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Photos by the author.

East Africa can be overwhelming for even the most veteran traveler. These key Swahili phrases will help you get around.

East Africa is a beautiful place to visit, or even live for a while. Knowing a little bit of Swahili before you go will endear the people toward you and start your trip off right.

First things first, learn your greetings:

Saying ‘Hello and Good Morning” are a must in East Africa. You would never start a conversation without a sufficient greeting.

Even when my friend found me screaming on my bed, trying to kill a huge spider, he first said “Kelly how are you? How was your trip to Tanga? Did you sleep well?”.

I answered all three questions before he would even start to talk about the spider.

Jambo – “Hello!” A friendly “Jambo” goes a long way.

Habari – Also “Hello / Good Morning.” Use this one when speaking with older people.

Nzuri – “Beautiful / Good / Nice / I am fine.”

Shikamo – Literally “I hold your feet.” This greeting is for your elders. Young children will often mutter Shikamo under their breath when you walk by. It may sound like “Sh…ooo”.

Marahaba - The reply to “Shikamo”. Literally translated to something like “ I am delighted, I don’t get that every day.”

Other useful phrases that will come in handy:

Asante – “Thank you!” You will use this word the most in your conversations.

Sana (very) Used as in Asante-sana- Thank you VERY much.

Pole- “I am sorry for your misfortune.” This applies to everything from getting chalk dust on your clothes, to tripping, dropping an item or sneezing.

Pole pole – “Slowly, slowly.” Everything is pole pole in Africa.

Chakula- “FOOD!” If you hear this word, walk towards the place you heard it.

Photos by the author.

Nydio / Hapana – “Yes and No” respectively. Some phrasebooks will tell you that hapana is rude. It is not. As long as you don’t say it forcefully, you are fine. I haven’t heard another word for ‘no’ since I have been here.

Hatari - “DANGER!!!!!” This could be a snake in the road or a warning about an endemic in the area. Take note and proceed with caution.

The three main websites I get up-to-date information from are the following. Make sure to check them regularly, as conditions change rapidly in East Africa.

CIA Word Fact Book- Tanzania

Center for Disease Control

Lonely Planet

About The Author

Kelly Lalonde

Kelly Lalonde writes: “I get bored with normalcy, love pasta, love watching the city come alive on a long walk in the morning.”

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  • Heather

    It’s so interesting how ‘pole’ means one thing and ‘pole pole’ means a completely different thing. Thanks for sharing!

    • ross

      I loved this piece! I worked in the central highlands of Kenya, on the foothills of Mt Kenya in 2002. I miss Africa and I’m dying to return! Thanks for the fire :)

  • jonny

    good intro to basic swahili expressions!

    a couple of notes though:

    “pole” is not pronunced like “poll”, as it is in English. it sounds like “po-lay”.
    “nydio” should be “ndiyo”.

    though “shikamoo” and “marahaba” are used frequently in Tanzania, everywhere else in East Africa these greetings are never used. people understand them, but you’ll never hear anyone greet you this way.

  • Kathleen Steeden

    Swahili is such a great language!

    I only learnt little bits and bobs whilst I was in East Africa but it felt so comfortable to speak.

    I noticed a big big difference in the ‘for tourists’ Swahili I was taught in hotels and on safari in Kenya compared to the slang that younger people taught me in Zanzibar. I loved

    safi kabisa – everything’s cool
    Mambo vipi – hey what’s up
    vipi kaka – what’s up brother
    poa – cool

    Speaking about ‘no’ I’m sure in Zanzibar somebody told me they use ‘sio’ more than hapari but I’m not sure if that’s right or not.

    Thanks for the article! :)

  • Kelly

    Kathleen! You made me smile with your comments. I am always saying Mambo Vipi to my friends. ;-) It took me a while to get the Mambo/ Poa thing after I had started saying Habari Gani all of the time, but you’re right… your phrases are MUCH cooler for young people. Does that make me old?! Oh no! LOL.

    Peace, Kelly

  • JoAnna

    All good words to know … and words I remember to this day from my time in Kenya. I actually put together a post on my travel blog that also offers “safety” phrases in Swahili, which can be especially helpful for women. You can find those phrases here:

    • Tim Patterson

      Great link, thanks Joanna!

  • louise

    Excellent and very useful words!

  • Mary

    It’s also good to know that “mzungu” means European/white person! At least then you know when people are talking about you :)

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  • Muhann

    Just saying that all of east africa doesnt speak Swahili. so these are useeful in Kenya and tanzania but what about Uganda, Ethiopia, etc 

  • BTz

    Good things to know. I would add a couple things. First, Say Mambo to someone younger and when someone says that to you, say Poa. Jambo is more for older people. 
    And Habari doesn’t mean hello, it literally translates to “News”, but use kinda of like “how is…”
    You can use it to ask lots of stuff.  And you use Habari with everyone, not just older people. 
    Habari za asabui – News of the morning, How is your morning?
    Habari za chakula – how is your food?
    Habari yako – how are you? 

    If things are good, you can always reply with an Nzuri to a habari. 

  • Wambui

    I like these comments and it’s good that foreigners take their time to learn some few swahili words before traveling to E . Africa . I am Kenyan myself and I can just say that almost everyone speaks English and you will get by just fine with or without knowledge of Swahili words. All  signs are written in both English and Swahili and almost everyone speaks English after all we are a British colony.  I have lived here all my life and I would advise anyone wishing to see the most amazing sites and enjoy seeing animals in their natural habitat to visist Kenya and especially the Maasia Mara..You will have a Blast!!

  • Heather_542

    pronunciation would be helpful!

  • Kristina

    Um… you do know that Ethiopian and Eritrea, which happen to be in North East Africa by the way, DON’T speak Swahili, they speal hundreds of different languages, a couple of them in the SEMETIC language family. You know the Ethiopians/Eritrans you see in the U.S and the rest of the west, yeah they’re semetic admixed.

    People get your s*** right and realize Africa is the most ethnically/genetically diverse continent, my gooodness… You have NO idea how seperated Africa (a continent by the way) is. People from countries next to each other don’t know where the hell the other person came from. It’s all about tribal wars guys…

  • Michael Sims

    That should be Ndiyo, not Nydio, for “Yes.” And the correct way to say hello is “Hujambo” (rather than the more touristy “Jambo”), to which the answer is “Sijambo.”

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