12 Swahili Words You Have To Know

Saaiqa Merali

Swahili, the poetic national language of Tanzania, has an incredible history to match its expressiveness. The language isn’t confined to one country’s border, spreading through eastern and southern Africa. Swahili is listed as a national language of three other countries – Kenya, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

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With its name derived from the Arabic word for ‘coast,’ Swahili is heavily influenced by the historical events that gave birth to the East Africa of today. Arabic and Persian influences are unmissable, and more subtle influences from Portuguese and German are present, mixed with numerous borrowed words from the English language. This in itself is a testament to how versatile the Swahili people are, without losing their longstanding values for community, respect, and humility. Swahili is also a phonetic language, making it quite easy to learn! Here are 12 awesome Swahili words you have to know.

Shikamoo (pronounced shih-kah-moh)

Used as a simple hello in formal settings, this greeting is, in fact, heavy with meaning. The full phrase ‘nashika miguu yako’ literally translates to ‘I am beneath your feet/ I hold your feet’ and so is used mainly to greet elders. Formerly used by slaves to masters, the shortened more modern version is positive and very well received.

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Marahaba (pronounced mah-ra-haa-ba)

The definitive response to shikamoo, marahaba has several translations. It can very simply mean ‘thank you’ or ‘very well.’ It’s usually a simple hello back to the younger person that used the first greeting.

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Nyumbani (pronounced ni-oom-ba-nee)

Home — an essential word in any language because it covers a place, a person/group of people, and a feeling. The root chumba or nyumba refers to the actual building and means ‘house.’

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Familia (pronounced fa-mi-lee-aa)

This one’s easy, ‘family.’ Every relationship in the extended family has a word to describe it, as nucleus families aren’t the norm in the Swahili culture. Uncles, aunts, nephews, nieces, cousins, and grandparents usually live in the same cluster of houses, showing the importance of closeness in familial bonds.

Tafadhali (pronounced taa-fah-thah-lee)

Tanzanians are known to be extremely polite in their mannerisms, and this is easily picked up by Swahili speakers in other countries — probably because their word for ‘please’ more specifically means ‘do a kindness to/be good to.’

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Muda (pronounced moo-dah)

Telling the ‘time’ in Swahili can be very puzzling, considering one o’clock means seven o’clock. Confused? Let’s start with baby steps and address chunks of time. With this entry in our top 12 list, you get five bonus words to help you out!
asubuhi (ah-soo-boo-hee) morning; alasiri (aa-laa-siri ) afternoon; jioni (jee-oh-knee) evening; usiku (oo-sih-koo) night/nightfall; mchana (mmh-chaa-naa) daylight

Ugali with dagaa (sardines) and beans

Ugali (pronounced ooh-gah-lee)

A staple food in all Swahili households, ugali is a stiff porridge made of maize, millet or cassava flour. Eaten with a variety of foods, it’s an inexpensive yet healthy meal that is on the menu at most local cafeterias. It’s not too difficult to find, unlike our next Swahili word.

Kanzi (pronounced kaan-zee)

The Swahili word for ‘treasure’ has such a wonderful feel to it. Although there are different words for valuables in other contexts, this one refers to hidden treasure — something precious and possibly hard to find. It can pass for a term of endearment, but also for what Captain Jack Sparrow may have been looking for.

Heshima (pronounced heh-she-maa)

Mostly interpreted as ‘respect,’ this is another word with several translations and uses. As mentioned previously, having respect and being respectable are very strongly held ideals in the Swahili culture. Other words associated with heshima are honor, dignity and modesty. ‘Heshima ni kitu cha bure’ — ‘Politeness costs nothing.‘ An uncomplicated yet profound phrase, it serves as an invaluable insight into the Swahili moral code.

Askari soldiers

Askari (pronounced ass-kah-ree)

Gatekeepers and security guards aren’t often given the recognition they deserve. Essentially, they are entrusted daily with other people’s safety. The word askari means ‘soldier’ and is a fitting description of the people that take on these jobs.

Jumuiya (pronounced joo-moo-i-yah)

The word for ‘community’ sheds light on another central theme: the significance of togetherness. In many traditions and rituals, the Swahili look to societal rules that call for unity on all fronts. For example, a notable event during Swahili wedding celebrations is the bride’s send off, which entails all of her family and friends having to pool together to purchase all household items that the bride would need for her new home. Of course, the celebration involves dancing up to the bride to present the contribution!

Kura (pronounced koo-rah)

Piga kura’ means ‘to vote,’ which given the recent events in Tanzania seems like an important word to include on this list. The general elections were held at the end of October 2015, and every Tanzanian was encouraged to practice their rights to vote, with the hashtag #KuraYako (your vote) making the rounds on social media.

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There are constant debates about the rise of English literacy in countries like Tanzania, as it is a global language and enables Tanzanians to work towards becoming global citizens. Often young people use both Swahili and English words in the same sentence when speaking casually and amongst each other; however, this modernization of Swahili doesn’t translate to losing it as a language on its own. Swahili is, no doubt, a brilliantly rich language. Reflective of the people that not only speak it but also live it, it is a window into a world of their wonderful ways.

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