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Learning Swahili

When you travel to East-Africa, just knowing a few words of Swahili can be very useful. The local people are always very happy to hear the 5 words in their language you just memorised from this blog. A nice ‘hello’ and ‘how are you’ can get you very far. I’ve noticed this results in the people being much more helpful and even give you better prices at local markets when you show them that you’ve got down your most basic Swahili.

Don’t worry about the pronunciation of the words, as they’re often just pronounced as they’re written.

Saying Hello in Swahili:

The first one everyone always learn is of course “Jambo“, which means ‘Hello‘ in Swahili.

Asking ‘How are you?’ you’ll say ‘Mambo‘.
To reply with ‘good‘ you’ll hear or say ‘poa

When you’ve made a male Tanzanian friend, you can say ‘Mambo vipi kaka’. It means: ‘What’s up brother’. (My Tanzanian friends love it when I say that.)

Saying ‘hello’ and asking how the person is are very important in Easy Africa and usually the start of every conversation.

Habari’ also means ‘Hello / Good Morning’. Use this one when speaking with older people. To reply, you can say ‘Nzuri’, which means ‘I am fine’. You can also say it when something is Beautiful, Good or Nice (basically everything positive).

The term ‘Shikamo’ is used to greet the elders and is ment to be very respectful. Everytime an elder passes by you’ll here a soft ‘Shikamo’ The elders will reply with ‘Marahaba’ Literally translated to something like “I am delighted, I don’t get that every day.”

If this comes across a bit difficult, just stick to ‘mambo’ and ‘poa’, the rest you’ll learn along the way.

Other Swahili phrases that you will hear for sure:

Asante’ this means ‘Thank you!’ This word is used a lot, as it is polite, just as in many other languages.

Sana’ which translated to ‘Very’ used as in ‘Asante Sana’ for example: ‘Thank you VERY much’.

Karibu’ translates to ‘You’re Welcome’ and is usually the reply to ‘Asante’

Tena’ means ‘Again’ used as in ‘Karibu Tena’ which means ‘You’re welcome again/Come again’. This phrase is often used in stores.

Yes and No translate to ‘Ndio‘ and ‘Hapana‘  When someone tries to sell you something, you will say: ‘Hapana Asante’, which means ‘No Thankyou’. This is more polite. (unless you do want to buy something).

‘Sawa’ Simply means ‘okay‘ or ‘I understand‘. 

Pole’ means ‘I am sorry for your misfortune’. This term is used for basically everything bad that happens to you. For example, getting sick, getting a flat tire, losing your sunglasses or just when you bump your tiny toe into that wall again.

‘Pole Pole’ (not to confuse with Pole) translates to ‘Slowly’, Everything is ‘pole pole’ in Africa. If you want to ride on the back of a Pikipiki (a motorcycle driver in Tanzania), tell him pole pole first, so he’ll drive more safely)

If you get tired of all the ‘Pole Pole’ in Africa and your western mentality can’t handle it anymore (which happens sometimes), you can say ‘Haraka Haraka’ which translates to ‘Hurry Up / Faster!’. Just be polite about saying it.

Chakula’ means ‘Food’. In local restaurants you’ll hear this when your food is ready.

Njaa’ means ‘Hungry’. 

Maji’ means ‘Water’. Very usefull to know. Drink plenty, stay healthy. (Down below i’ve mentioned other drinks that might be usefull)

Baridi’ means ‘Cold’, very important to mention this when you order a drink at a local place, unless you like a lukewarm Coca Cola.

Maisha Marefu’ translates to ‘Long Life’ and you use it to say ‘Cheers’ when having drink or to celebrate.

‘Kaka’ / ‘Dada’. If you’re friends with some locals, they might start calling you Kaka or Dada, which means ‘Brother’ or ‘Sister’. They use this term quite often. If you need to call a waitress in a local restaurant, you’ll also say ‘Dada’ or ‘Kaka’

Mzungu’ is the term for a white person. If you walk in a local street, you can hear the children say ‘mzungu!’ Don’t take it personally, it’s not ment in a harmfull way. Also don’t be afraid when they want to touch your (blond) hair or take a photo with you. It’s normal there.

Bei Gani’ means ‘How much?’. Usefull when you want to know a price. Bargaining is a must in Tanzania. As a ‘tourist’, I personally always go for 50% of what they ask (or lower even). If you don’t know a price, just ask your local guide. He or She will know.

Hatari’ means ‘Danger!’ If someone sais this, especially during a safari or when walking in a jungle. Take note of this and be careful. There could be a snake or POISENOUS plant near. During the safari the safari driver usually uses the english term, but it’s useful to know here too.

Badaaye means ‘see you later!’ So if you want to say goodbye to someone, but not for a long time. Just tell them ‘Badaaye!’

Hakuna Matata’ – It means ‘No Worries’, (for the rest of your days..) now you’ll hear the Lion King song. The local people really live by this phrase.

Here’s a Short version of Swahili words you could print and memorize:

Hello – Jambo

How are you – Mambo

I’m good – Poa

Hello/How are you (polite version) – Habari

I am fine (but also) ‘Good’, ‘Nice’, ‘Beautiful’ – Nzuri

Hello (for elderly) – Shikamo, to reply: Marahaba

Yes – Ndio

No – Hapana (Asante)

Thankyou – Asante

Very much – Sana (Asante Sana)

You’re welcome – Karibu

Again – Tena (Karibu Tena)

Oke – Sawa

Sorry – Pole

Motorcycle/Scooter – Pikipiki

Car – Gari

Airplane – Ndege

Slowly – Pole Pole

Faster / Hurry up – Haraka Haraka

Friend – Rafiki

Brother – Kaka

Sister – Dada

White person – Mzungu

How Much? – Bei Gani

Hungry – Njaa

Food – Chakula

Water – Maji

Cold – Baridi

Hot water – Maji ya moto (‘moto’ means ‘hot’)

Cold water – Maji ya baridi

Coffee – Kahawa

Tea – Chai

Maziwa – Milk

Coffee with Milk – Kahawa na Maziwa (‘na’ means ‘with’)

Cheers! (Long Life) – Maisha Marefu

See you later – Badaaye

Danger! / Dangerous – Hatari

Hakuna Matata – No Worries


Animals in Swahili:

Lion – Simba

Elephant – Tembo

Buffalo – Nyati

Leopard – Chui

Rhino – Vifaru or ‘faru’

Cheetah – Duma

Giraffe – Twiga

Hyena – Fisi

Chicken – Kuku

Goat – Mbuzi

Cow – Ng’ombe

Bird – Ndege



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