About Swahili

Swahili (also known as Kiswahili) is the most commonly spoken language in sub-Saharan Africa. In Kenya, Swahili is an official language along with English, and children are usually taught in Swahili in school.

The Basics of Saying Hello in Swahili
Besides the standard habari or jambo, I will teach you how to say even ‘good morning’ in Swahili (or good afternoon/evening) plus some other cool stuff that you can use while interacting with fun-loving youthful peers.

Chances are that you may not need to know all the greetings discussed in this article so it makes sense to first cover the basic greetings that are applicable in almost every situation. You may want to read to the bottom if you want to have a little more fun with your Swahili greetings, though.

NOTE: (PRONUNCIATION GUIDE) – Swahili words are basically pronounced the way they are written. The stress in almost all instances is on the second last syllable. Habari would therefore be pronounced as haBAree and Jambo as JAmbo. The letter ‘i’ is pronounced as the ‘ee’ in ‘sweet’ and letter ‘u’ as the ‘oo’ in ‘pool’. There are no silent letters.

There are basically five ways to say hello in Swahili:

  1. Hujambo or jambo (how are you?) – Sijambo (seeJAmbo) (I am fine / no worries)
  2. Habari? (any news?) – nzuri (nZOOree) (fine)
  3. U hali gani? (oo HAlee GAnee) (how are you) – njema (fine)
  4. Shikamoo (a young person to an elder) – marahaba
  5. For casual interactions: mambo? Or Vipi? Or Sema? (scroll down to street language section for explanations).

Other replies to the above greetings that might be used in place of nzuri:

  • njema (NJEma) – fine
  • salama (saLAAma) – peaceful / all’s well
  • sawa (SAwa) – okay
  • vyema (VYEma) – well
  • naendelea vyema (naendeLEa VYEma) – I am doing well

Now let’s dig deeper …

Asking ‘How Are You?’ in Swahili?

  • Hujambo (how are you? – to one person) – Sijambo (I am fine).
  • Hamjambo (how are you? – to two or more people) – Hatujambo (We are fine).
  • Habari? (literal translation is: news?) – nzuri (fine – to mean there is no bad news).
  • U hali gani (how are you – to one person) – nzuri (fine).
  • Mhali gani (how are you – to two or more people) – nzuri (fine).

Variants to Habari According to Time of Day

Habari? simply means news? As in ‘is there any news in your life I should know?’

The standard reply is nzuri to mean that everything is fine. If there is something troubling you then you can say mbaya (MBAya) which means bad. The other person will then proceed to ask what is wrong.

If you want to be specific – to state the time of day – you can use the following:

  • Habari za asubuhi (good morning) – nzuri (fine)
  • Habari za mchana (good afternoon)
  • Habari za jioni (good evening)
  • Habari za kutwa? ( how has your day been?)

Peers Greeting Each Other / Cool Street Language

Young people everywhere like to make language sound cool. Swahili speakers are no exception.

While walking the streets of a Kenyan town, you might hear some of these Swahili greetings. Most of them are informal and should not be used in formal writing.

  • Mambo (MAmbo) – What’s up?
  • Vipi? (VEEpee?) – how?
  • Sema? (SEma?) – speak?

The replies to these greetings can be:

  • Safi (SAfee) – Clean
  • Poa (POa) – Cool
  • Freshi (fREshee) – fresh (it is a swahilized slang version of the English word fresh)

Another informal greeting is:

Is vipi? (is how?) – is poa (is cool) …??? well, doesn’t make any sense but it sounds cool.

This is from Sheng – Swahili street slang that is a mixture of English and Swahili. Sheng is spoken by the youthful urban population mainly in Kenya but is slowly catching up in Tanzania.

It is not necessary that you use this greeting but it is important that you learn it so that when you encounter it somewhere you know what it means.

Shikamoo? (sheeKAmo) – Marahaba (maraHAba)
This greeting is used when a young person is greeting a significantly older person. It is used to show respect.

Shikamoo literally translates to ‘touching your leg’. The greeting therefore works one way and only a young person can initiate the conversation by saying “shikamoo?”

Bidding Goodbye in Swahili

  • Kwaheri (kwaHEree) (Goodbye)
  • Tuonane kesho (too-o-NAne Kesho) (see you tomorrow) – Inshallah (eenSHAllah) ( God willing)
  • Uende salama (oo-E-nde saLAma) (go with peace) – Tuonane inshallah (we will see each other God willing).

Goodnight in Swahili

  • Usiku mwema (ooSEEkoo mWEma) (Goodnight) – Wa buraha (wa booRAha) (with tranquility)
  • lala salama (sleep well / peacefully) – nawe pia (Nawe PEE-a) (you too)
  • Ndoto njema (NDOto NJEma) (sweet/good dreams) – Za mafanikio (za mafaneeKEEo) (of prosperity/success)

Other useful phrases that will come in handy

  • Asante “Thank you!” You will use this word the most in your conversations.
  • Sawa – “OK”
  • Karibu “Welcome” or Karibuni Welcome (to more than one person)
  • Sana(Very) used as in Asante-sana– Thank you VERY much.
  • Pole “I am sorry for your misfortune.” This applies to everything from getting chalk dust on your clothes, to tripping, dropping an item or sneezing.
  • Pole pole “Slowly, slowly.” Everything is pole pole in Africa.
  • Chakula “FOOD!” If you hear this word, walk towards the place you heard it.
  • Ndiyo / Hapana “Yes” and “No” respectively.
  • Tafadhali “Please”
  • Jina lako nani? – “What is your name?”
  • Jina langu ni John – “My name is John”

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