Say it in Swahili


In Tanzania, greetings are important. If you’re seeing someone for the first time, you don’t just jump straight to “How much is that?” or “Could I have a Fanta (before I perish)?” or “Where in God’s name is that little photocopy shop that everybody says is on this street corner?” No, no.

You must engage in a ritual. How are you this afternoon? Good. Nzuri. How are you? Good, thank you so much. Assante sana. Thank YOU very much. Peace to you. Salama. And peace to you too. Salama. Peace, peace. Thank you so much. Assante sana. Alrighty then.

I quickly realized I needed to memorize a few key phrases in Kiswahili to show Tanzanians I care enough to learn their official language, of which they’re exceedingly proud. Any attempt to speak it is rewarded with high-voltage smiles and peels of laughter.

IMG_0012‘Kiswahili’ comes from the Arabic word for boundaries or coast, and with the prefix “ki”, it means coastal language. It’s a mixture of words from Arabic and East African Bantu but also contains Persian, English, Portuguese, German and French words, absorbed through contact over five hundred years.

Learning Kiswahili is advantageous as I’m living in western Tanzania on Lake Tanganyika, reporting on a maternal and child health program for Cuso/VSO, working with local
health authorities and mingling with local residents, travelling via bajaj and shopping in the market.

But as much as I strive, I keep messing up those key phrases; the words are non-sensical because they don’t resemble other languages I’ve learned (French, German, Spanish). Whenever possible, I try to equate Kiswahili words to English: for instance Sielewi (I don’t understand) sounds kind of like “seeaylaywee or see ya later” which is what I feel like doing when we reach a linguistic impasse. But my little memory triggers don’t always work. Where I was once a sponge for languages, I seem to have become more of a brick, or at least a very soggy sponge.


However, once one thoroughly applies onself (ahem) to learning Kiswahili grammar and gets oneself a kind teacher named Elizabeth, it is pretty straight forward. You don’t have to conjugate verbs, and you always use the same word to connote tense. Na is present, li is past and ta is future. To say “I am coming”, you take the pronoun I (Ni), add the word for present tense na, then the infinitive (kuja), so it’s: Ninakuja. One word, domino style. To say “I came”, just change the tense: Nilikuja. Easy peasy.

One of the things I really like is how some Kiswahili words end with an “i” sound, like hoteli, polisi, wiki, hospitali. Tanzanians are friendly people and this just makes them sound even friendlier, upbeat. Sure I’ll go talk to the polisi. And because there is only one word for like and love (penda), after the greetings are exchanged, a young man will occasionally tack on an “I love you!” which, you know, is nice.

The next frontier is time. It means not only being quick with the numbers, but also grasping their special clock. Indeed, there is such a thing as Swahili time. The clock goes from 6 am (sunrise) to 6 pm (sunset). So our 7 am is their 1:00, 8 am is 2:00, noon is 6:00. So um, yeah.

To avoid confusion with the other clock, you say morning or afternoon or evening. Still, one time I was told our team was departing at 10 pm, which struck me as awfully late especially with the state of the roads and the rains. It turned out to be 4 pm. So I really would have missed the caravan that time.

It’s been a good ride so far and I’m going to keep catching those bajaji and chatting up my neighbours so I can get even a little beyond the greetings – before the trip is over.

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