Likely unbeknown to visitors traveling to Tanzania to see Mount Kilimanjaro and its beautiful surroundings, Africa’s highest peak serves as the perfect introduction to the Swahili language. Kilimanjaro comes from the words “Kilima,” meaning mountain, and “Njaro,” which means shining or white.

A language barrier is rarely a problem when visiting East African countries as most people can speak English or French decently well. However, being the lingua franca in Tanzania, Kenya, Mozambique, and more, tourists would be remiss not to get acquainted with Swahili before they go.

This traveler’s guide to the Swahili language is designed to give those who plan to visit a Swahili-speaking country and want to connect deeper with the locals all the basic information they need.


The author:
Billy Oduory was born and raised in Nairobi, the one place where all dialects of Kiswahili are spoken. He studied Kiswahili from childhood in elementary and primary school. He also studied the language in secondary school as part of the curriculum in Kenya. He specializes in information systems at the University of Nairobi while working on other Kiswahili Language projects, including the Facebook Kiswahili translation program.



Where is Swahili spoken?

Swahili is one of the official languages of the African Union (along with English, French, and Arabic) and is spoken by more than 200 million people. The United Nations estimates that, even though the Swahili language originated from East Africa, Swahili speakers can now be heard in more than a dozen countries: Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), South Sudan, Somalia, Mozambique, Malawi, Zambia, Comoros, and even in Oman and Yemen.

Swahili or Kiswahili?

The term Swahili is only used by outsiders to describe the language and the people who speak it. The correct term for the language, as used by locals, is Kiswahili, but both Swahili and Kiswahili are used interchangeably around the world.

The basics of the Swahili language

Before you throw yourself into learning Swahili words and pronunciation, here are some rules of the Swahili language:

  • Unlike English in which the plural is indicated by the letter “s” at the end of most words, in Swahili, the plural is marked by a prefix. For example, “Mtu” means a person, while “Watu” is the plural meaning people.

    – Kuna mtu mmoja kwenye lango. (There is one person at the gate.)
    – Kuna watu wengi kwenye lango. (There are people at the gate.)

  • Swahili doesn’t have articles. There is no exact equivalents to “the” (a definite article) or “an” or “a” (indefinite articles) in Swahili.

Swahili pronunciation guide

  • The best way to get your Swahili pronunciation right is to say the words as they are written on the page — in Swahili, there are no silent letters.
  • To apply the appropriate stress in a Swahili word, look at its vowels. If the word has two consecutive vowels, this is where the stress will fall. For example, in the word “Maalum” (important), the stress falls on the first syllable.
  • In Swahili, whenever two consecutive consonants occur in a word, no imaginary vowels should be added to make the pronunciation easier. For example, the word “Mji” (town/city) shouldn’t be pronounced “Muji.” Try to pronounce the “m” with your mouth closed so that the consonant makes a syllable on its own without a vowel.
  • Swahili has no diphthongs, which means that sounds like “ai” like in “paid” or “ou” like in “bough” do not exist.

Here is a list of common sounds you should remember when pronouncing Swahili words.

Syllable Pronunciation
A “a” as in pat
E “e” as in pet, never “i” as in meet
I “i” as in pick and pill, never “ai” as in pine
O “o” as in pork
U “u” as in put, never a short “u” sound like in cut
NY “ñ” as in Kenya or mañana, the Spanish word for morning — for example, in Swahili, the term for monkey is nyani, so you should avoid saying “niyani” and try “ñani” instead
NG “ng” as in jungle
DH “dh” as in this
TH “th” as in thought
CH “ch” as in church
NG’ “ng” as in song
To better understand the difference between “NG” and “NG'”, please refer to this Swahili language workbook

 

Common Swahili words and phrases for greetings and simple conversation

Formal and informal greetings are very similar in Swahili, so no one will fault you for using “Jambo” (hello) as your greeting in either setting or in any Swahili-speaking country.

You probably know the phrase “Hakuna matata” (no problem), but you can also try saying “Hakuna shida” (shida also means problem).

“Ni sawa” (it’s alright) is another phrase that you may use regularly.

The greetings in this guide will work everywhere and for every occasion.

