Knowing some Swahili phrases is very important on your safari, just like passport, visa, safari wardrobe, recent vaccinations, and mosquito repellent. There are so many things to think about when traveling to Africa.
You might have packed your suitcase, but have you prepared for language barriers?
With over 900 million English speakers in the world, you may think that you can rely completely on English. Many tour guides in Africa know English very well. But there are also many locals who prefer to speak in their native tongue.
Learning some Swahili words will help you to overcome any potential language barriers. It will also enrich your experience. And the locals will love the fact that you’ve endeavored to bridge the cultural gap.
Read on for the essential Swahili phrases and words that you need to know on your trip to Tanzania.
So, are you ready? Twende! (Let’s go!)
What is Swahili?
The word Swahili actually means “the coast”. But this is a fairly modern name given by early Arab traders. The native word to describe the language is “Kiswahili”.
The language itself dates back thousands of years. But, like all languages, it has evolved into what we hear today. It’s a mixture of indigenous African languages and also has roots in Arabic, English, Portuguese, and German.
Where Do They Speak Swahili?
Before we get down to business, where exactly do they speak Swahili?
Swahili is a widely spoken language in Sub-Saharan Africa. Swahili is a link language to many other countries in East Africa. Both in Kenya and in Tanzania, the official language is Swahili along with English.
If you’re traveling to Burundi or Rwanda the official language is French. But many locals can understand the basics of Swahili. Swahili is also spoken throughout Zambia, Somalia, Mozambique, and the DRC.
About 5 million people view Swahili as their mother tongue. But a further 135 million people speak Swahili as a second language. Learning some Swahili words will certainly be beneficial on your trip to East Africa!
Learning to Speak Swahili
Learning to speak some Swahili words isn’t as difficult as you may think. The words are generally pronounced as they’re written. This makes it easier to communicate as you can take the words off the page without worrying too much about Tanzania’s pronunciation.
But how can you learn Swahili? You need to saturate yourself in the language.
Listening to the language is a great way to embed the way of speaking into your mind. For example, try listening to BBC radio in Swahili. Or if you’re staying for a long time in Tanzania, you may wish to attend a language course.
Here are 5 tips to keep in mind when learning Swahili words:
- Chat with the locals as much as you can (don’t be shy!)
- Learn the phrase “how do you say this…” in Swahili (then you can keep adding to your vocabulary)
- When you learn a new word repeat it several times and use it right away
- Listen to music or watch a TV show
- Make it fun!
But no matter how much you practice, words can escape your mind when you’re put on the spot. Try to take a print out of the Swahili words and phrases below, or save this article to your phone.
Now you know where the language began and where people speak Swahili. It’s time to start learning some keywords and phrases.
Start With a Greeting
As in many African countries, greetings are a must. In the Swahili language, you should never begin a conversation without a greeting.
Here are some of the most common greetings:
- Jambo or Hujambo – Hello/Any problems?
- Jambo or Sijambo – No problems (the answer to the above question)
- Habari za asubuhi – Hello/Good Morning (respectful, should use when speaking to elderly people or officials)
- Hodi? – Anybody home?
- Kwaheri – Goodbye (to one person)
- Ni – Goodbye (to more than one person)
- Tutaonana – See you again
- Habari? – How are things? Or what’s the news?
- Zuri or Nzuri – Beautiful/Nice/Good/I’m fine
- Baya or Mbaya – Bad/not great
- Si Mbaya or Sio Mbaya – Not too bad
Greetings are important in Tanzania. So, if you can only remember one word, try to remember hello in Swahili!
Mind Your Manners
As well as greetings, good manners are a part of the culture. Here are some Swahili words that can help you to mind your manners on your trip:
- Bwana – Sir/Mr
- Mama – Madam/Mom
- Shikamo – I hold your feet (respectful greeting for elders)
- Marahaba – I am delighted (can use as the reply to “Shikamo”)
- Asante – Thank you (to one person)
- Asanteni – Thank you (to more than one person)
- Tafadhali – Please
- Pole – I’m sorry for your misfortune (this applies to really bad events and even minor issues)
It is especially important to respect the elderly in Tanzania. You can use specific phrases like “Shikamo” to honor them.
Due to the friendly culture, many locals will ask you questions. And there will be times when you need to ask questions too. Such as:
- Wapi? – Where?
- Lini? – When?
- Kwa Nini? – Why?
- Nani? – Who?
- Nini? – What?
- Gani? – Which
- Pesa Ngapi or Bei gani? – How much
You will, no doubt, use these questions throughout your trip. Especially “Pesa Ngapi” if you’re traveling on a tight budget.
