Language Primer: Swahili

If it often said – by no-one – that if Africa is a fever dream, Swahili is the soundtrack.

With over 50 million speakers worldwide, either as a first or second language, it is the continent’s most widely spoken tongue. Head for Tanzania, the DRC, Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda and this is the official vernacular you’ll use; deploy it in Mozambique or Burundi and you’ll certainly make yourself understood. Not everywhere, but enough to get by.

For some, Swahili is the voice of Africa. Think of the continent and consider the images, however cliched they may be, springing to mind. Herds of elephants roaming the savannah, perhaps, herded by magnificent tribal warriors. Traditional healers remotely viewing a savannah punctured by the rhythmic, intoxicating clatter of drums. The warmest of welcomes coupled with the most burdensome poverty. Hippos, flamingos, mountain tops touched by the good hand of God… the reader gets the point.

These visions of this imagined realm all point, mostly, the continent’s east, where Swahili is the dominant tongue. Ipso facto, not only is Swahili the sound of Africa, but it’s also the sound of daydreaming. Epochal as he was, never did Carl Jung discover something so simple and inspiring.

Read more: Heading to Ethiopia? Make life a little bit easier by learning some Amharic.

‘Karibu sana,’ said the roadside shaman as you thanked him for directions. Sotto voce, he spoke your middle name with no prompting before dissipating into the ether. (Cynical Editor: So profound. What’re you on about?)

Point being, while all such imagery is stereotypical in the extreme, it does serve a purpose in creating a passage through which to access the continent’s true depth. Swahili is a widely spoken language and any trip to the east of Africa will invariably involve its usage. Be not afeared by its tongue-twisting appearance. It’s easy enough to pick up, as well as an excellent icebreaker. Ask around and people will be more than happy to share it; this list has been solely garnered from various corners of Tanzania thanks to the kindness of strangers. 

Unleash the Swahili

Hello – Habari

How are you? – Habiri yako?

I’m ok – Uko vzuri

I’m fine – Nzuri

Please – Tafadale

Thank you (very much) – Assante (sana)

Welcome/You’re (very) welcome – Karibu (sana)

Goodbye – Faida

Good night – Usiku mwema

Good morning – Asubuhi njema

Good afternoon – Jiyone njema

Sleep well – Lala selama

Same to you – Nawewe pia

How was your day? – Umeshindaje?

How was your morning? – Umeamkaje?

Fine – Nzuri/selama

What’s your name? – Jinalako ninane?

My name is (Panthro) – Jinalako ni (Panthro)

Nice to meet you – Ninafuraki kukutana nawewe

Feel at home – Jisikie upo nyumbani

See you tomorrow – Tutaonana kesho

Today – Leo

Day after tomorrow – Kesho kutwa

Yesterday – Jana

I, me, mine – Ni, mimi, mgodi (Nb: None of us are convinced by this.)

You – Wewe

Your – Yako

He, she, it – Yeye, yeye, ni

We – Sisi

They/them – Wao

Sister – Dada

Brother – Kaka

Dad – Baba

Mother – Mama

Son – Hiyvo

Daughter – Binti

Uncle – Mjomba

Aunt – Shangazi

Niece – Mpwa

Nephew – Mpwa

Friend – Rafiki

Friendly – Marafiki

Friends of (Usambara) – Marifiki wa (Usambara)

(Thomas) is my very good friend – (Thomas) ni rafiki yangu

Slowly (as in pace/attitude) – Poa poa

I like your – Ninapenda pua

Nose – Yako

Arm – Mkono

Leg – Mgu

Head – Kichwa

Fingers – Vidole

Finger – Kidole

How much? – Shilingi ngapi?

I want to pay please – Ninahitaji kulipa tafadale

I want my bill pease – Ninahitaji bili yangu tafadale

I want – Ninahitaji

Food is ready – Chakula tayari

The food is delicious – Viakula nikitamu

The food is good – Chakula kizura

Breakfast was very good – Kifunga kingwe ni nzuri

Lunch – Chakula cha mchana

Menu – Orodha

Food – Chakula

Drink – Kunywa

Water – Maji

Hot water – Maji baridi

Cold water – Maji moto

Soap – Sabuni

Cigarettes – Sigara

Lighter – Nyepsi

Matches – Mechi

Teacher – Malimu


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