Useful Swahili words and phrases to learn as the language spread across Africa
Are you planning on learning Swahili? Then you’ll need to learn some basic Swahili phrases. But don’t panic – you likely already know at least one phrase in Swahili. “Hakuna matata” or “no worries” is the Swahili saying made famous by The Lion King. It’s the perfect introduction to the Swahili language, but there are a few more words to learn to give you a headstart that are so much more rewarding.
Don’t worry if you’re not perfect – even just a few well-meaning attempts at speaking the Swahili language will get you a lot further than you think. We’ve put together a few basic Swahili phrases to help you get started. From how to say hello in Swahili to how to get around, here are some of the most useful phrases to learn before you visit Kenya.
Where is Swahili spoken?
Swahili is the most commonly spoken language across sub-Saharan Africa and East Africa with around 16 million people speaking it as a first language and more than 82 million people speaking it as a second language. That means Swahili is the 14th-most spoken language in the world. Swahili is the official language alongside English in Kenya and Tanzania, and the language is also spoken in parts of Uganda, Zambia, Malawi, Mozambique, and Rwanda, and was recently adopted by the African Union as the official language.
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Learning to speak Swahili
Learning a new language can be daunting, but Swahili is a great language to learn as many words are pronounced exactly as they are written. There’s also plenty of online resources to help you learn, including the Kamusi Project, an online Swahili dictionary and pronunciation guide (fun fact: Kamusi means ‘dictionary’ in Swahili). You can also listen to BBC Radio in Swahili or Swahili Youtube channels to pick up on words and phrases and be sure to pick up a Swahili phrasebook to help you along on your trip.
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Basic Swahili Phrases
Here are some of the top Swahili phrases to learn before your adventure in Kenya.
Every conversation Kenya starts with a polite greeting
Greetings are very important in East African culture and should never be rushed. There are many ways to greet someone in Kenya, depending on who you are meeting. Remember, a friendly Hujambo! (Hello) goes a long way. Here are some of the most common greetings:
Hujambo/jambo/salama – Hello
Karibu – Welcome
Habari Yako – Hello (Use when greeting an elderly person).
Sasa – Hello in Nairobi Sheng, a special Swahili dialect that’s a mix between Swahili and English that’s used in Nairobi.
Habari Gani – How are you?
Jambo, habari? – Hello, how are you?
Nzuri – I’m fine
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Jina lako nani? – What is your name?
Jina langu ni – My name is…
Nice to meet you: Nafurahi kukuona
Kwa heri – Goodbye (or kwa herini if it’s more than one person)
Tutaonana – See you later
Lala salama – Good night
Safari njema – Safe journey
Useful Swahili phrases
You’ll probably hear and use these basic Swahili phrases and words throughout your Kenya trip.
Ndiyo – Yes
Hapana – No
Tafadhali – Please
Asante – Thank you
Asante sana – Thank you very much
Hapana asante sana – No, thank you very much
Starehe – You’re welcome
Sawa – Okay
Samahani – Excuse me
Pole or pole sana – Sorry
Rafiki – Friend
Sielewi – I don’t understand
Pole pole – Take it easy (Kenyans don’t like to rush so you’ll likely hear this one a lot.)
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Unasema kiingereza – Do you speak English?
Unasema Kiswahili? – Do you speak Swahili?
Unasemaje… kwa kiswahili – How do you say… in Swahili?
Tafadhali, naomba msaada – Can you help me?
Unatoka wapi? – Where are you from?
Natokea – I’m from…
Naomba kupiga picha – May I take your picture? (Always ask before taking a photo of someone).
Leo – Today
Kesho – Tomorrow
Jana – Yesterday
Sasa – Now
Baadaye – Later
These are some handy Swahili phrases to know to help you get around the cities and towns of Kenya. The locals are usually very friendly and will help you find your way if you get lost. The most important word to remember is “wapi” which means “where is?”
Uwanja wa ndege – Airport
Hoteli – Hotel
Chumba – Room
Akiba – Reservation
Choo – Toilet
Bas stendi – Bus stop
Basi – Bus
Matatu – Minibus
Stendi ya teksi – Taxi stand
Tikiti – Ticket
Benki – Bank
Soko – Market
Kituo cha polisi – Police station
Ofisi ya watali – Tourist office
Posta – Post office
Hospitali – Hospital
Matibabu – Medical centre
Daktari/mganga – Doctor
Nataka kuona daktari – I need a doctor
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Naweza kupata… wapi? – Where can I find a…?
Wapi choo – Where is the toilet?
Wapi supermarket? – Where is the supermarket?
Utakwenda wapi? – Where are you going?
Endesha pole pole – Drive slowly
Nauli ni kiasi gani? – How much is the fare?
Huko – There
Pale – Over there
Ni karibu? – Is it near?
Ni mbali? – Is it far?
Hatari – Danger! (if you hear this, take note!)
The Kenyan cuisine is one of the best parts of any trip to Kenya. Here are some of the best dishes you can order anywhere, plus some handy Swahili phrases to use when ordering.
Chakula – Food
Nyama – Meat
Choma – Barbecue
Nyama choma – Goat or beef barbecue
Kuku choma – Chicken barbecue
Sumaki – Fish
Chapati – Indian-inspired pancake used to mop up soups and stews
Kachumbari – the ultimate Kenyan salad with diced tomato, onion, coriander and other spices.
Matunda – Fruit
Mboga – Vegetables
Chips – what Kenyans call French fries
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Bia – Beer
Pombe baridi – Cold beer (the most popular beer brands in Kenya are Tusker and White Cap).
Maji – Water
Maji ya kunywa – Drinking water
Soda – Soda
Maji ya moto – Hot water
Maziwa – Milk
Pili pili – Red peppers (watch out for the chilli!)
Kidogo tu – Just a little bit
Nataka – I’d like…
So there’s a few Swahili phrases to get you started….