Swahili is already a part of daily life, you may not even know it. It has gained popularity through entertainment. For example, Safari, which we in English use to mean a guided tour to observe or hunt animals, means journey in Swahili. Also, did you know that the names of the main characters in the Lion King are all Swahili words? Simba, Sarbi, Rafiki, and Pumbaa means lion, mirage, friend, and foolish respectively. But, please don’t walk around saying Hakuna matata. Yes, it’s Swahili and nobody will be offended. But, you’ll sound like a tourist or like you’ve been watching the Lion King.
Greeting etiquette emphasizes showing respect and politeness. So, it is important to greet correctly. Normally, older people or those considered to be of higher status are greeted first. Part of the greeting process is asking the person about themselves: “How’s the family, health, business, etc…” Generally, all people like to talk about themselves a little, right? So, this allows you to understand and show interest in the other person right at the start of the conversation. Here are some basic greetings in Swahili:
Salam aleikum (Peace be unto to you)
Wa-alaikum as-salaam (Greetings to you)
Hujambo, jambo (used mostly for foreigners) or mambo - How are you?
U hali gani (How are you?)
Sijamba (I’m fine) or njema (fine, no bad news) or sawa (okay) or mbaya (bad)
By the way, a very handy word to know is Habari, (literally, news?). It can be used in most settings, with generally anyone. It is used to say hello and how's it going?
Habari za familia (how is your family?) or habari za kazi (how’s work)
Habari gani (How are you?)
If you want to be specific about the time of day you can say:
Habari za asubuhi ( good morning)
Habari za mchana ( good afternoon)
Habari za jioni (good evening)
Habari za kutwa? ( How has your day been?)
Shikamoo (a young person to an elder) – This is a greeting that a young person would use to initiate a greeting with an older person, like a grandparent or a person of superior position.
These last two greetings can be less formal and used amongst friends. In which case you could respond
Shwari! (Yo!) Obviously informal. Generally, used for a group of young people.
Unakuwaje? (how’s it going?) to be used with ones that you are acquainted with.
And here’s how you could respond:
Poa ( cool)
Freshi (Fresh!) - a swahilized version of the English word “fresh”.
And...my personal favorite: “Poa, kichisi kama ndizi kwenye friji” (“I am cool like a banana in the fridge”)
Indirect communication styles are preferred by most, with an emphasis on not offending the other person. The communication style is generally non-confrontational and polite. So, in greetings, you may get a lot of questions like “How’s the family? “How’s your work?” or “How’s your home?”.
Also, in a business meeting, for instance, it is common to have a little small talk before getting right to the topic at hand. Although norms may be changing a little, it’s still better to avoid being very blunt in conversation with others.
Humor plays a big role in most cultures, but don’t go overboard. You want to be taken seriously. However, it’s best to avoid sarcasm as it may not translate well.
Personal Space and Touching
Since Swahili is spoken in so many countries, there are of course different cultures in each. Appropriate greetings depend on the nature of the relationship and region, but there are similarities. For instance, when greeting with a handshake, always use the right hand. Handshakes may linger longer than what you may be accustomed to, maybe even for the duration of the conversation. Awkwardness aside this is just part of getting to know the other person. In some cultures a bow is sufficient. Also, it is not uncommon for people of the same sex to walk hand in hand. This is just a sign of friendship and closeness. During the conversation, it is normal to stand within an arm’s length, or a little closer between people of the same sex or friends. When engaged in conversation, it is acceptable for there to be light touching between people of the same sex that know each other.
In conversations between women and men, a handshake is usually appropriate but it is best to wait for the woman to extend her hand, otherwise, a bow or a nod of acknowledgment will suffice.
As far as eye contact is concerned, in some countries, indirect eye contact is preferred, especially for a child speaking to elders or a superior. Staring is considered aggressive or rude. Of course, in most cases, between acquaintances and friends, direct eye contact is fine.
Swahili Culture Reference Guide
Swahili Population in the United States
Professional Swahili Translation Services
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Swahili Language Services
The language Swahili is known as Kiswahili. Swahili has 5 vowels, just like English, a, e, i, o, and u. They are always pronounced the same and never de-stressed. There are 24 native consonants. The accent usually falls on the second to last syllable and there are no silent letters. Since Swahili is pronounced just as it is written, for an English-speaking person, it is one of the easier African languages to learn.
A is like the “a” in Father
E is like the “e” in red
I is like the “i” in ski or “ee” in sweet
O is like the “o” in owl
U like the “u” you or rude or “oo” in pool
Swahili Accents Around The World
The accents that one will find will vary according to the regional influence. The differences in an accent no doubt are due to the influence of Arabic, Portuguese, English, French, and German. Also, certain dialects in Kenya often mix and match the “L” and the “R” sounds. So for instance, the Kikuyu people, in central Kenya, have a difficult time saying words like kalamu “pen” or karamu “party”. Or, in the western part of Kenya you may hear a mix and match of the sounds “ta” and “da”; and “ba” and “pa”. They may have difficulty saying words like dada for “sister,” which they instead pronounce as tata, to mean “father” as used in many other dialects.
There are several Dialects of Swahili as well as pidgin forms:
Kiunguja: Spoken in Zanzibar town and environs in Zanzibar. Standard Swahili is based on this dialect
Kitumbatu and Kimakunduchi: The countryside dialects of the island of Zanzibar. Kimakunduchi is a recent renaming of "Kihadimu;"
Kimrima: Spoken around Tanzania
Kimgao: Formerly spoken around Kilwa and to the south.
Kipemba: Local dialect of the island of Pemba.
Kimvita: spoken in Mombasa and areas of Kenya
Kiamu: Spoken in Kenya and Lamu Island
Kimtang’ata to the north of Dar-es-Salaam and south of the Kenyan border
Sheng: A sort of street slang, this is a blend of Swahili, English, and a variety of other ethnic languages spoken in Nairobi
Languages similar to Swahili
Kimwani: Spoken in the Kerimba Islands and northern coastal Mozambique.
Kingwana: Spoken in the eastern and southern regions of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Sometimes called Copperbelt Swahili, especially the variety spoken in the south.
Comorian language, the language of the Comoros Islands,
Chimwiini was traditionally spoken around the Somali town of Barawa
Swahili (also called kiSwahili or Kiswahili) is the most widely spoken language in sub-Saharan Africa. The exact number who speak it, though, is widely debated. It is estimated to be the first language of about 16 million people and the second to more than 135 million.
It is spoken in Tanzania (5.5 million) and Kenya (47 million) as the main language after English. Though it is widely spoken in East Africa as a lingua franca, or a language that is used to communicate with different nationalities and languages other than their mother tongue. Most people speak Swahili as a second language.
Swahili is also spoken in Burundi, the Comoros Islands, Democratic of Congo, Malawi, Mozambique, Rwanda, Somalia, Uganda, and Zambia.
Countries Where Swahili is the Official Language
According to the 2015 Census Bureau, there are around 90,000 Swahili-speaking persons in the United States. These are the states that have the largest population of people who speak Swahili:
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