An Introduction to Swahili


Learning a new language can be an extremely daunting task at times. However, it’s a responsibility as a traveler to know at least a few words in the language of your host country. It inspires good feelings with the locals to be able to exchange a few words, helps you get around more easily, and can even save you a few dollars at markets if you are in a bargaining country.

Here in Tanzania, knowing even a little Swahili automatically puts you in people’s good graces.

Kiswahili is the actual name of the language, the word “ki” meaning language. Literally, language of the Swahili people. It is now most commonly just called Swahili. It is spoken by around 140 million people and is the official language of four countries, all in East Africa: Tanzania, Kenya, Democratic Republic of Congo, and Uganda. It is a Bantu language with a many words derived from Arabic. There are also influences from German, Portuguese, English, Hindi, and French

Without further ado, here are a few key kiswahili phrases to help you in your travels.

  • Greeting: Jambo
    Response: Sijambo
    This is the formal way of saying hello to someone you just met, or someone that is in a respected position.
  • Greeting: Mambo/Mambo vipi
    Response: Poa/Safi
    This greeting is informal and is the equivalent of saying “what’s up?” or “how’s it going?” The response is then essentially “everything’s cool.”
  • Greeting: Habari?
    Response: Nzuri, asante.
    This is how you ask “how are you doing?” and the most generic response is “good, thank you.”
  • Kwaheri: Goodbye (formal)
  • Bodaai: See you later (informal)
  • Tafadhali: Please
  • Shingapi?: How much is it? (informal)
  • Ni wapi chakula?: Where can I find food?
  • Ningependa...: I would like… (when ordering food at a restaurant)
  • Saangapi?: What time is it? (literally, how many hours?)
  • Rafiki: Friend (also the name of the baboon in Lion King)
  • Dada/caca: Sister/brother (how you refer to someone you don’t know in a friendly way)

Swahili is reputedly an easy language to learn, so if you are planning to be in East Africa for an extended time, I would recommend either getting a Swahili tutor, taking lessons at a school, or using Pimsleur’s computer courses. If you’re only passing through, these few words and phrases will help you out.

What phrases do you know?


About Author

My name is Mandi and I have a gypsy soul. I quickly realized the normal, sedentary life just wasn't for me, so I've made it my life's ambition to never stop exploring. This decision has led me to study, volunteer, intern, work, backpack and travel all over the world, including Rome, London, Costa Rica, India, Southeast Asia, Montana, and San Diego. Now I'm living and always writing in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. Keep track of where I go next via and @1LimitlessWorld.

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