All the ways you can say “Hello” in Swahili. (And no, “Jambo” isn’t one of them.)
The first word you learn in any language is “hello”. (Or “F*** you”, for some people!). But learning “hello” in Swahili means learning to greet someone eight different ways — at least!
The most surprising things to many wazungu (like us) is that “jambo” isn’t actually a greeting people use much any more — unless they’re trying to squeeze you for your tourist dollars. It’s a bit like “hakuna matata”, which nobody actually says either.
Interested in learning more about Swahili beyond “Hello”?
This is the Swahili Beginner Self-Study Course we used and the one that we recommend. We’re in general fans of the colloquial series because of its approach on focus on teaching the way people actually speak. The book also includes helpful audio dialogue and conversations with each lesson.
It’s available on paperback and Kindle.
Summary — All the ways (we know) of saying hello in Swahili
Never mind the bollocks; here’s a summary of how you say hello in Swahili, in all the ways.
Yes, some of these actually mean “what’s up” or “how’s it”. But just like in many countries, these work just like “hello”.
(Like we’re in Colombia now writing this, and people say “Qué hubo?” which literally means “What was there?”. But guess what; they don’t actually want to know what was there.)
|Salam aleikum||“Peace be upon you”||Use this with Muslims or in Muslim-dominated areas, i.e. anywhere in Zanzibar, or the Swahili coast; and in some places inland.|
|Mambo!||“Things”||Something like “How’s it going?” — can use it with people of most social classes.|
|Hujambo||“Hello”||Slightly stuffy, nobody says this very much in practice.|
|Habari||“What’s news?”||You can use this with anyone. See the variants you use with different people.|
|Shikamoo||“Greetings”||Use this to greet people who are either elderly (like, 50+) or a senior figure like a cop.|
|Shwari||“Yo”||Use this with groups of young people, like under 25.|
|Unakuwaje||“How’s it going?”||Use this with anyone you want to be familiar with.|
|Unaendeleaje||“How’s it going?”||Same as above|
Keep reading for more notes and context on using these greetings.
“Salam Aleikum”: Using Muslim Greetings in Tanzania
Swahili is all about the greetings.
This is what we realised when we got to Zanzibar and started learning all the ways of saying good morning, how are you, etc. — 80% of a conversation could be greetings!
But like in many countries where you don’t “look” like you speak a language, the most important Swahili greetings you have to know as a non-African are the first ones, the initiators.
For example, if you want to greet pretty much anyone in Zanzibar, it’s safe to start with the Islamic greeting salam aleikum (or more elaborately as-salamu aleikum, but you don’t need to get this fancy).
Salam aleikum simply means “peace be upon you. Yes, it’s Muslim. If you don’t want to use it, you can use other things.
Reportedly 98% of the population of Zanzibar is Muslim, and the remaining minority (mostly migrants from elsewhere in Tanzania) aren’t offended by a misplaced greeting.
Unless you look obviously Muslim, for example of Arab or South-East Asian origin with a beard and/or Islamic headdress, most people own’t greet you, the foreigner, with salam aleikum. So you almost never have to know the standard response wa-aleikum es-salaam. But now you do!
Don’t say “Jambo”: Say “Mambo” or “Mambo Vipi”
There’s nothing “wrong” with saying jambo as a greeting. It has been used as a stand in for “hi” for ages.
But in general, it’s not in widespread use between Swahili speakers.
There are three kinds of people who say “Jambo” as a replacement for “hello” in Swahili:
- Children under 3
- Beach touts trying to sell you kiteboarding lessons, beads, coconuts etc.
- Tourists who pick it up and think this is normal, maybe learning it from the song “Jambo Bwana”
Same goes for “hakuna matata”, but that’s a topic for another article.
If you want to level up with barely any effort, say “Mambo” instead of “Jambo”.
Mambo is the plural of jambo and simply means “things” literally (though people use kitu/vitu for things). Combine it with “vipi” for “Mambo vipi!” and it loosely feels like “How’s it going?”
People say “Mambo vipi” not just to tourists, but to each other too, so we know it’s legit!
Say “Shikamoo” to say Hello in Swahili… Like a gangster
See someone old enough to be a grandparent, or soeone you know to be someone of importance? Greet them with “Shikamoo“, or in plural (for a group of grandmotherly women, for example), “Shikamooni”.
(Note on pronunciation. It’s a longer “o”, not an “u”-like sound.)
Shikamoo has a literal feeling of “I touch your feet” apparently, although that word doesn’t exactly come up otherwise.
You can use it on people who are definitely over 60 years old or who you know to be a mayor, a senior religious figure, or perhaps a headmaster.
If you say it to the wrong person they’ll be politely amused and never offended.
But if you say it confidently, and to the right person, you’ll strike gold: they’ll beam back at you “Marahaba!” which is the standard greeting in response. That’s how you’ll know you’re winning at Swahili.
Hujambo (and its friends)
You might learn from textbooks that you can greet people with hujambo or hamjambo (plural, greeting a group). The response to these are sijambo (just yourself) or hatujambo (plural, for a group).
These are correct, and you can use them. They literally mean something like “you have any things?”, the responses being that no, you have no things.
They’re a little bookish though, a bit like saying “hello” in English. Most people will usually opt for “hi” or another more formal greeting like “good morning”. A full “hello” is rarer.
Habari ya/za… anything
Habari means “news” in Swahili. You might know this word if you know Arabic or any other language that has borrowed the word “news” from Arabic.
If you’re a beginner at Swahili, it’s OK to just say “Habari!” as a greeting. But there are many more applications.
- Habari za leo: How are you today (“News of today?”)
- Habari za asubuhi: Good morning (“News of the morning?”)
- Habari yako?: How are you (to one person). (“Your news?”)
- Habari zenu?: How are you (to a group)
- Habari ya siku?: How are you today? (“News of the day?”)
There are many more. So maybe just stick with “Habari” to keep it simple!
You might wonder why some of the above are z and some y words. Some people learn habari ya asubuhi, and some learn habari za asubuhi. This is all to do with noun classes. Check out our Swahili noun classes cheat sheet if you’re interested in that.
Sounding cool: “Shwari, wazee!”
If you see a group of young people (max 30 years old), you can try your hand with “Shwari!”
Or if you’re really game, “Shwari, wazee!”. This sounds like “What’s up guys!”
The word wazee is the plural of mzee, which is a polite title for an elderly person.
But if you say it to young people it’s just like “guys”.
I did this once or twice and pulled it off but I’m not the kind of person to greet random people with “what’s up guys” so I just did it as a dare to myself then moved on.
“How’s it going”: Unakuwaje?
The verb “to be” (kuwa) isn’t used in Swahili the way it’s used in English. It’s highly irregular.
You never say the “are” in “How are you?” for example.
But there are a number of expressions where you can use the kuwa verb. It’s best not to think too hard about them, just know that you can say:
- Unakuwaje?: This means “How are you doing?”
- Inakuwaje?: This means “How is it?”
- Unaendeleaje?: This means “How are you going?”, understood as “How are you doing”.
You might hear more variants on that, but they mean generally the same thing.
You just respond you’re doing fine. Safi! And you’re done.