English Swahili
Yes Ndio/Ndivyo
No Hapana/La
Now Sasa/Sahii
Today Leo
Tomorrow Kesho
Monday Jumatatu
Tuesday Jumanne
Wednesday Jumatano
Thursday Alhamisi
Friday Ijumaa
Saturday Jumamosi
Sunday Jumapili
Month Mwezi
Year Mwaka
Thanks Asante/Nashukuru/Shukran.
(To say “thank you very much,” use the word “sana” after any of these three)
You’re welcome Karibu
Here Hapa
There Pale/Kule
Come Kuja/Njoo
(Kujeni/njooni for the plurals)
Go Enda/Nenda
(Endeni/Nendeni for the plurals)
Color Rangi
White Nyeupe
Black Nyeusi
Red Nyekundu
Green Kijani Kibichi
Blue Samawati
Yellow Njano
Brown Hudhurungi
My name is… Jina langu ni…
Nice to meet you Nimefurahi kukutana nawe
How are you? Habari yako/Habari gani?
How are you doing? Unaendeleaje?
Where do you come from? Watoka/Unatoka wapi?
Welcome Karibu
Goodbye Kwaheri
Good Nzuri/Njema
(Use “sana” after these to say “very good”)
Bad Mbaya
(Use “sana” after these to say “very bad”)
Man Mwanaume
(Use “Wa” in place of “M” for the plural)
Woman Mwanamke
(Use “Wa” in place of “M” for the plural)
Child Mtoto
(Use “Wa” in place of “M” for the plural)
Boy Mvulana
(Use “Wa” in place of “M” for the plural)
Girl Msichana
(Use “Wa” in place of “M” for the plural)
Morning Asubuhi
(Good morning in Swahili is “Habari ya asubuhi”)
Noon Alasiri
(Good afternoon in Swahili is “Habari ya Alasiri”)
Evening Jioni
(Good evening in Swahili is “Habari ya jioni”)
Night Usiku
(Good night in Swahili is “Usiku mwema”)

 

Swahili words and phrases to use when ordering food

The most common food you will find in restaurants in Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania is ugali (maize meal), which is often served with meat and greens, especially sukuma wiki (a dish with collard greens).

Table manners are taken seriously in the region, so you need to be familiar with common courteous Swahili words such as tafadhali (please), subiri (wait), and samahani (sorry/excuse me).

When visiting a restaurant, the following Swahili words and phrases will help you get the best service.

English Swahili
Food Chakula
Meat Nyama
Vegetables Mboga
Fruit Matunda
Rice Wali
Water Maji
Wine Divai
Hot Moto
Cold Baridi
Coffee Kahawa
Tea Chai
Bread Mkate
Spices Viungo
Hotel Hoteli
Eatery Mkahawa
What is on the menu? Kuna nini kwa menu?
I am a vegetarian/vegan Mimi sili nyama
Can I have the check please? Nipe bili tafadhali?
The food is tasty Chakula ni kitamu
More Zaidi
Add Ongeza
Less Kidogo/Kiasi
Reduce Punguza

 

Numbers in Swahili and phrases to use when shopping

Shopkeeper in Kenya. In Kenya, people speak Swahili.

Photo: The Road Provides/Shutterstock

“Pesa” means money in Swahili, and most of the countries in East Africa use the shilling as their currency. In Congo, you will use the franc, commonly known as faranka.

In Swahili, once you can pronounce the numbers one through 10, the rest is a breeze. All you have to do is add the conjunction “na” (and) to get your numbers right. For example, 19 is “kumi (10) na tisa (9)”. One hundred twelve is “mia moja (100) na kumi (10) na mbili (2).”

Here is your guide to getting your numbers right and shopping easily in Swahili.

English Swahili
Zero Sufuri
One Moja
Two Mbili
Three Tatu
Four Nne
Five Tano
Six Sita
Seven Saba
Eight Nane
Nine Tisa
Ten Kumi
Twenty Ishirini
Thirty Thelathini
Forty Arobaini
Fifty Hamsini
Sixty Sitini
Seventy Sabini
Eighty Themanini
Ninety Tisini
Hundred Mia
(“Mia mbili” is 200, “Mia tatu” is 300, etc.)
Thousand Elfu
(“Elfu sita” for 6,000, “Elfu kumi” for 10,000, etc.)
Buy Nunua
Sell Sell
Shop Duka
How Much? Ni pesa ngapi?
Price Bei
Receipt Risiti
I like this Napenda hii
Can you please pack… Tafadhali funga…
Change/replace Badilisha
That’s too expensive Hiyo ni ghali sana
I won’t take that Sitachukua Hio
I want Nataka

 

Swahili words and phrases you’ll need when moving around

Moving around in Africa is easy when you have your own car, and with car rental companies in all the major cities, it’s easy to book a rental online and get it on arrival. Using public transportation will give you a better experience, however, which is why you will need to know how to tell a taxi/motorbike driver where you are headed.

Bodaboda (motorcycle riders) and tuktuk (three-wheeled motorbikes) are the best way to get around, and you can use taxi-hailing apps, such as Uber, Bolt, and Taxiye to request one just as you would a taxi.

Here are the key terms you need to know to get your directions and transportation right in Swahili.

