Basic Swahili Lesson

Swahili (or Kiswahili as it is commonly referred to) is the common tongue of East Africa (Uganda, Tanzania, Kenya, Rwanda, Burundi, and parts of the Democratic Republic of Congo), along with English. There are over 140 million speakers of the language, although only a small portion of those people use it as their primary language. Swahili was proposed as a common language in order to unite the countries of East Africa and make trade easier for people throughout the region.

The language is quite easy to speak, with a simple vowel structure (similar to the A-I-E-O-U of Spanish) and has a relatively simple sentence structure that allows the basics to be easily mastered. Originally derived from the coastal regions of Kenya and Tanzania, Swahili began borrowing words from other languages through trade, alliances, and occupation (including Arabic, French, English, Portuguese, Hindi, and German).

The most common phrase you will hear while on safari is “jambo” (the word safari itself is Swahili for “journey”). Jambo, which is a type of greeting, is the most common word taught to visitors as it is easy to say and remember. But don’t be fooled though–none of the locals will use the word jambo in conversation unless they are interacting with foreigners. The more common way of greeting someone is to say “what’s up?” (mambo vipi? or just vipi?), to which you’d reply “I’m good” (nzuri), I’m cool (freshii), or I’m chilling (poa).

As is common with just about anywhere you’ll travel in the world, the local people of Tanzania are delighted (and generally surprised) when tourists learn anything beyond the word jambo in their language. To start you off we’ve provided some common basic words and phrases below to try out when you’re on safari with us:

  • WELCOME: Karibu (kah-REE-boo)
  • HELLO (colloquial): Habari (ha-BAR-ee)
  • THANK YOU: Asante Sana (a-SAN-tay SAH-na)
  • SORRY: Samahani (sah-mah-HA-nee)
  • PLEASE: Tafadhali (ta-fah-DAL-ee)
  • GOOD: Nzuri (N-ZOO-ree)
  • I’M FROM [your country]: Ntoka … (N-TOE-kah [your country])
  • GOODBYE: Kwaheri (Kwah-HEY-ree)
  • BON VOYAGE: Safari Njema (sah-FA-ree N-JAY-ma)
  • WHERE IS THE WASHROOM?Choo Kiko Wapi? (CHU kee-ko WA-pee) 
  • CHEERS!: Kwa Afya! (kwah-AFYAH) (literally “to life!)

Looking to test out your new Swahili skills? Come visit us in Tanzania, and we’ll make sure you get the chance!



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