East Africa is a beautiful place to visit. Each East African nation is alluring in its own way, whether you’re more likely to go gorilla trekking in Uganda or check out Nairobi’s growing craft beer scene, yet one travel tip applies to them all: Study up on some Swahili basics before you go. Swahili is the official language of various East African countries, including Kenya and more recently Rwanda, though it’s widely spoken throughout the region and often serves as the lingua franca for locals whose native languages are different. Learning a few words and phrases before you visit this spectacular slice of Africa is guaranteed to make a good impression, as well as teach you that much more about your destination of choice.
Learn your greetings
Saying “hello” and “good morning” is 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.
1. Hujambo — “Hello!” A friendly “hujambo” goes a long way.
2. Habari — Also means “hello” or “good morning.” Use this one when speaking with older people.
3. Nzuri — “Beautiful,” “good,” “nice,” or, “I am fine.”
4. Shikamo — Literally translates to “I hold your feet.” This is a greeting for elders. Young children will often mutter “shikamo” under their breath when you walk by. It may sound like “sh…ooo.”
5. Marahaba — A way to say “thank you” in response to shikamo. Literally translated, it means something like, “I am delighted. I don’t get that every day.”
Other useful phrases that will come in handy
6. Asante — “Thank you!” You will use this word the most in your conversations.
7. Sana — Means “very” as used in asante sana or “thank you very much.”
8. Pole — A way to give condolences or say “I am sorry for your misfortune.” This applies to everything from getting chalk dust on your clothing to tripping, dropping something, or sneezing.
9. Pole pole — “Slowly, slowly.” Everything is pole pole in Africa.
10. Chakula — “Food!” If you hear this word, walk toward the place you heard it.
11. Ndiyo and hapana — “Yes” and “no,” respectively. Some phrasebooks will tell you that saying 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.
12. Hatari — “Danger!” This could refer to a snake in the road or an endemic warning. Take note and proceed with caution.
A version of this article was previously published on December 16, 2016 by Kelly Lalonde, and was updated on September 30, 2019 by Alex Bresler.
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