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.
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.
Kenya 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