Back to Basics
Here are some of the basic Swahili words you should add to your vocabulary:
- Jina Langu Ni… or Ninaitwa… – My name is…
- Ndiyo – Yes
- Hapana – No
- Sijui – I don’t know
- Unatoka Wapi?- Where are you from?
- Ninatoka… – I am from…
- Unakaa Wapi – Where are you staying?
- Ninakaa… – I am staying at/in…
- Wasiwasi or Matatizo – Problems
- Hakuna Wasiwasi or Hakuna tatizo – No problem (the Lion King movie will definitely come to mind here!)
- Rafiki – Friend
- Sana – Very (can use with thank you)
- Sasa – Now
- Sasa Hivi – Soon
If you master the basics, you’ll be able to communicate well with the locals.
Knowing how to express your daily needs is a must. Especially when it comes to the toilet! Make sure to memorize these Swahili words:
- Choo – Toilet
- Bafu – Bathroom
- Karatasi Ya Choo – Toilet Paper
- Ninasikia Njaa – I’m Hungry
- Chakula – Food
- Nina Kiu – I’m Thirsty
- Maji Ya Kunywa – Drinking water
Knowing how to express your daily needs will help you to have a comfortable trip.
Of course, when you’re actually on your safari, what words will you need to know? It matters, because if you hear the driver shouting “Tembo, Tembo!” you know you need to grab your camera!
Check out this list of safari vocabulary that will enrich your entire experience:
- Simba – Lion (here comes the Lion King again!)
- Tembo – Elephant
- Chui – Leopard
- Swala – Antelope
- Nyati – Buffalo
- Kiboko – Hippo
- Duma – Cheetah
- Kifaru – Rhino
- Twiga – Giraffe
- Wanyama – Animal
- N’gombe – Cow
- Mbuzi – Goat
- Fisi – Hyena
- Ngiri – Warthog
- Nyumbu – Wildebeest
- Punda Milia – Zebra
It’s also important to communicate with your driver. He may tell you to be quiet, or to look in a certain direction:
- Utulivu – Quiet
- Tulia – Be Quiet
- Pole Pole (or taratibu) – Slowly
- Haraka – Quickly
- Ngoja (or subiri) – Wait
- Simama – Stop
- Moja Kwa Moja – Straight ahead
Be ready with these words and you’ll be able to communicate with your driver and guide more clearly. You may even be able to spot more creatures.
It is important to know some few swahili word for asking or giving direction. These are the key words to communicate with your safari guide, when you are lost or any communication related with knowing directions.
- Kaskazini – North
- Kusini – South
- Mashariki – East
- Magharibi – West
- Mbele – Front
- Nyuma – Back
- Kulia – Right
- Kushoto – Left
- Juu – Up
- Chini – Down
Signs and Safety
When you’re in Tanzania you will need these basic phrases to make your trip a comfortable and safe one. In fact, knowing some of these words can be a matter of life and death. For example a snake on the road or a medical epidemic.
- Hatari – Danger
- Onyo – Warning
- Hakuna Njia – No Entry
- Mbwa Mkali – Dangerous dog
- Kimbia – Run
If you find yourself in distress, you may also need these Swahili words:
- Mimi Mgonjwa – I am sick
- Afadhali Sana – I feel better
- Homa – Fever
- Tapika – Vomiting
- Amepoteza Fahamu – He has fainted
- Umwa Kichwa – A Headache
- Harisha – Diarrhea
- Dawa – Medicine
- Naweza Kupata…Wapi? – Where can I find a…
- Daktari – Doctor
- Hospitali – Hosptial
- Polisi – Police
- Nisaidie – Help me
- Naomba msaada tafadhali – Pleasae help me
Jot down these words and keep them with you at all times for a handy reference if issues occur.
Learning a Language
When you learn how to say hello Swahili and try out your practiced phrases, locals may assume you know the language really well. But as they begin chattering on, how can you tell them you don’t understand?
Check out these essential language phrases:
- Sifahamu or Sielewi – I don’t understand
- Sema Pole Pole – Speak slower
- Siongei Kiswahili – I don’t speak Swahili (alternatively: Sifahama Kiswahili – I don’t know Swahili)
- Unasemaje Na Kiswahili – How do you say that in Swahili?
- Rudia Tena – Can you repeat that?
- Unaweza Kuongea Kiingereza? – Can you speak English?
Knowing these phrases will be useful to you, but they will also give you a chance to expand your knowledge of the language.
Now you know the basic Swahili phrases, all you have to do is practice, practice and practice some more! But if learning a language puts your head in a muddle, what can you do? Make sure to choose a reputable tour company that will offer a tour guide in your language.
Here at Earthlife Expeditions, we can create your perfect safari itinerary together. All our guides can speak English AND Swahili. So don’t be shy to try out your new language skills.
Find out about our customized safari tours here.