Learn some basic Swahili (Kiswahili) and traveling in East Africa will be even more rewarding. Learn greetings, numbers, animals, transport and other basic phrases.
Who Speaks Swahili?
Swahili is the most widely spoken language in sub-Saharan Africa. Swahili is the lingua franca of East Africa, but it's not a first language for many people. Swahili, along with English are the official languages in Kenya and Tanzania.
Schools teach their pupils in Swahili at least through the primary level. Ugandans will probably understand some Swahili but outside of the capital Kampala, it's rarely spoken. This is due in part because Idi Amin wanted to make Swahili the official language (not English) and Ugandans associate the language with the brutal regime of that time.
If you're traveling in Rwanda and Burundi, French will probably get you further than Swahili, but a few words here and there should be understood and the effort will be appreciated. Swahili is also spoken in parts of Zambia, DRC, Somalia and Mozambique. It is estimated that around 70 million people speak Swahili (although only around 1 million consider it their mother tongue).
Origins of Swahili
Swahili may date back several thousand years, but it certainly developed into the language we hear today with the arrival of Arab and Persian traders on the East African coast (500 - 1000 AD).
Swahili is a word the Arabs used to describe "the coast" and only later did it come to apply to the distinctive East African coastal culture. In Swahili, the correct word to describe the language is Kiswahili and the people who speak Kiswahili as their mother tongue may call themselves Waswahilis.
Swahili is basically a mixture of Bantu and Arabic but you'll notice there are English, German and Portuguese derived words as well.
Swahili is blessedly simple as far as pronunciation is concerned because every letter is sounded out. For an accurate guide to pronunciation including audio examples, see Yale's Kamusi Project Website.
No matter how much you study beforehand, when you're on the spot, the mind can draw a complete blank. If you're planning to spend more than just a few weeks in East Africa, it's worth buying a phrasebook.
Basic Swahili Phrases for Travelers
While many East Africans speak some English or French, knowing a few words of Swahili will really help you out in the more rural areas and along the coast. Since Swahili is a second language to most East Africans, they'll understand a little broken Swahili, and they'll certainly appreciate your efforts.
Greetings are important in East Africa and you don't launch into a conversation or even ask a question without first saying "hello, how are you?".
- Hello = Jambo / hujambo / Salama
- How are you? = Habari gani
- Fine (response) = Nzuri
- Goodbye = Kwa heri / Kwa herini (more than one peson)
- See You Later = Tutaonana
- Nice to meet you = Nafurahi kukuona
- Goodnight = Lala salama
- Yes = Ndiyo
- No = Hapana
- Thank you = Asante
- Thank you very much = Asante sana
- Please = Tafadhali
- OK = Sawa
- Excuse me = Samahani
- You're Welcome = Starehe
- Can you help me? = Tafadhali, naomba msaada
- What is your name? = Jina lako nani?
- My name is = Jina langu ni ...
- Where are you from? = Unatoka wapi?
- I'm from .. = Natokea ...
- May I take a picture? = Naomba kupiga picha
- Do you speak English? = Unasema kiingereza?
- Do you speak Swahili? = Unasema Kiswahili?
- Just a little bit = Kidogo tu!
- How do you say in Swahili? = Unasemaje ... kwa Kiswahili
- I don't understand = Sielewi
- Friend = Rafiki
- Where is the ... = ni wapi ...
- Airport = uwanja wa ndege
- Bus station = stesheni ya basi
- Bus stop = bas stendi
- Taxi stand = stendi ya teksi
- Train Station = stesheni ya treni
- Bank = benki
- Market = soko
- Police station = kituo cha polisi
- Post Office = posta
- Tourist Office = ofisi ya watali
- Toilet/bathroom = choo
- What time is the ... leaving? = inaondoka saa ... ngapi?
- Bus = basi
- Minibus = matatu (Kenya); dalla dalla (Tanzania)
- Plane = ndege
- Train = treni/gari la moshi
- Is there a bus going to ...? = Kuna basi ya ...?
- I'd like to buy a ticket = Nataka kununua tikiti
- Is it near = Ni karibu?
- Is it far = Ni mbali
- There = huko
- Over there = pale
- Ticket = tikiti
- Where are you going? = Unakwenda wapi?
