Swahili Basics and Useful Phrases for Travelers to East Africa

If you're planning a trip to East Africa, consider learning a few basic phrases of Swahili before you go. Whether you're embarking on a once-in-a-lifetime safari or planning on spending several months as a volunteer, being able to converse with the people you meet in their own language goes a long way towards bridging the cultural gap. With a few of the right phrases, you'll find that people are friendlier and more helpful everywhere you go. 

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Who Speaks Swahili?

Swahili is the most widely spoken language in sub-Saharan Africa, and acts as the common tongue for most East Africans (although it's not necessarily their first language). In Kenya and Tanzania, Swahili is an official language alongside English, and primary school children are usually taught in Swahili. Many Ugandans understand some Swahili, although it's rarely spoken outside the capital, Kampala. The official language of the Comoros Islands is often classified as a dialect of Swahili.

If you're traveling in Rwanda or Burundi, French will probably get you further than Swahili, but a few words here and there should be understood and the effort will be appreciated. Swahili is also spoken in parts of Malawi, Zambia, the DRC, Somalia, and Mozambique. The 2019 edition of the reference publication Ethnologue estimates that dialects of Swahili are spoken as a first language by roughly 16 million people, and that over 82 million people speak it as a second language. This makes Swahili the 14th-most widely spoken language in the world.

Origins of Swahili

Swahili may date back several thousand years, but it developed into the language we hear today with the arrival of Arab and Persian traders on the East African coast between 500 - 1000 AD. Swahili is a word the Arabs used to describe "the coast" and only later did it come to apply to East African coastal culture specifically. In Swahili, the correct word to describe the language is Kiswahili and the people who speak Kiswahili as their mother tongue may call themselves Waswahilis. Although Arabic and indigenous African languages are the main inspiration for Swahili, the language includes words derived from English, German, and Portuguese.

Learning to Speak Swahili

Swahili is a relatively simple language to learn, mostly because words are pronounced as they are written. If you wish to expand your Swahili beyond the basic phrases listed below, there are several excellent online resources for doing so. Check out the Kamusi Project, a vast online dictionary that includes a pronunciation guide and a free Swahili-English dictionary app for Android and iPhone. Travlang allows you to download audio clips of basic Swahili phrases, while Swahili Language & Culture offers a course of lessons that you can complete independently via CD.

Another great way to immerse yourself in Swahili culture is to listen to in-language broadcasting from sources like BBC Radio in Swahili, or Voice of America in Swahili. If you would rather learn Swahili upon arrival in East Africa, consider attending a language school course. You'll find them in most major towns and cities in Kenya and Tanzania; just ask your local tourist information center, hotelier, or embassy. However you choose to learn Swahili, make sure to invest in a phrasebook, because no matter how much you study, you're likely to forget everything you've learned the first time you're put on the spot.

Basic Swahili Phrases for Travelers

If your Swahili needs are more simple, browse the list below to find a few top phrases to practice before you leave on vacation.

Greetings

Hello: jambo/ hujambo/ ​salama

How are you?: habari gani

Fine (response): nzuri

Goodbye: kwa heri/ kwa herini (more than one peson)

See you later: tutaonana

Nice to meet you: nafurahi kukuona

Goodnight: lala salama

Civilities

Yes: ndiyo

No: hapana

Thank you: asante

Thank you very much: asante sana

Please: tafadhali

OK: sawa

Excuse me: samahani

You're welcome: starehe

Can you help me?: tafadhali, naomba msaada

What is your name?: jina lako nani?

My name is: jina langu ni

Where are you from?: unatoka wapi?

I'm from: natokea

May I take a picture?: naomba kupiga picha

Do you speak English?: unasema kiingereza?

Do you speak Swahili?: unasema Kiswahili?

Just a little bit: kidogo tu

How do you say... in Swahili?: unasemaje... kwa kiswahili

I don't understand: sielewi

Friend: rafiki

Getting Around

Where is the...?: ni wapi...?

Airport: uwanja wa ndege

Bus station: stesheni ya basi

Bus stop: bas stendi

Taxi stand: stendi ya teksi

Train Station: stesheni ya treni

Bank: benki

Market: soko

Police station: kituo cha polisi

Post office: posta

Tourist Office: ofisi ya watali

Toilet/ bathroom: choo

What time is the... leaving?: inaondoka saa... ngapi?

Bus: basi

Minibus: matatu (Kenya); dalla dalla (Tanzania)

Plane: ndege

Train: treni/gari la moshi

Is there a bus going to...?: kuna basi ya...?

I'd like to buy a ticket: nataka kununua tikiti

Is it near: ni karibu?

Is it far: ni mbali?

There: huko

Over there: pale

Ticket: tikiti

Where are you going?: unakwenda wapi?

How much is the fare?: nauli ni kiasi gani?

Hotel: hoteli

Room: chumba

Reservation: akiba

Are there any vacancies for tonight?: mna nafasi leo usiko? (Kenya: iko nafasi leo usiku?)

No vacancies: hamna nafasi. (Kenya: hakuna nafasi)

How much is it per night?: ni bei gani kwa usiku?

Days and Numbers

Today: leo

Tomorrow: kesho

Yesterday: jana

Now: sasa

Later: baadaye

Every day: kila siku

Monday: Jumatatu

Tuesday: Jumanne

Wednesday: Jumatano

Thursday: Alhamisi

Friday: Ljumaa

Saturday: Jumamosi

Sunday: Jumapili

1: moja

2: mbili

3: tatu

4: nne

5: tano

6: sita

7: saba

8: nane

9: tisa

10: kumi

11: kumi na moja (ten and one)

12: kumi na mbili (ten and two)

20: ishirini

21: ishirni na moja (twenty and one)

30: thelathini

40: arobaini

50: hamsini

60: sitini

70: sabini

80: themanini

90: tisini

100: mia

200: mia mbili

1000: elfu

100,000: laki

Food and Drinks

I'd like: nataka

Food: chakula

Hot/cold: ya moto/baridi

Water: maji

Hot water: maji ya moto

Drinking water: maji ya kunywa

Soda: soda

Beer: bia

Milk: maziwa

Meat: nyama

Chicken: nyama kuku

Fish: sumaki

Beef: nyama ng'ombe

Fruit: matunda

Vegetables: mboga

Health

Where can I find a...?: naweza kupata... wapi?

Doctor: daktari/mganga

Hospital: hospitali

Medical center: matibabu

I'm sick: mimi ni mgonjwa

I need a doctor: nataka kuona daktari

It hurts here: naumwa hapa

Fever: homa

Malaria: melaria

Mosquito net: chandalua

Headache: umwa kichwa

Diarrhoea: harisha/endesha

Vomiting: tapika

Medicine: dawa

Animals

Animal: wanyama

Buffalo: nyati/mbogo

Cheetah: duma/ chita

Cow: n'gombe

Elephant: tembo/ndovuh

Giraffe: twiga

Goat: mbuzi

Hippo: kiboko

Hyena: fisi

Leopard: chui

Lion: simba

Rhino: kifaru

Warthog: ngiri

Wildebeest: nyumbu

Zebra: punda milia

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