April 7, 2021

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Swahili for Travellers

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Swahili for Travellers

Swahili is one of the most widely spoken languages in Africa and it is considered the national language of nations particularly in the eastern and southern parts of the continent.

It is a major language in Tanzania, Kenya, Madagascar, Malawi, Uganda, Burundi, Comoros, Zambia, Congo DR, Mozambique and even Mayotte. These countries have some of the most impressive tourist sites in the world but not everyone speaks Swahili. However, the good thing here is that, as a traveller, there is still a way for you to be able to communicate.

This piece is going to focus on Swahili for travellers as it will be on the basics that you need to get along in any Swahili-speaking nation. That is why it is aptly titled ‘Swahili for Travellers’. In this language, ‘hujambo' is the word for hello and, before we proceed, there are those who wonder whether it is to be called Swahili or Kiswahili. Well, if you are referring to it in English then it is Swahili but if you are referring to the language, then it has to be Kiswahili.

As mentioned earlier, it is the official language of the countries of East Africa. It is also used alongside English in Tanzania and Kenya. There are over 50 million speakers of the language in Africa even if only around one million consider it as their mother tongue.

Swahili for Travellers – The Origins

Swahili can be traced to the times of the trade centuries ago on the coast of East Africa, between the local native Bantu tribes and sailors from Arabia. For hundreds of years, Swahili remained the language used along the coast, and it may interest you to know that ‘Swahili’ was the original word used by the Arabs to mean ‘coast'.

Slowly and steadily, over time, Swahili became the lingua franca of the area and it evolved by absorbing words from other languages along the trade route as it grew larger and more expansive. Representatives from more countries joined the trade along the coast which meant that more foreign words were incorporated.

It is interesting to note here that a remarkable proportion of this language is a derivative of Arabic but there are other derivations from Hindi, German, French, Portuguese and even English although the syntax and grammar are fully from the native Bantu tongue.

Swahili is a language that evolved from contact with the slave raiders, rulers, traders and other stakeholders over the centuries to become what it is today. Migration from the coast, and trade in the nineteenth century, facilitated the spread of the language to the deeper parts of the continent.

Later when the missionaries came, they also decided to adopt the language as their medium of communication and for spreading the religion to people of East Africa – in doing this, they also helped with the propagation of the language. The first dictionary of Swahili–English was the work of a missionary and that explains why Swahili today is written using phonetics from the English language.

Swahili for Travellers

Greetings in Swahili

Swahili people are known for their friendly nature, and this is immediately noticeable with their greetings and how they approach others. If you ever find yourself in East Africa, be prepared to hear the following:

-Hujambo – this means: Hello, hi, greetings or simply how are you.

-Sijambo – this is the reply that you give when you are told hujambo. Sijambo means hi, or just that you are fine and all is good.

Those are the opening words and, once they have been exchanged, the next thing will be questions that have to do with the family, work and home. The Swahili culture is relaxed, and politeness is considered to be a major feature. Asking about the welfare of others is considered very important. This explains why many Kiswahili speakers are taken aback when they realise that tourists go straight to business after saying hi or hello.

The following are some other words that can help you in relating with others:

-Habarigani? – Is anything new?

-Habaru yako? – How are you or how are you doing?

-Habari zasubuhi – This is simply to say ‘good morning’.

-Habari za mchana – Good afternoon

-Habari zajioni – Good evening

-Mzuri – Lovely or nice

-Asante sana – Thank you so much

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