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Jifunze Kiswahili - Learn Swahili


One of my favorite aspects of traveling is being exposed to new languages. My last trip to Kenya was full of new languages (I stopped in Amsterdam on the way over): Dutch, French, Italian, Polish, Swedish, Hebrew, and Swahili to name a few. Swahili was fascinating. The sounds of the words were clear and seemed easier to pronounce than many languages I’ve come across; however, like most languages, it would take me an embarrassingly long time to learn how to speak it. 

On the second day of my visit, I received my first language lesson while investigating a few shops. After purchasing a pair of earrings, a marble game, and a painting of two warriors crouched in attack positions, I wandered over to a shop full of dark wooden carvings. Many carvings resembled native animals including rhinos, elephants, tall giraffes, muscular lions, wildebeest, and gazelle. There were also delicate representations of Maasai warriors holding spears and long walking sticks. The collection spilled from shelves stacked around the room; I had to watch where I stepped so as not to crush carvings that had been set on the floor. While the tiny statues were impressive, the item that caught my eye was a simple shoulder bag with a metal clasp emblazoned with a cross-eyed elephant.  

“Karibu!” said a woman walking into the store.

I smiled and said, “Jambo,” the only word I knew. I quickly learned that the woman was the owner of the store and that she had made the shoulder bag herself as well as several other items in the store. By the time we had walked through the shop I knew her name was Tabitha and she and her family owned at least two successful shops in Nairobi. As we talked, her cousin walked into the shop and Tabitha introduced me as her new friend, which led to more questions and answers. I mentioned that I was interested in learning a little Swahili and Tabitha, with a dazzling smile, promised to write down a list of popular words if I stopped by her shop the next day. Needless to say, I purchased the shoulder bag.

The next day Tabitha had a full sheet of words written out. 

Hello – Jambo

Welcome – Karibu

How are you? – Habari gani?

Fine, beautiful – Mzuri sana

Thank you – Asante

Goodnight – Lala salamu

No problem – Hakuna matata

Friend – Rafiki

Shop – Duka

Market – Soko

How much? – Bei gani?

Small – Kidogo

Big – Kubwa


Tea – Chai

Coffee – Kahawa

Fish – Samaki

Bread – Mkate

Beans – Maharagwe

Rice – Michele

Water – Maji

Meat – Nyana

Mango – Maembe

Orange – Chungwa

Banana – Ndizi (the “n” is silent)

Watermelon – Tikiti maji


Cow – Ngombe

Goat – Mbuzi

Sheep – Kondo

Rabbit – Sungura

Donkey – Punda

Horse – Farasi

Cat – Paka

Dog – Mbwa

Camel – Ngamia (“N” is silent)

Lion – Simba

Elephant – Tembo

Rhino – Kifaru

Buffalo – Nyati

Warthog – Ngiri

Giraffe – Twiga

Zebra – Punda milia

Cheetah – Duma

Monkey – Nyani

Gorilla – Sokwe mtu

Snake – Nyoka

​The best thing about learning a new language, especially when traveling, is that (at least for me) you get a special view into a new culture. Every time I travel, I try to learn at least a few phrases of the local language. This not only makes it easier to start conversations with the people I meet, but it also helps to get new relationships started on the right foot. People are almost always excited to hear visitors using, or attempting to use, a few words of their language. After she handed me the sheet of Swahili words, Tabitha spent the good part of an hour helping me with pronunciations and easy sentences that incorporated the new words. It's small interactions like these that make travel invaluable and language makes them possible.


April 29, 2016

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