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My Africa Diaries: Swahili for Westerners

Kenya is most definitely a deeply multilingual community – though they’ve embraced English as a national language due to their colonial heritage, they still boast Swahili as the national language. Residents comfortably switch between the two when speaking with each other.

Most locals in the tourism industry will be happy to teach you a handful of Swahili words. While not strictly necessary, it’s a nice little way to indicate respect for the culture when used correctly.

Jambo: The Swahili word for “hello”. As with “hello”, this word works as both call and response. It’s not tied to a particular time of day or gender, so it’s very easy to get right. (As opposed to, say, “Bon jour” in French, which is actually “good day” and yet I always blurt it out in the evening, too.)

Asante sana: “Thank you very much”. I’ve occasionally heard it shortened to “Asante” – “thanks.”

Sawa sawa: Essentially, “OK”. Also sometimes shortened to just “sawa”. You hear this all over Swahili conversation, almost like “like” or “OK” in the vernacular of some English speakers. Seattle friends, my apologies in advance if I let this slip into daily speech. It’s really ubiquitous here and I think it’s catchy and useful. 😉

Rafiki: “Friend”. Rarely used with visitors, but I’m mainly including it so you see that all those times you watched Lion King actually taught you something.

Kwaheri: “Goodbye”.

Tafadhali: “Please”. Rarely used since it’s a bit weird to start a question in Swahili and fall back into English.

Hatari: “Danger!” You’ll mostly read this on the signs indicating electrified fences or armed security posts, of which there are more than you’d think due to general security concerns.

Samahani: “Excuse me.” Again, I haven’t heard this very much, but it’s a nice thing to know wherever you visit.

Wapi choo: “Where are the toilets?” – you probably won’t need this one in tourist areas but still fun to say. Partially because I’m a Pokémon fan and the sound “pichu” is embedded in this one!

Mgeni: Foreigner. This is one you probably won’t use but may hear used in your presence, particularly at security points. There’s a bit of a terrorism scare right now in Kenya, and US citizens were recently alerted by the State Department that passports are being checked for foreigners especially in tourist areas. I hope the tension will blow over quickly, but international travel is never boring, to say the least.

In the end, of course, these are optional since most people I’ve encountered are reasonably familiar with English. But the effort is appreciated, if sometimes a bit of a surprise.

If you want any more random words, this site is basic but helpful: http://www.masai-mara.com/mmsw.htm

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