Swahili Basics and Useful Phrases for Travelers to East Africa

Swahili Basics and Useful Phrases for Travelers to East Africa
••• Maasai Guide with European Children. John Warburton-Lee/ Getty Images

If you're planning a trip to East Africa, consider learning a few basic phrases of Swahili before you go. Whether you're embarking on a once-in-a-lifetime safari or planning on spending several months as a volunteer, being able to converse with the people you meet in their own language goes a long way towards bridging the cultural gap. With a few of the right phrases, you'll find that people are friendlier and more helpful everywhere you go.

 

Who Speaks Swahili?

Swahili is the most widely spoken language in sub-Saharan Africa, and acts as the lingua franca for most of East Africa (although it's not the first language of many people). In Kenya and Tanzania, Swahili shares the title of official language with English and primary school children are usually taught in Swahili. Many Ugandans understand some Swahili, although it's rarely spoken outside of the capital, Kampala. 

If you're traveling in Rwanda or 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, the DRC, Somalia and Mozambique. It is estimated that around 100 million people speak Swahili (although only around one million consider it to be 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 between 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. Although Arabic and indigenous African languages are the main inspiration for Swahili, the language includes words derived from English, German and Portuguese as well.

Learning to Speak Swahili

Swahili is a relatively simple language to learn, mostly because words are pronounced as they are written. If you wish to expand your Swahili beyond the basic phrases listed below, there are several excellent online resources for doing so. Check out the Kamusi Project, a vast online dictionary that includes a Pronunciation Guide and a free Swahili-English dictionary app for Android and iPhone. Travlang allows you to download audio clips of basic Swahili phrases, while Swahili Language & Culture offers a course of lessons that you can complete independently via CD. 

Another great way to immerse yourself in Swahili culture is to listen to in-language broadcasting from sources like BBC Radio in Swahili, or Voice of America in Swahili. If you would rather learn Swahili upon arrival in East Africa, consider attending a language school course. You'll find them in most major towns and cities in Kenya and Tanzania - just ask your local tourist information center, hotelier or embassy. However you choose to learn Swahili, make sure to invest in a phrasebook - no matter how much you study, you're likely to forget everything you've learned the first time you're put on the spot.

 

Basic Swahili Phrases for Travelers

If your Swahili needs are more simple, browse through the list below for a few top phrases to practice before you leave on vacation.

Greetings

  • 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

Civilities

  • 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

Getting Around

  • 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?

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 = soda
  • Beer = bia
  • Milk = maziwa
  • Meat = nyama
  • Chicken = nyama kuku
  • Fish = sumaki
  • Beef = nyama ng'ombe
  • Fruit = matunda
  • Vegetables = mboga

Health

  • 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
  • Mosquito net = chandalua
  • Headache = umwa kichwa
  • Diarrhoea = harisha/endesha
  • Vomiting = tapika
  • Medicine = dawa

Animals

  • 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

This article was updated by Jessica Macdonald on December 8th 2017.