Swahili words worth knowing before you visit East Africa

East Africa is one of the most traveled destinations across Africa. 

Every country in East Africa has its own unique culture and heritage. For instance, there is no better gorilla trekking experience in East Africa than going through the North-western Uganda rainforest.

Revell through the sunswept plains of the Kenyan grassland savannahs, and a lot more. What is synonymous across East African countries is the Swahili language. The language has a rich history that dates back to the coastal communities engaging in trade with Arabic, Chinese, and Portuguese merchants, sailors, or invaders.

Swahili stands out as the lingua franca for the native locals who speak in different languages.

The language is spoken in Uganda, Tanzania, Kenya, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Whether you are traveling to the following countries on business or holiday, knowing a few words in Swahili can make a great first impression. While doing so, you will also learn more about the place, people, and lifestyles. 

Start by understanding the greetings

“Good morning” and “hello” are the perfect conversation starters. It would seem quite odd approaching someone on the street and beginning a conversation without a salutation. In most if not all communities worldwide, a greeting is a sign of respect - East African communities are no exception.

Here are some of the top Swahili greetings that apply across all East African countries:

  1. Habari -  This is Swahili for “good morning” or “hello” often best used when addressing a mature person.
  2. Hujambo - Very formal greeting meaning “hello” and can be addressed to any person.
  3. Nzuri - means “fine” or “great” often a response to the “Habari”

Other useful phrases generally used

  1. Asante - This is probably the most common word you will hear whenever you pay for anything. It means “thank you” 
  2. Pole  - Swahili condolence meaning “sorry” and applies in virtually any scenario from tripping on a rock to public sneezing. 
  3. Pole pole - we are now synonymous with the movie line, “no hurry in Africa.” In Swahili, the word means “slowly”
  4. Chakula - what else nourishes the soul if it isn’t a nice warm dish of tasty food? Swahili for “food” can be used to describe any dish.
  5. Hapana or ndiyo - a direct translation of the two words is “no” and “yes” respectively.
  6. Tafadhali - Fairly difficult to pronounce for a first-timer but is very important for your Swahili vocabulary, it means “please”

The role played by Swahili

As a major lingua franca, Swahili is recognized by major international news media stations such as the BBC Swahili or VOA.

In Tanzania, Kenya and Uganda Swahili is either the national or official language. That means it is a language that commands political, economic, and social influence. As a Bantu language, it is spoken in all areas of the Great Lakes region including some Southern Africa countries such as Mozambique. 

Education sector

Swahili is taught in most schools in the Great Lakes region. Uganda made it essential for everyone to learn Swahili in 1992. In Kenya, the language is mandatory in schools, private and public universities.

That way the continuous promotion of the language will continue for future generations. Considered as one of the easiest languages to learn, it is no surprise that Swahili will be taught in South Africa starting 2020, and is one of the official languages of the African Union. 


Trade within Swahili speaking countries is solid and ever-expanding given the ability to communicate effectively. Regional infrastructure across the region is improving, increasing interactions, and opening up new opportunities. 


The Swahili language has been a bedrock pillar in the integration of East African countries. For instance, the East African Community comprises of Swahili speaking countries who are on the verge of merging into a unified state. 

What was once three countries (Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania) is now expanding to accommodate Rwanda, Burundi, and South Sudan. The language is also great for pan Africanism, the unification of the continent at large, and the promotion of a unique and distinct African identity.

35% of the Swahili vocabulary originates from Arabic. However, it remains dynamic and has even adopted words from Hindu and English. 15 million people consider Swahili as their mother tongue and are referred to as Waswahili.

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