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” – Ninakimbia, I am running.
Through collecting some verbs I constructed some really useful sentences for myself which include:
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.