Jambo, jambo bwana.
Your first encounter with the Swahili language may come in the form of the impossibly catchy song beloved of tourists and barmen alike: “Jambo Bwana”. We reckon it’s impossible to spend any time on Zanzibar without hearing this earworm!
The literal meaning of the opening line of this song is “Hello mister” but once you’ve mastered that, you’ll find that the more Swahili words and phrases that you can learn, the better. In the main tourist areas, you’ll find that many people speak at least some English, but trying to converse in Swahili will ensure that you receive an even warmer welcome. It could even open doors – including perhaps the famous carved wooden ones in Stone Town.
While Swahili was originally written in Arabic script (Swahili is an African language with many influences), a more familiar Latin alphabet is now used (with the exception of the letters ‘Q’ and ‘X’. These missing letters gave rise to the old jokes that on Zanzibar you never have to wait in line, and if you start a relationship with a Zanzibari, they’ll never leave you!
Basic Swahili is relatively simple to learn, especially as every letter is pronounced. It’s a case of say what you see. Let’s start with some of the more common phrases and see how you get on. Jambo, as you know, means hello. The reply is also Jambo.
Knowing me, knowing you
Let’s say you want to know how your new Zanzibari friend is doing. Ask them either Hujambo? or Habari? They’ll reply Sijambo or Nzuri, both of which mean fine. As in many African countries, that’s the standard answer – no-one will ever tell you that they’re anything other than fine!
With younger people, the question and answer Mambo? and Poa are more common. So now you now the Swahili word for cool, which is a useful one in such a laid-back and relaxed place.
Tafadalhi (please) and Asante sana (thank you very much) will mark you out as a polite person (we know you are) and you’ll hear the answer Karibu (you’re welcome). As in, Karibu Unguja – welcome to Zanzibar!
Swahili is a lovely language to listen to but while it’s very musical, it can also be spoken very quickly, so Sielewi (I don’t understand) could be a useful word! If you’re really struggling, you could ask Unasema Kiingereza? (do you speak English?). However, if the answer is Hapana (no), then it’s back to smiling and pointing, or your Swahili phrasebook.
The beach is the best classroom
A few minutes of study each day and you’ll soon know Kidogo (a little bit). The staff at Driftwood Beach Lodge are always happy to give lessons and will always listen patiently to your best Swahili. They’ll tell you whether your words and phrases are Safi (good) or just Sawa (okay) and teach you the most useful expression of all: Bia baridi (cold beer)!
Take the time to learn just a few Swahili words and you’ll enjoy your stay on Zanzibar even more, although we predict there’s one word you won’t enjoy saying or hearing. Kwaheri is the Swahili word for farewell, but it doesn’t quite mean the same as goodbye – rather, it means something closer to until we see you again.
Given that very few people only visit Zanzibar once, that seems very appropriate! To say Jambo to Driftwood Beach Lodge and start planning your Zanzibar beach holiday, call us on +255 774 236 455 today or click here.