds to a friendly greeting and in East Africa politeness is a key element of a safari. Some of the greetings commonly used are:

Hujambo - answered by Sijambo

  • How are you?
  • Hi, hello
  • Greetings

Sijambo - in reply to Hujambo

  • I’m fine, i have no problems
  • Hi, hello.
Once the conversation has been initiated, it is usually followed by questions about the home, family and work. The Swahili culture is a very laid back culture but also very polite and taking time to find out about each other’s well being is deemed very important. Kiswahili speakers are often baffled with tourists that after saying a simple hello, jump straight into the business end of the conversation before completing the greetings.

Please note, that should you get the greetings mixed up, or you forget the words, Swahili people are not likely to become angry, they are more likely to give you a huge smile, be amused and understanding of your language difficulties. They are usually very happy that you tried.

Habari (noun) meaning - news

Habari gani? - answered by Mzuri

  • What’s new?
  • How are you doing?

Habari yako?

  • How are you doing?

Habari za asubuhi

  • Good morning (literary news of the morning)

Habari za mchana

  • Good afternoon (literary news of the afternoon)

Habari za jioni

  • Good evening. (literary news of the evening)

Mzuri - in reply to Habari

  • Good, nice
  • Beautiful
  • Attractive
Other useful words to learn are:
  • Yes - Ndiyo
  • No - Hapana
  • Thank you - Asante
  • Thank you very much - Asante sana
  • Please - Tafadhali
  • Excuse me - Samahani
  • You're Welcome - Starehe Karibu
  • How much? Shilingi ngapi?
  • May I take a picture? - Naomba kupiga picha
  • Where? - wapi
  • Do you speak English? - Unasema kiingereza?
  • Friend - Rafiki
  • What is your name? - Jino lako nani?
  • Goodbye - Kwaheri
  • Sleep well - lala salama
  • Sorry (as in sympathy) - pole
  • Slowly - pole pole
  • Drive slowly - endisha pole pole

Food and Drink in Swahili

Food and drink are an important part of a safari anywhere in Africa and knowing the local words for some of the more common items can be helpful.

Food - chakula
Hot/cold - ya moto/baridi
Water - maji
Hot water - maji ya moto
Drinking water - maji ya kunywa
Soft drinks - soda
Beer - bia
Milk - maziwa
Meat - nyama
Chicken - kuku
Fish - samaki
Beef - nyama
Fruit - matunda
Vegetables - mboga

Safari Animals

Knowing the names of the animals you see on safari in the local lingo can be fun, as is asking your guide in his own language about your favourite animals.

Buffalo - Nyati
Cheetah - Duma
Elephant - Tembo / Ndovuh
Giraffe - Twiga
Hippo - Kiboko
Hyena - Fisi
Leopard - Chui
Lion - Simba
Rhino - Kifaru
Warthog - Ngiri
Wildebeest - Nyumbu
Zebra - Punda milia
Goat - Mbuzi
Dog - Mbwa
Cat - Paka
Crocodile - Mamba
Impala - Swala
Gerenuk - Swala twiga
Bird - Ndege
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