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12 Swahili Words to Know Before Traveling in East Africa

EAST AFRICA is a beautiful place to visit, or even live for a while. Knowing a little bit of Swahili before you go will endear the people toward you and start your trip off right.

Learn your greetings

Saying “Hello and Good Morning” are a must in East Africa. You would never start a conversation without a sufficient greeting.

Even when my friend found me screaming on my bed, trying to kill a huge spider, he first said “Kelly how are you? How was your trip to Tanga? Did you sleep well?”

I answered all three questions before he would even start to talk about the spider.

Hujambo – “Hello!” A friendly “ Hujambo” goes a long way.

Habari – Also “Hello / Good Morning.” Use this one when speaking with older people.

Nzuri – “Beautiful / Good / Nice / I am fine.”

Shikamo – Literally “I hold your feet.” This greeting is for your elders. Young children will often mutter Shikamo under their breath when you walk by. It may sound like “Sh…ooo”.


Marahaba– The reply to “Shikamo”. Literally translated to something like “I am delighted, I don’t get that every day.”

Other useful phrases that will come in handy:


“Thank you!” You will use this word the most in your conversations.


(Very) used as in Asante-sana– Thank you VERY much.


“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.


“FOOD!” If you hear this word, walk towards the place you heard it.

Ndiyo / Hapana

“Yes” and “No” respectively. Some phrasebooks will tell you that hapana is rude. It is not. As long as you don’t say it forcefully, you are fine. I haven’t heard another word for ‘no’ since I have been here.


“DANGER!” This could be a snake in the road or a warning about an endemic in the area. Take note and proceed with caution.


Written by How Africa

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