English Swahili
Airport Uwanja wa ndege
I need to get to… Nahitaji Kufika…
Let’s go Twende
Departure Kuondoka
Arrive/Arrival Wasili/Kufika
Fare Nauli
(Or just say “fare”)
Ticket Tiketi
Bus stop Stendi ya basi
Rent a car Kodi gari
Board Panda
Get off Shuka
Stop Simama

 

Animal names in Swahili

Person with an elephant and a giraffe. Do you know the names of animals in Swahili?

Photo: Daniel Aloisi/Shutterstock

Your visit to Africa won’t be quite complete until you have visited a Mbuga La wanyama (game park/reserve) and seen some of the continent’s iconic wildlife.

Here are the Swahili names for animals and other phrases that will come handy in the East African wilderness.

English Swahili
Animal Mnyama
Lion Simba
Leopard Chui
Cheetah Duma
Hyena Fisi
Wild dog Mbwa mwitu
Elephant Ndovu
Rhino Kifaru
Buffalo Nyati
Giraffe Twiga
Zebra Punda mlia
Wildebeest Nyumbu
Impala/Gazelle Swara
Warthog Ngiri
Crocodile Mamba
Hippopotamus Kiboko
Bird Ndege
Ostrich Mbuni
Eagle Tai
Storks Korongo
Snake Nyoka
Python Chatu
Black Mamba Mamba mweusi
Tortoise Kobe

 

Swahili words and phrases you’ll need while hiking and climbing

People at the top of Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, where people speak Swahili

Photo: Chekard/Shutterstock

The best hiking experiences in East Africa are to be found on the trails going up snow-capped Mount Kilimanjaro and Mount Kenya.

Here are the Swahili translations for the common terms you will use while on a hiking trip. You can find more terms specifically related to hiking Kilimanjaro here.

English Swahili
Mountain Mlima
Peak Kilele
Forest Msitu
Trail/Track Njia
Snow Theluji
Walk/Trek Kutembea
Climbing Kupanda
Descending Kushuka
Slip Kuteleza
Fall Kuanguka
Tent Hema
Shoes Viatu
Shelter/Shade Kivuli
Water bottle Chupa ya maji
I need to rest Nahitaji kupumzika
Be careful Kua mwangalifu
Give me a hand Nisaidie
I’m tired Nimechoka

 

Swahili words and phrases relating to lodging

To get your desired night’s rest, whether that’s a camp under the stars or a hotel, these are the terms you need to master.

English Swahili
Check in Kuingia
Check out Kutoka
Room Chumba
Room service Huduma ya chumbani
I want to book a room Nataka kukodi chumba
How much per night? Ni pesa ngapi kwa siku?
One night Usiku mmoja
Two days Siku mbili
Bed Kitanda
Single room Chumba chenye kitanda kimoja
Double room Chumba chenye vitanda viwili
Bed and breakfast Kitanda na chakula cha asubuhi
Toilet Choo
Bathroom Bafu
Room key Kifunguo cha chumba

 

Swahili street slang you can use in casual conversation

The purest Swahili is spoken in the coastal region where most ethnic speakers also live. As you go further inland, the use of slang increases due to the influence of the local languages. In Kenya, there is a whole slang version of Swahili called Sheng’.

Here are some of the most widely used Swahili slang words.

English Swahili
Hujambo? Sijambo Are you alright? I’m alright
(Plural: Hamjambo? Hatujambo)
A greeting used both formally and informally instead of “Jambo”
Shikamoo? Marahaba Same as above, but this greeting denotes respect and is used when addressing someone older than you
Vipi? How?
Used as a greeting for “How are you?”
Sasa? Now?
Common slang greeting for “How are you now?”
Za sasa? What’s new?
Za kwako? What is your news?
Hali?/Hali gani?/Uhali gani? How are you feeling?
“Hali” means condition/state
Mambo? What’s up
Poa Cool
It can be used as a quick reply to all the greetings above
Tuko pamoja We’re [in this] together.
It can be used to mean “We agree,” or as a way of saying “Goodbye/See you later”
Twenzetu Let’s go
Shwari Calm/serene
It’s used as a reply to any of the above greetings
Nimetulia I am relaxed/I am better
Salama (Salmini) Safe/okay
You can also use it in the same context as Nimetulia
(Say “Niko salama” for singular and “Tuko salama” if the greeting/question addresses a group)
Bomba Nice/awesome
Hamna Noma No problem
Kama Kawa As usual
Safi Clean
It can be used as a response to slang greetings to mean “I’m all right.” You can also use it when referring to something nice
Freshi Fresh
It’s often used to describe something nice, but it can also be used as the reply to all the aforementioned greetings to mean “I’m good”
Fiti Nice/Good
It can be used interchangeably with “Freshi”
Baadaye Later
It can be used as a shortened version of “See you later”
Unaonaje/
Waonaje
What do you think?
Kutakuwaje? What next?
Kudishi To eat
Mlo/Msosi Food
Sembe Another term for ugali (maize meal)