Kenya Cultural Safari Guide | Swahili for Travellers

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"Jambo" is probably the first Swahili word travellers learn when they arrive in Kenya. The local people greatly appreciate any efforts to speak their language, so a little knowledge goes a long way when visiting this exciting country.

The East Coast of Africa has a fascinating history of cultural interaction over a number of centuries. Arab merchants came and went on their ships, spices and other goods were traded and many foreigners married into local tribes. A form of communication was needed between tribes, traders and settlers, and Swahili, which has roots in Bantu and Arabic dialects, evolved to become the dominant language.

A Swahili family in Kenya.

Today, Swahili is the national language of Kenya and it is also widely spoken in a number of other African countries. The most original form of Swahili is still spoken along the Kenyan coast especially in Zanzibar. The further inland you travel the more diverse the language becomes.

Many Kenyans are actually tri-lingual, they speak a local dialect at home, Swahili in general communication and English when doing business.

Here is a guideline for everyday words and phrases:

Greetings and Manners

Hello - Jambo
Goodbye - Kwaheri (one person) / ni Kwaheri (to more than one person)
Good morning - Harbari sa asubuhi
How are you? - Habari?
Thank you - Asante (one person) / ni (to more than one person)
Welcome / Come in - Karibu
I'm from... - Natoka
Excuse me - Samahani
Please - Tafadhali
Okay - Sawa sawa
Yes - Ndiyo
No - Hapana
Friend - Rafiki
My name is... - Jina langu ni

Common Questions and Getting Around

Where are the toilets? - Wapi choo?
I don't understand - Sifahamu / Sielewi
Where? - Wapi?
When? - Lini?
Now - Sasa
Soon - Sasa hivi
Not yet - Bado
Today - Leo
Tonight - Usiku
Tomorrow - Kesha
Yesterday - Jana
Morning - Asubuhi
Afternoon - Alasiri
Quick - Upesi
Slow - Pole-pole
I am staying at or in... - Ninakaa

Food Related

I'm hungry - Nina njaa / I'm thirsty - Nina kiu
I want - Nataka
Food - Chakula
Hot (as in spicy) - Kali
Meat - Nyama
Beef - Ng'onbei / Chicken - Kukui / Fish - Samaki / Eggs - Mayai
Fruit - Matunda / Rice - Wali / Vegetables - Mboga / Salt - Chumvi
Water - Maji / Tea - Chai / Coffee - Kahawa
Milk - Maziwa / Sugar - Sukari / With - Na / Without - Bila
Cold beer - Bia baridi
Good - Mzuri
Bad - Mbaya

Facilities and Shopping Phrases

Chemist - Duka la dawa
Shop - Duka
Telephone - Simu
Post office - Posta
Hotel - Hoteli
Bank - Benki / Money - Pesa
How much or many - Ngapi?
What price? - Bei gani?
Expensive - Ghali
Reduce the price - Punguza kidogo
I'm just looking - Mimi na angalia tu
I don't want - Sitaki

Numbers

0 = Sifuri / 1 = Moja / 2 = Mbili / 3 = Tatu / 4 = Nne or N-nay / 5 = Tano
6 = Sita / 7 = Saba / 8 = Nane / 9 = Tisa / 10 = Kumi / 11 = Kumi na moja
20 = Ishirini / 30 = Thelathini / 40 = Arobaini / 50 = Hamsini / 60 = Sitini
70 = Sabini / 80 = Themanini / 90 =Tisini / 100 = Mia / 101 = Mia na moja 200 = Mia mbili /1000 = Elfu moja
1/4 = Robo
1/2 = Nusu

Warnings and Emergencies

Stop thief! - Mwizi
Leave me alone! - Niache!
Call the police - Ita polisi
Danger - Hatari!
Help! - Nisaidia!
Fetch a doctor - Ita daktari

by Heather Willowmore

African Safaris Guide to South and East Africa
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