ninajifunza kiswahili… pole pole.

I’ve never been good at languages. Ask any of my professors and they might tell you otherwise but the reality is what you learn in the classroom means nothing if you can’t practice it outside – and with Spanish I never did. Learning Swahili has been one of the most frustrating and rewarding experiences of the last two weeks. Mistakenly, I figured I could get away without learning some of the language before I arrived because we would be taking classes. I’ll never make that mistake again. Not only was I painfully aware of how American I was when we stepped on African soil but I literally couldn’t say a word of greeting to anyone I met beyond “Jambo.” I couldn’t speak to our cooks, the guards, anyone in town – it was downright embarrassing. And to make matters more humiliating, we learned later that “Jambo” is the swahili way of greeting Wazungu (white people) – it is not even a word the natives use on themselves, they just use it on us. Oh boy.

But it is crazy how far we have come in two weeks. I now can greet anyone I see in a myriad of ways and, with the constant willing help of the guards, cooks and drivers, have learned some basic sentences. I can’t wait to see what I am capable of by the end of the trip.

So for anyone who plans on traveling to East Africa in the future (whoever that may be) I thought I’d include a few phrases and lessons for you.

First off, never say jambo, proper greetings and responses are as follows:

GREETING: Habari za leo? (How are things today?)
RESPONSE: Nzuri (good).
Always, everything is always assumed to be fine, always.


GREETING: Mambo? (What’s up?)
RESPONSE: Poa (cool).


Whenever you greet an elder you always say shikaamoh (I kneel at your feet).

Don’t ask me why they say “Cool” in response to Mambo… it’s just one of those things. Or, if you’re our driver David and you love to confuse everyone you could respond: “Poa kichizi, kamma ndizi ndanyi ya friji.” I’m crazy cool, like a banana in the fridge. Don’t ask me, I don’t know.

We learned how to construct sentences as well, which is SO MUCH SIMPLER than in English that its absurd. You just add a prefix, such as “Ni” (I) to a tense such as “na” (am) and add the verb, such as “kimbia” – NinakimbiaI am running.

Through collecting some verbs I constructed some really useful sentences for myself which include:

Tunatoka marekani.
We are from America.

Where are you going?

I am going to rest.

Unacheza impira leo?
Are you playing soccer today?

Then there’s always: baadae (later!), pole (sorry!), asante (thank you!and karibu (you are welcome).

And so many more phrases. It has been great learning and practicing with Swahili and the staff is more than helpful – each and every person is overwhelmingly supportive. So I encourage you to learn as much as you can about the language of any future destination you choose, it is an exhilarating and humbling experience.

Ninajifunza kiswahili… pole pole.
I am learning… slowly.


6 thoughts on “ninajifunza kiswahili… pole pole.

  1. Hi, Emily,

    I’m having trouble getting onto WordPress. They keep asking for a new password. Then when I give one, I’m told it’s invalid. Oh well, I hope you get this response. I LOVE your blog! You are an incredible writer! I wish I could hear the Swahili words pronounced. It seems to be a “musical” sounding language. Keep up your good work. Lots of love, Nana H.



  2. I was just going to say that I learned a little Swahili from Mike just yesterday and the one word I was taught and remembered was pole.pole..( a word he used to describe our other running buddy..she is a slow runner) He described me with the Swahili(an) word Hakuna Matata and was disappointed that I had heard the word and even knew its meaning…No worries! Keep writing!!!


  3. Mthani:
    Hongera dada! Utaweza kuelewa Kiswahili hivi karibuni. Hunifahamu. Mimi na fanya kazia na Elizabeth hapa Seattle. Ameniwaambia kuhusu safari yako na blog hivi. Asanta kwakuandika kuhusu Tanzania. Umenifurahisha sana. Comment nwingine nitakupa hadithi yangu.

    Kwa sasa: SAFARI NJEMA!!! : )


  4. I guess I will scratch “jambo” from our morning greeting choices in class! We’ll have to try the new greet/responses above. They’ll like that. Glad communication is getting easier. I thought it would if you were patient. “pole pole” is good. Remember “slow and steady wins the race”. 🙂


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