It’s All Kiswahili To Me!
While I attempted to learn Swahili before coming here, I arrived in Tanzania knowing maybe one or two words, asante being one of them because a) it means thank you and b) it was one of the easier words to learn. Beyond that, the language was very much foreign to me. The last time I’d learned another language was back in high school when I studied French and Latin. Needless to say, I was both excited and nervous at the prospect of learning another language and being able to converse with others in Swahili.
According to my trusted source Wikipedia, Swahili or Kiswahili (known in Swahili itself as Kiswahili) is a Bantu language spoken by various ethnic groups that inhabit several large stretches of the Mozambique Channel oastline from northern Kenya to northern Mozambique, including the Comoro Islands. It is also spoken by ethnic minority groups in Somalia. Although only five million people speak Swahili as their mother tongue, it is used as a lingua franca in much of East Africa, meaning the total number of speakers exceeds 60 million. Swahili serves as a national, or official language, of five nations: Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, the Comoros and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Over the past month or so, thanks to my homestay family, our local volunteers Elvis and Magreth and new marafiki (friends), I have slowly but surely been expanding my vocabulary of Swahili words. What I have most enjoyed is being able to learn the basics and build upon that foundation. The basic words become so engrained in your everyday conversation that it becomes second nature to greet someone with ‘mambo’ and respond with ‘poa’. I have found that Tanzanians appreciate the effort made by foreigners to communicate in Swahili, even if it is something as simple as ‘mambo’ or ‘asante’ (this is especially true in instances where both parties are speaking broken English and Swahili which can be entertaining). That alone shows the respect you have for the culture and the language, as well as people’s ability to communicate in whichever language is most comfortable. And of of course, you can’t help but love the looks of surprise you get sometimes when you utter a few words in Swahili.
Here, my friends, is a short list of commonly used Swahili words I’ve found myself using during my time here in Tanzania thus far. While I don’t expect myself to be an expert on Swahili by the end of my time here, I can say with certainty that learning Swahili has definitely helped to overcome any fears of language barriers I may have had before coming here and given me an appreciation and desire to learn another language:
Greetings and Conversation:
Mambo- How are things? (casual greeting among peers)
Poa/Safi/Freshi (in response to Mambo)- Cool, smooth, fresh
Jambo- Hello (common greeting for muzungos)
Sijambo- Nothing (in response to Jambo)
Habari za asabuhi- News of the morning?
Habari za mchana- News of the afternoon?
Habari za leo- News of the day?
Habari za jioni- News of the evening?
Usiku mwema- Good night
Mzima?- Are you well?
Sana- Very much
Shikamoo- I touch your feet (respectful greeting to elder)
Marahaba (in response to Shikamoo)- I acknowledge your respect
Asante (sana)- Thank you (very much)
Karibu- You’re welcome
Samahani- Excuse me
Napenda- I like
Bei gani- How much?
Shingapi- How much, in shillings
Family, Friends and People
Rafiki- Friend (yes, like Rafiki from The Lion King)
Soda- Pop, soda
Pili pili- Hot pepper (Nicole loves pili pili)
Wali maharagwe- Rice and beans
Wali roasti- Rice and meat
Chipsi Mayai- Chips and eggs, essentially an omlette with chips in it
During orientation, one of the games involved us learning the numbers 1-10 in Swahili which resulted in a lot of hilarity. A month or so later, I think we’ve all made great strides in counting from 1-10. So handy to know, especially when bargaining!
4- Nne (which can easily be mixed up with the number 8)
1000- Elfu (e.g. 2000 would be elfu mbili)