Posted on November 25th, 2009 by

As part of our journey down the long path of Swahili fluency, we have been trying to master greetings.  Though this sounds simple enough, I assure you, it is no simple task.  Everyone tells us that Swahili is an easy language to learn, but I’m not yet convinced. 

In English, there are a couple greetings that work for all occasions and a few standard responses.  In Swahili, things get a little more complicated.  Greetings depend on the time of day, and the age of the person being greeted.  Additionally, each greeting has it’s own answer that cannot be interchanged with any other greeting-answer.  Time-based greeting are easy.  It’s a simple matter of inserting the right time word (asubuhi, mchana, jioni, etc.) into the sentence. 

However, when you get to greetings based on age, you really have to think.  If the person is older than you, you say, “Shikamoo”, to which the correct response is “marahaba”.  Younger people greet each other with “Mambo vipi” (and the reply ‘poa’). And remember, don’t mix the responses! 

Though learning the phrases is easy enough, using them is more difficult.  When you pass someone on the street who is slightly older than you, should you use the formal ‘shikamoo’ or is appropriate to say ‘mambo’? Should you wait for a child to address you with ‘shikamoo’ or can you initiate with ‘mambo’?  Keep in mind that these are the greetings that we have mastered – there are even more we are less familiar with. 

Once you get beyond greetings, you find that Swahili is a very structured language.  There are a lot of rules, but very few exceptions.  Swahili is like Spanish in that the verb has to be conjugated to fit the person along with the tense.  Fortunately, in Swahili the conjugating is nearly always the same and doesn’t vary with the verb like Spanish. 

Though verbs are relatively easy, adjectives can be tricky.  Adjectives take a certain prefix  depending on the noun class and plurality of the noun being described.  Unlike in English where most plural nouns  receive an ‘s’ or ‘es’, Swahili nouns fall in to various classes which are pluralized multiple ways.  For example, ‘kitabu’ (book) becomes ‘vitabu’ in plural form but ‘mtoto’ (child) turns in to ‘watoto’  and ‘mbwa’ stays ‘mbwa’  no matter how many dogs there are.  These examples are just three of many noun classes.  Once you figure out the noun class and plurality of the noun, you have to conjugate the adjective to fit. 

Swahili, as you may have noticed, is packed with double consonants.  There are a lot of words with mw, mb, ng, kw, mn, or mt.  People say that Swahili is pronounced like it sounds (which I maintain can be said by any speaker of his/her native language.  Think about it.).  I don’t know about you, but I was never taught the pronunciation of ‘mk’ words when I was a toddler.  Though Swahili and English share a similar alphabet (there is no q in Swahili), some Swahili words are difficult for an untrained English mouth. 

Fortunately for us, good-byes are limited to a couple variations.  ‘Kwa heri’ is the standard ‘good-bye’, ‘Usiku mwema’ means ‘good night’, and ‘baadae’ is the slang  for ‘later’.  With that in mind, kwa herini until next time!



  1. Ashley says:

    It’s funny I clicked on this. I’ve been teaching myself Swahili since summer. My stance on it is that there is a lot to remember, but I enjoy how structured it is. My hope is to visit Tanzania someday and use this language to the best of my ability (yes I know that many people know English, but still… languages are fascinating and, I think, worth the time to learn).

  2. Mara Johnson-Groh says:

    It’s definately worth taking the time to learn. I wish you the best in your studies!