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Haba haba we learn Swahili

Week 22, Episode 44

So many words in Swahili each of us knows already! We just don't know they are Swahilian! Besides "Hakuna Matata" and "Mambo jambo", there is also "jenga." In Swahili, this word means "to build" (pretty much the sense of the famous eponymous game).

Or how about "Haba haba"? It means "little by little". There is even a proverb: "Haba haba hujaza kibaba", literally "Little by little fills the measure", equivalent to the English proverb "Slow and steady wins the race." Can I interest you in a song about it? :)

Let me take you into this world of Swahilian words that makes any heart hop with joy.

The good old "The Lion King" expands our Swahili vocabulary through the names of its characters: Simba means "lion", Rafiki (the baboon)—"friend", Pumbaa"to be foolish, silly, careless", and Sarabi (Simba's mom)—"mirage."

Do you notice how interesting (and even happy) words sound in Swahili? Check out, for example, pronouns:

  • Mimi - I, me
  • Wewe - you (singular and plural)
  • Yeye - he/she, him/her
  • Sisi - we, us
  • Wao - they, them

The words in Swahili are normally very simple and, most of the time, short. Let's add some more relatives to your Swahili lexicon, besides "kaka" and "wifi":

  • Mama - mother
  • Baba - father
  • Babu - grandfather
  • Bibi - grandmother
  • Dada - sister

Be careful with the grandma, though! "Bibi" is good for Tanzania, but in Kenya it means "wife", so there refer to your Grams as "nyanya", but avoid introducing her as "nyanya" in Tanzania because... well, it means "tomato" there.

So much can be said with one word in Swahili as you add the prefixes needed to the verb stem. For example, the sentence "I ate them" turns into "Nilizila", or "They have not yet called her/him" becomes "Hawajamwita." Funny how different the languages treat sentences, huh? :)

Some words and phrases are just irresistible on their own (don't forget to place the accent properly, which is on the penultimate syllable):

  • Karibu! = Welcome! You're welcome! to one person
    (literally means "almost; near, nearby") Use it when inviting somebody to enter, or as a relpy to "Thank you"

  • Karibuni! = Welcome! You're welcome! to 2 or more people

  • Asante! = Thank you! to one person

  • Asanteni! = Thank you! to 2 or more people

  • Tafadhali (tah-fah-thah-lee) = Please.

  • Haya! = OK. All right.

  • Hapana shaka! = No doubt!

  • Ngoja. = Wait.

  • Sijui. = I don't know.

  • Sielewi. = I don't understand.

  • Lala salama! = Sleep well.

I tried to make the following list as short as possible from the original one with couple of words added. Browse them, noticing how some words sound familiar and others just make your face beam:

bora adj. excellent; better; fine; great.

buibui n. spider.

chakula n. food.
chap(u) chap(u) adv. quickly; fast.

cheche n. spark.

choo n. toilet; excrement.

chui n. leopard.

gonga v. to knock.

kaa n. crab

kipepeo n. butterfly.

kiti n. chair.

konokono n. snail.

kwikwi n. hiccup.

kuku n. chicken.

leo n. today.

lulu n. pearl

maji n. water.

majimaji n. damp; a little wet.

makao n. dwelling place; residence.

mamba n. crocodile.

mbali prep. far.

mbali mbali adj. different.

mia num. hundred.

milele n. for ever.

moto n. fire, hot.

moyo n. heart.

mrembo n. pretty girl.

Mungu n. God.

nyungunyungu n. worm.

paka n. cat.

panda v. to climb.

papa n. shark.

papo hapo adv. immediately.

pikipiki n. moto.

pilipili n. pepper.

pole pole adv. slowly.

pole! int. sorry!

popo n. bat.

soksi n. sock.
takataka n. refuse; rubbish.
tiara n. kite.
ubongo n. brain.
uyoga n. mushroom.

vile adv. in that way.

vile vile adv. also.
vita n. war.
vivi hivi adv. so so.
wasiwasi n. doubt.
wayo n. footprint;
wingi n. plenty.
wino n. ink.

zungumzo n. conversation.

And when you really want to sleep, say to your Swahili-speaking friends, "Ninataka kulala fofofo." You know Ninataka from before; kulala fofofo means "sleep like a log", or maybe you'd prefer "sleep like a baby."

One word got etched in my memory forever: Udachi (oo-dAh-chee), which is "Germany" in Swahili. The thing is that the very same word the Russians use to wish "Good luck!" Another "Russian" word I found in Swahili is "ushi" (oo-shee). This for the Bantu guys means "eyebrow", but for the tough Russians is "ears" :)

Time to say Kwaheri (K-wah-kheh-ree), or Goodbye, to this happy language of hot Africa. Personally, I enjoyed it from day one: the words, the sounds, maybe only there could be less noun classes, but Haya! to that :) Even during these two weeks I started to get used to them and differ from one another.

Hopefully (Inshallah), you've got inspired to start or continue your personal Langventure in Swahili. To that I wish you:

Safari njema! (Sah-fah-ree n-jam-ahHave a good journey!

" Papo hapo, please, put your likes!"

Read more about Swahili and other languages at

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