Swahili Survival Words and Phrases

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This is the Swahili that’s not focused on in textbooks but which makes living in Tanzania or Kenya SO much easier. We learned this after two months in East Africa, learning Swahili, and are happy to pass this on to you.

Some of these phrases are nothing short of magic in the reactions they get!

You might also like our free resources for learning Swahili, including our very own cheat sheet!

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Summary — All the Words and Phrases

Here are all the words and phrases you need to sound colloquial in everyday Swahili! Explanations of all these are below.

Greetings (Islamic, in Zanzibar only)Salam aleikum!
What’s up (folks)?Shwari?
Shwari, wazee?
(Standard Swahili: Ndiyo)
How’s it going?Mamvo vipi?
(Standard Swahili: Habari yako/yenu? for sing/pl)
How was it?
How is it?
How are you going along?
Great! (response to question on how it’s going)Poa!
Salama! (Standard, but also colloquial)
(Standard Swahili: Nzuri!)
Sawa kabisa
What do you mean?Unasemaje?
Pardon me? Sorry?Naam?
Excuse me (to get past/go through)Samahani
How much is it?
Lower the price for me!
Jaribu nipunguzie bei!
I know the price.Najua bei.
My respects! (to older people)Shikmaoo (mzee!)
Shikamooni (wazee!)

Salam aleikum! (Islamic; only need to use with Muslims or in Zanzibar)

Using a Muslim greeting is an amazing way to start a conversation with someone who’s a Muslim. The more Muslim they look, the better. (You can kind of tell by dress.)

In Zanzibar, you can safely use this everywhere and with everyone. A very small percentage of people aren’t Muslim, but they’ll be used to it and it’ll never cause offense.

You never have to use a Muslim greeting. Especially if it makes you feel uncomfortable. (If it makes you feel any better, it’s only customarily a Muslim greeting; it literally means “peace be upon you”.) But if you do, it helps grease the wheels.

People who identify strongly as Muslim will smile broadly, sometimes with surprise, and respond enthusiastically “wa aleikum as-salaam!” (Peace be upon you, too!). Every interaction after that will be easier.

Shwari wazee? (What’s up folks?)

Just like in any language, you greet people of different age groups differently.

Shwari is a casual “wassup?”. People just respond with the same or with “safi” or any of the responses above (except a formal one).

The word wazee technically means “old people” but it’s a little like “folks” in American English.

Eh! or Ehe! (Yes!)

Many cultures have slightly different ways of shortening the way they say yes. Americans tend to say “Mmm-hm” or “Uh-huh”.

Tanzanians (and maybe other East Africans, not sure) will just say Eh! or Ehe! a little more emphatically. They might drag it out: Eheee!

The first time you use this yourself is really fun!

Mambo vipi? Poa! (How is it? Cool!)

This is the most standard way of greeting random people on the street. (And you can greet people anywhere.)

Contrary to what textbooks and apps teach, barely anyone greets each other with a formal Hujambo and Sijambo.

Kids will often greet you with Jambo! to which you can reply with the same. Just kids, though. Anyone roughly blog-reading age will start with Mambo? or Mambo vipi?

These both mean “How’s it going?”

And you can reply

  • Poa! (“cool”)
  • Freshi! (lit. “fresh”)
  • Safi! (lit. “clean”)
  • Salama! (“safe”)

And throw in a sana (“very”) or kabisa (“totally”) afterwards. E.g. Safi kabisa!

Bonus marks: Ask Unakuwaje? to ask “How are you?” with a bit more local flavour.

Sawa (OK)

There isn’t a situation which isn’t OK.

But sawa is more than just “OK”. It’s kind of like “alright, ok”. Cool. Like kind of a punctuation mark at the end of a conversation, not just a sentence.

Like “I’m going to bed. I’ve had a long day.” “Sawa.

Sometimes I’ll have a long conversation with someone, listen to them speak, lose track, not be bothered to get them to repeat and explain and just say sawa. End of conversation.

Naam? (Pardon me? Sorry?)

This word comes from the Arabic word for “yes”. In Swahili, it’s used to say “excuse me?” or “what?”, but more politely.

People do say Nini? (“what?”) but somewhat rarely, especially if they don’t know you well.

You can use it in a sentence too. Like tunahitaji kufanya… naam? for “We have to do… what?”

Unasemaje? (What do you mean?)

There are lots of ways of asking someone what they mean.

This literally just translates to “What are you saying?” but is a nice and colloquially phrased way of asking someone what they mean.

Ilikuwaje/Unaendeleaje (How was it/how are you doing?)

These both are about situations, not people. They’re a very useful way of getting the pulse on a situation.

Say someone’s telling you about their job. They’ve been here for a month, blah blah. You can just ask them Inakuwaje? or Unaendelaje? and they’ll shrug their shoulders and say it’s fine.

You can also vary them, by modifying the tense. E.g. “Uliendeleaje?” for “How did you go?” (in a general sense, like “how was it for you”).

Samahani. (Excuse me/I’m sorry)

Use this phrase to get through any crowded area. Don’t say “pole”, which is more apologetic, used after you’ve done something wrong.

You don’t actually have to say anything, but it’s useful if you don’t want to shove your way through physically.

Shingapi? Nipunguzie! (How much? Lower [the price] for me!)

One of our first teachers taught us these. You can use these friendly directives to get a person in a market to lower a price.

Every time I’ve used them, negotiations have gone slightly smoother. “This guy must really know his fish prices” is what I assume they’re thinking.

Shingapi is a contraction of shilingi ngapi, or “how many shillings”. Nipunguzie just means “Lower for me!” which is understood as “Discount for me!”

A slightly longer form of the latter is Jaribu nipunguzie bei, “Try to lower the price for me”.

Najua bei. (I know the price.)

This is the most effective way to negotiate a price. If you know the price of something, like you’ve bought it before or you’ve taken that trip, you just look at them sternly and say najua bei. They may try to negotiate a tiny bit on top, which you don’t even have to do. You can actually just stay silent after that point, or be gracious and increase.

Shikamoo! (My respects!)

This is totally standard Swahili, but people from other cultural backgrounds find it unfamiliar. Because it’s a special greeting you say to older people.

What does “older” mean for greeting someone with shikamoo? Here’s the guideline: “Someone old enough to be your dad.” This is what one of my teachers told me. So – a whole generation apart.

The cool thing about it is that when you say this — and you can say it to anyone you see on the street — they’ll always respond immediately with a Marahaba! which is an acknowledgement of your respect. I like to throw in a mzee! (“old person”, but it sounds good), mkuu! (“boss”) or mama! (“maam”) like, Shikamoo, mzee!

Apparently not saying this and just greeting with a “mambo” is actually disrespectful. I’m sure I’d just be yet another ignorant foreigner, so it’s nice to not be that for once.

If greeting a group of older folks (quite common in villages), greet them with the plural form, Shikamooni! and hear the chorus of Marahaba! in reply. It’s quite efficient.

Hamna shida! (No problems!)

Lastly, this is the way people round off any conversation about a change of situation or a problem.

Barely anybody actually says hakuna matata, despite what everyone tells you. If you hear hakuna matata, it’s because people know you’ve seen the Lion King.

Hamna shida is a contraction of hakuna shida, which is also said (maybe about 1/4 as much).

What to read next

If you’re planning a trip to go on safari, you might like to look over our extremely comprehensive list of animal names in Swahili.

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