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. 

Basic Swahili Phrases
TripSavvy /  Vin Ganapathy

Basic Swahili Phrases for Travelers

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


  • 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

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: Ljumaa
  • 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


  • 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


  • 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

Who Speaks Swahili?

Swahili is the most widely spoken language in sub-Saharan Africa and is the common tongue for most East Africans (although it's not necessarily their first language). Swahili is an official language alongside English in Kenya and Tanzania, and primary school children are usually taught in Swahili. Many Ugandans understand some Swahili, although it's rarely spoken outside Kampala, the capital. The official language of the Comoros Islands is often classified as a dialect of Swahili.

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 Malawi, Zambia, the DRC, Somalia, and Mozambique. The 2019 edition of the reference publication Ethnologue estimates that dialects of Swahili are spoken as a first language by roughly 16 million people. Over 82 million people speak it as a second language. This makes Swahili the 14th-most widely spoken language in the world.

Origins of Swahili

Swahili may date back several thousand years, but it 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," Only later did it come to apply to East African coastal culture specifically. The correct word to describe the language in Swahili 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.

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 introductory 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, invest in a phrasebook because no matter how much you study, you're likely to forget everything you've learned the first time you're put on the spot.