It is a good idea to learn a few basic words in Swahili before your next safari in Tanzania. The locals in Tanzania are generally very friendly and polite. By attempting a few phrases in Swahili you will certainly gain their appreciation and respect. This not only helps to bridge existing language barriers, but will also enrich your entire experience of Tanzania.

The good news is that learning basic Swahili is fun and not too difficult. This beautiful free-flowing language is often spoken as it is written, making it easier to speak and understand.

Why Swahili?

Swahili (Kiswahili) is the most widely spoken language in sub-Saharan Africa. This language is spoken in most of the East African region and in countries such as Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, Somalia, Rwanda, Burundi, Democratic Republic of Congo, Malawi, Zambia and Mozambique. Although Swahili might not be their first language, many East Africans can speak and understand Swahili. If you are planning on travelling to any of these countries it is a great language to learn.

So where did Swahili originate from?

The Swahili language was formed many years ago. It mostly developed as a trade language used by the Arabs, Persians and coastal natives along the East African Coast. These cultures had the greatest influence on the Swahili culture and language. The word ‘Swahili’ means ‘the coast’. Kiswahili continued to grow in use and popularity and soon after Tanzania’s independence in 1962, Julius Nyerere, the first president, declared Kiswahili the national language in Tanzania.

Nyerere had a background in teaching and believed that all education should be conducted in Swahili. With this in mind, Nyerere went ahead and translated three Shakespearean plays into Swahili - Macbeth, The Merchant of Venice and Julius Ceaser. By doing so he conveyed a strong message to the world that proved that Swahili was versatile and worthy by being able to convey the intricacies of Shakespeare’s artistic expression.

Did you know?

The word ‘safari’ is actually a Swahili word. In Swahili it means ‘journey’. This word came from the Arabic adjective ‘safar’, meaning ‘a journey, travelling, touring or voyaging’. The verb ‘to travel’ in Swahili is ‘kusafiri’. These were combined to form the word ‘safari’. At the end of the 1850’s the word ‘safari’ was first used in the English language after the explorer Richard Francis Burton made it popular.

It all starts with a greeting

In Tanzania you will always get a warm welcome from the locals, whether you arrive at your camp for the first time, sit down for breakfast each morning or return from your game drive. You will soon notice that greeting someone is very important in the Swahili culture. Generally Tanzanians will think that you dislike them or are impolite if you do not greet them. There are a few ways to say ‘hello!’ - below are a few of the phrases that will come in handy during your trip.

Hello! - jambo / hujambo / salama

How are you? - habari gani?

I am fine / good - nzuri

Goodbye - kwa heri / kwa herini (if there are more than one person)

See you later - tutaonana

Nice to meet you - nafurahi kukuona

Sleep well - lala salama

Good night -usiku mwena

Knowing these basic greetings will already go a long way in Tanzania.

Other helpful phrases when you are on safari

In addition to greetings, you will also hear the word ‘asante sana’ many times during your visit. ‘Asante’ means ‘thank you’. An appropriate way to respond is to say ‘asante sana’, but this might get you another round of ‘asante sana’, so to break the cycle you may also simply say ’karibu’. This means ‘welcome’. Here are some more common words and phrases that you can practice.

Yes - ndiyo

No - hapana

Thank you very much - asante sana

Please - tafadhali

OK - sawa

What is your name? - jino lako nani?

My name is - jina langu ni

Where are you from? unatoka wapi?

I’m from - natoka

Do you speak Swahili? - unaongea Kiswahili

Just a little bit - kidogo tu

I don’t understand - sielewi

Slowly - pole pole

How to count in Swahili

It is good to have a basic understanding of numbers when learning a new language. When examining Swahili numbers more closely you will note the influence of the Arab cultures here. ’Moja, mbili, tatu, nne, tano, nane and kumi’ all originate from the original Bantu language. On the other hand ‘sita, saba and tisa’, have been borrowed from Arabic. The Arabic word ‘tisa’ actually replaced the Bantu word ‘kenda’ for ‘nine’, but in some cases the word ‘kenda’ may still be used.

One - moja

Two - mbili

Three - tatu

Four - nne

Five - tano

Six - sita

Seven - saba

Eight - nane

Nine - tisa

Ten - kumi

The Swahili names of animals you will find on safari

During your game drive in Tanzania you will sometimes hear your guides mentioning the names of animals in Swahili. By knowing these words, you might know before anyone else around you that you are currently looking for a ‘chui’ whose spoor the guide just picked up on. Keep your eyes open and you might just spot that elusive leopard they are searching for. These are some of the animals that you can expect to see on your drive or walk.

The Big five:

Elephant - tembo

Buffalo - nyati

Lion - simba

Rhino - kifaru

Leopard - chui


Giraffe - twiga

Cheetah - duma

Hippopotamus - kiboko

Hyena - fisi

Warthog - ngiri

Wildebeest - nyumbu

Zebra - punda milia

It’s time to practice your Swahili in Tanzania

Now that you have the basics of the Swahili language under control it is time to practice your newly acquired skills in Tanzania. When visiting our camps, our team will go out of their way to make you feel right at home. After all true hospitality is deeply ingrained in the Tanzanian culture and way of life.

We look forward to hosting you at one of our camps soon!

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