- How much is the fare? = Nauli ni kiasi gani?
- Hotel = hoteli
- Room = chumba
- Reservation = akiba
- Are there any vacancies for tonight? = Mna nafasi leo usiko? (Kenya: Iko nafasi leo usiku?)
- No vacancies = Hamna nafasi. (Kenya: Hakuna nafasi)
- How much is it per night? = ni bei gani kwa usiku?
- Mosquito net = chandalua
Days and Numbers
- Today = leo
- Tomorrow = kesho
- Yesterday = jana
- Now = sasa
- Later = baadaye
- Every day = kila siku
- Monday = Jumatatu
- Tuesday = Jumanne
- Wednesday = Jumatano
- Thursday = Alhamisi
- Friday = Ijumaa
- Saturday = Jumamosi
- Sunday = Jumapili
- 1 = moja
- 2 = mbili
- 3 = tatu
- 4 = nne
- 5 = tano
- 6 = sita
- 7 = saba
- 8 = nane
- 9 = tisa
- 10 = kumi
- 11 = kumi na moja (ten and one)
- 12 = kumi na mbili (ten and two)
- 20 = ishirini
- 21 = ishirni na moja (twenty and one)
- 30 = thelathini
- 40 = arobaini
- 50 = hamsini
- 60 = sitini
- 70 = sabini
- 80 = themanini
- 90 = tisini
- 100 = mia
- 200 = mia mbili
- 1000 = elfu
- 100,000 = laki
Food and Drinks
- I'd like = nataka ...
- Food = chakula
- Hot/cold = ya moto/baridi
- Water = maji
- Hot water = maji ya moto
- Drinking water = maji ya kunywa
- Soda (soft drinks) = soda
- Beer = bia
- Milk = maziwa
- Meat = nyama
- Chicken = nyama kuku
- Fish = sumaki
- Beef = nyama ng'ombe
- Fruit = matunda
- Vegetables = mboga
- Where can I find a ... = Naweza kupata ... wapi?
- Doctor = daktari/mganga
- Hospital = hospitali
- Medical Center = matibabu
- I'm sick = mimi ni mgonjwa
- I need a doctor = nataka kuona daktari
- It hurts here = naumwa hapa
- Fever = homa
- Malaria = melaria
- Headache = umwa kichwa
- Diarrhoea = harisha/endesha
- Vomiting = tapika
- Medicine = dawa
When you're on safari in East Africa many of the guides and trackers will speak Swahili.
- Animal = wanyama
- Buffalo = Nyati / Mbogo
- Cheetah = Duma / Chita
- Cow = N'gombe
- Elephant = Tembo / Ndovuh
- Giraffe = Twiga
- Goat = Mbuzi
- Hippo = Kiboko
- Hyena = Fisi
- Leopard = Chui
- Lion = Simba
- Rhino = Kifaru
- Warthog = Ngiri
- Wildebeest = Nyumbu
- Zebra = Punda milia
Swahili time starts at 6 am, not midnight. So if a Tanzanian tells you the bus leaves at 1 in the morning, he probably means 7 am. If he says the train leaves at 3 in the morning that would mean 9 am. It's wise to double check. Interestingly, Ethiopians use the same clock, but they don't speak Swahili.
Online Swahili Courses and Dictionaries
- Kamusi Project is an excellent resource for those wanting to learn more advanced Swahili, it's a living Swahili dictionary with audio.
- Swahili Dictionary is useful if you quickly want to know the meaning of a single word.
- Travlang lists basic Swahili phrases along with audio.
- Swahili online exercises from Penn State includes quizzes, audio, and songs.
- Teach Yourself Swahili CD is an interactive Swahili course designed to use on a computer. It includes basic reading, writing, and conversational Swahili.
Swahili Language Schools in East Africa
Several language schools operate in Kenya and Tanzania where you can learn Swahili. They are usually small and don't have a website to call their own, but once you arrive in a major town or capital city ask your local embassy or consulate for information.
Broadcasting in Swahili
Practice your Swahili skills or learn more about East Africa by reading or listening to some media from one of the following sources:
- Kenya Broadcasting Corporation
- BBC Radio in Swahili
- Voice of America in Swahili
- Swahili podcast from Tanzanian political analyst M. M. Mwanakijiji.