New Internationalist

Kiswahili crash course

Of the few languages I’ve had the privilege to learn (badly) in my life, Kiswahili (Swahili) is my favourite. It’s wonderful expressionism and rich use of proverbs is a window into a different way of looking at life and communicating with one another.

Heavily influenced by Arabic from old trading relationships between Arabian traders and primarily coastal East Africa (Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda), as well as the Comoros, Southern Somalia, Northern Mozambique and stretching inland as a lingua franca as far as Southern Sudan, Rwanda, Malawi and the DRC, it also has some Hindi, Portuguese and English influences, but it is still essentially a Bantu language and one of the most widely spoken non-colonial languages in Africa. It is spoken by over 50 million people and as a first language by some 5 million people (mainly on the coast). There are numerous dialects and a wonderful Kiswahili-derived patois favoured by urban youth called Sheng which originated in Nairobi and loved by East Africa hip-hop artists who bend it to their will with extreme dexterity and creativity. Nairobi and inland Kenyan Kiswahili is fairly flexible whereas on the coast you might be corrected for not using proper grammar or vocabulary.

Can you pass the mzungu (white person) test?

The number one guaranteed way to expose your über mzungu-ness to Kiswahili speakers is to greet them with: Jambo!

Jambo came about probably because British colonists in their arrogance couldn’t be asked to figure out the rules of usage for the intended greeting or just didn’t care. As such, many Kiswahili speakers have since greeted white people and foreigners with it and they reply accordingly none the wiser. Thanks to some rather unhelpful promotion from the tourist industry and media, and Disney, the word refuses to die. The literal translation of jambo! is ‘matter!’ or ‘problem!’ (singular). What you actually want to say to someone is something close to ‘no matter/problem?’ (translations are imperfect as the sense is difficult to translate literally into English).

Hujambo? therefore is what you want to say to one person rendering the correct sentiment (although it’s common to say it as if written with an exclamation: Hujambo!).
Hamjambo? would achieve the same thing if greeting more than one person.

In the former case, the reply would be Sijambo! (I have no matter/problem), and the latter Hatujambo! (we have no matter/problem).

Next time a local Kiswahili speaker says ‘Jambo!’ to you and you reply with ‘Sijambo! Hujambo?’ expect a broad smile and wink from her or him as you’ve just passed the mzungu test.

Here’s a few useful words and phrases that can help you quickly make friends and distinguish you from other wazungu (white people) and wageni (foreigners, visitors).

Asante sana! – Thank you very much! (To more than one person Asanteni sana!).

Habari zako/zenu? – Lit. Your (sing/plural) news? – How are you?

Nzuri sana! – Very good!

Pole sana! - I’m very sorry!

Sawa sawa! – OK!

Shikamoo (also spelled Shikamuu, Shikamu) – Respectful greeting from a younger person to an older person (usually much older). They in turn reply Marahaba.

Mzee – Elder, older person (not necessarily gender specific but in Kenya inland more commonly used for men, whereas older women might be called mama (mother) or mama mzee).

Hakuna shida! – No problem! (Hakuna matata! made famous by Disney’s Lion King is technically accurate, however it has fallen slightly out of favour at least locally in Nairobi due to the Disneyfied twinge it has taken on).

Tafadhali – please.

Bila shaka! – without a doubt!

Chai – Depending on usage can mean ‘tea’, ‘breakfast’ or ‘bribe’.

Kahawa – coffee, stuff we grow and export but rarely drink.

Chakula – food.

Maji – water.

Pombe – alcohol.

Pesa, Mapesa – money.

Kwa Heri/Herini - goodbye (sing/plural).

Mwanamke/Wanawake – woman/women (more informal bibi/mabibi).

Mwanaume/Wanaume – man/men (more informal bwana/mabwana).

Some useful words you might hear at this year’s World Social Forum:

Harambee – lit. ‘to pull together’, a great word often used to describe community projects where people ‘pull together’ to accomplish a common goal, and also commonly used to refer to ‘co-operatives’.

Chama cha/Vyama vya ushirika – co-operative society (co-op)/co-operative societies (co-ops)

Uhuru – freedom.

Ujamaa – Socialism.

Jamii – community.

Umoja – unity.

Undugu – brotherhood/sisterhood (the word doesn’t necessarily distinguish gender).

Utu – humanity.

Ubeberu – Imperialism.

Demokrasi – Democracy.

Haki – rights, truth.

Benki ya dunia – World Bank.

Haki ya {binadamu, watenzi, wanawake, watoto} – human rights, workers’ rights, women’s rights, children’s rights.

Wakimbizi – refugees (lit. people who run).

Wanyonge – underdogs.

Some phrases I’ve heard at the WSF (may not be entirely accurate, I’m a bit rusty):

Ongea na sauti kubwa tafadhali. – speak in a loud voice please. (Very useful at most of the workshops here as sound systems haven’t worked in many places).

Asante bwana, nina chango tayari. – Thanks man, I already have a subscription. (Jokingly said to an mzungu selling the Socialist Worker ).

Wao ni wakichaa! Shilingi hamsini kwa chupa kidogo ya maji?! – They’re crazy people! Fifty shillings for a small bottle of water?!

Vyama vya biashara vanachuma, ambapo sisi tunasikia njaa! – Corporations profit while we go hungry! (Regarding the corporate sponsorship and the high prices of food at the WSF).

Siri ni sumu! Sisi tunashurutisha ya haki! – Secrets are poison! We demand the truth! (Regarding allegations of corruption in the WSF).

We! Iko wazungu wengi hapa si ndiyo? – Yo! There are many white people here aren’t there?

Kulipia gazeti New Internationalist? Bila shaka! – Subsribe to the New Internationalist magazine? Without a doubt! [OK, so I didn’t really hear that one! ; - ) ]

Some of my favourite proverbs/expressions

Heri kufa macho kuliko kufa moyo. - It is better to lose your eyes than to lose your heart.

Kamba hukatika pabovu. - A rope parts where it is thinnest.

Hapana marefu yasio na mwisho. - There is no distance that has no end.

Ihsani haiozi. - Kindness does not go rotten.

Bendera hufuata upepo. - A flag follows the direction of the wind.

Afadhali kuaibika kuliko kufa. - Better ashamed than dead.

Afadhali kufa kuliko kuaibika. - Better dead than ashamed.

Pole, pole ndio mwendo. - Slowly, slowly the world moves (easy does it).

Some useful sites if you wish to learn more:

The Kamusi (Dictionary) Project at Yale

A Sheng Dictionary

The Beeb in Kiswahili

Wikipedia on Kiswahili

Comments on Kiswahili crash course

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  1. #1 juanitavermont 07 May 07

    I|m heading to Moshi in a

    I'm heading to Moshi in a couple weeks, this is super helpful - thanks!

  2. #2 onyeit 17 Jan 11

    KIswahili Fasihi

    This lessons will are good and can help me and i can help others to learn Kiswahili.Kiswahili course will be of value to me and others

  3. #3 Dunkie 04 Aug 12

    Hi Adam Ma'anit

    Thank you for including our dictionary in your entry. We however wish to point to you that the URL you have is no longer available and as such, the dictionary is at

    We would be grateful if you would change the URL to point your readers to the right place.


  4. #4 Jo, New Internationalist 06 Aug 12

    Thanks for the update, Duncan. The weblink has now been corrected.

  5. #5 MADANAGOPALks 27 Feb 14

    very much usefull for learners,hope i will get more lessons like this .

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