Climbers learn a lot on Mount Kilimanjaro — whether they’re more likely to laugh or cry at high altitude, what characterizes an alpine desert, exactly how much plantain porridge is too much plantain porridge, etc. But what many don’t realize before setting off toward the summit is that the excursion also guarantees a lesson in the local language: Swahili. The following Swahili phrases are unavoidable on the mountain, offering climbers not only advice and encouragement during their ascents but also a special kind of souvenir to bring back with their certificates of completion.
1. Pole pole
Translation: “Slowly, slowly”
These are probably the most-spoken words on Mount Kilimanjaro. The friendly reminder to take it nice and easy is a standard greeting from passing guides and porters, and the mantra gets stuck in your head almost immediately. Don’t be surprised if you’re still reciting it weeks after you’ve returned home, even while working at your desk.
2. Twende sasa hivi
Translation: “Let’s go right now”
Normally, saying twende on its own is a fine way to rally a group, but climbers can always use a pinch more motivation. Adding sasa hivi turns a casual, “Let’s go,” into a spirited, “Let’s get a move on.” Plus the phrase is way more fun to say in its entirety.
3. Poa kichizi kama ndizi (ndani ya friji)
Translation: “Crazy cool like a banana (in the refrigerator)”
When someone asks how you’re doing in Swahili, you can say poa, meaning “cool.” When someone asks how you’re doing on Kili, you can answer with a bit more gusto by comparing yourself to a banana. And when you want to express just how much you’re loving mountain life, you can go for the full simile, claiming you’re “crazy cool like a banana in the refrigerator.”
4. Maji maji
Said once, maji means “water.” Said twice while trekking it means either, “I’m dying of thirst,” or, “I need a breather, and now that I think about it, it’s probably time for more water.”
You’ll learn this word on summit day, but there’s a good chance you won’t get the chance to say it until you’re halfway back down the mountain, where the amount of available oxygen returns to a level suitable for breathing, and speaking.
6. Jambo! Jambo bwana! / Habari gani? Mzuri sana! / Wageni, mwakaribishwa! / Kilimanjaro? Hakuna Matata!
Translation: “Hello! Hello sir! / How are you? Very well! / Visitors, you are welcome! / Kilimanjaro? No trouble!”
More a song than a phrase, this is an adaptation of the ditty known around East Africa as “The Jambo Song.” It gets sung at least twice a day on Kili — before your daily hike and upon arrival at every new camp — and you’ll probably have the lyrics memorized before you learn what they mean. Unsurprisingly, later verses remind visitors to walk slowly, drink lots of water, and, of course, enjoy the climb.
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