When we first set out to learn Swahili we wondered… Where do they speak Swahili best? Where are the best Swahili schools and teachers? Where should we go to learn Swahili? Where do people actually speak Swahili for everyday life?
Well, it was all unclear. So we tried everywhere, doing our own research. We went to both Tanzania and Kenya. In Tanzania, we stayed for long stints in Zanzibar, Dar es Salaam and inland Tanzania. In Kenya, we spent time in Mombasa + surrounds, Nairobi, and rural Kenya (both Maasai country and the Rift Valley). We and assessed how good each of these would be for Swahili learners, and how “useful” Swahili is in each region.
Here’s what we concluded.
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Swahili in Zanzibar: Great/Perfect
Zanzibar is the hands-down best place to go if you want to learn Swahili and speak it with people around you who speak it well and use it in their daily lives.
Swahili is most often used in the coastal regions of East Africa, including Zanzibar, Dar es Salaam and Mombasa. After all, the name of the language itself comes from the Arabic word for “coastal”. (See more facts about the Swahili language.)
But what makes Zanzibar special is that it’s Swahili’s home-town. Which means people only speak Swahili in Zanzibar. They learn English in school, but Swahili is – and has been for a while – the language used in everyday life, from casual to professional settings. When you speak Swahili there, people’s faces light up (or at least appear relieved).
As Swahili means “coastal”, it can refer to a people (“watu waswahili”), a culture (“uswahili”), and a language (“Kiswahili”). Here, in Zanzibar, you get all three: Swahili people, doing Swahili things (fishing, eating certain foods, mostly practising Islam), and speaking Swahili.
Swahili has a lot of borrowed words from Arabic, and Zanzibar and Mombasa remain infused with Arab and Islamic culture. Even the people sometimes appear to have Arab or Persian facial features. Because of the cultural influenxe, people in Zanzibar will more often use Arabic borrowed words like shukran for thank you (rather than asante, on the the mainland), and of course greet each other with salam aleikum, rather than habari (also an Arabic word, anyway).
Even though Stonetown is beautiful, we’d recommend staying out in a village like Jambiani or Mekunduchi, where foreigners are few and life is simple – and the weather and beaches are beautiful. In Stonetown you can speak Swahili, but it’ll be mostly with touts and shopkeepers. The most fun linguistic experiences are going to markets, or visiting villages outside Stonetown.
Where Zanzibar is wanting is that there are just fewer opportunities to speak at length. There aren’t any operating language schools (none that responded to our emails), few teachers, and it’s hard to meet language partners. You have to make an effort, which without any context or reason, is hard.
Sometimes reason enough to speak, by the way, is that you’re outside the house, sitting on the front porch, and someone else is too.
Swahili in Dar es Salaam: Very good
Swahili is a lingua franca in Dar es Salaam (often abbreviated to just “Dar”) as well as the official language. In daily life, if you greet people in Swahili and speak to them, they’ll continue in Swahili as they have no agenda to do otherwise. (A persistent tout in a touristy area may try English.)
Dar is a huge melting pot of a city. While Swahili is the language of Dar es Salaam, there are Tanzanians from all over the country that have come to Dar to work. This means that Swahili is unquestionably the common language, but many people also speak other languages — perhaps more proficiently, in the circle of their families and friends. But since everyone mingles together, people will use Swahili as the common language.
So different to Zanzibar, while Swahili is the language used in Dar es Salaam, the people aren’t often Swahili people, and the culture is that of any big city. There are microcultures in some pockets, but they can range from Swahili to other Tanzanian to even Chinese or Indian.
As cities go, I found Dar es Salaam interesting but overall unpleasant to live in, with the terrible urban roads that made me sea-sick, frustrating traffic and lower availability of fresh food (the rest of East Africa spoiled us!). We’ve lived in quite a few 10M+ cities. Dar wasn’t the worst (every city has its good and bad bits), but it was nothing special.
That said, Dar es Salaam has its charms worth noting. Dar has some of the best Chinese food we’ve had outside China, lower cost of living, and more opportunities to meet interesting people. It has malls, fast food, Uber/Bolt, places to buy technology, and a “startup scene”.
In professional circles, Dar is a place where people are well-educated in English. There would be no point using Swahili if you’re there as a short-term visitor unless you were trying to make a point, or trying really hard to show you care (which is great).
Similarly, when you visit big commercial areas, you might be surprised with just how much is in English. Advertisements, menus, and radio announcements. This is how people communicate in Dar es Salaam — language is not fixed.
Dar es Salaam also has more places to learn Swahili, when you try. There are schools and universities. There are more teachers, and more opportunities to meet language partners on your wavelength — other people like you, the aspiring globetrotter. That’s its major advantage.
The downside of Dar es Salaam is that you’ll be surprised how mundane Africa can be. This was something we realised when we saw our first strip mall, after a month in rural Zanzibar. This is a positive as it might break down stereotypes but it’s also kind of boring. I mean… strip malls?
Swahili in Mombasa: Very good
Swahili is a coastal language (its name is literally from the word for “coastal” in Arabic), and so it’s best spoken in the coastal regions of both Kenya and Tanzania, where it’s not only the lingua franca, but the mother tongue of the Swahili people themselves.
This means that like Zanzibar, Mombasa is home to Swahili people doing Swahili things and speaking Swahili as their mother tongue.
So even though Kenyans are educated in English, Swahili is still the dominant language spoken in Mombasa, on Kenya’s coast. It’s used in everyday life, just as it’s used in most of Kenya, but the Swahili people speak in Mombasa is much more pure.
To add to this, Mombasa’s society is very Muslim. This is similar to Zanzibar. It helps with the adoption of “pure” Swahili, which actually has a lot of Arabic loanwords. The presence of Arabic words in Swahili makes it feel almost like a Muslim language.
We definitely noticed, for example, that in Zanzibar and Mombasa, people were more likely to use an Arabic-root word than a Bantu-root word. For example, the word for the verb “to wait” is “kusubiri” (with an Arabic root) or “kuongoja” (with a Bantu root). Similarly, “to think” can be “kufikiri” (Arabic root) or “kuwaza” (Bantu root). The further you stray from the coast, the more likely you are to hear the Bantu versions.
Different to Zanzibar though is that the people of Mombasa, like the rest of Kenya, are educated with a curriculum that’s at least 50% English — if not more. The percentage of English increases with the complexity of courses, and universities are nearly 100% English. Mombasa is a big city, and has a generally higher average degree of education than other non-capital cities in Kenya.
This means that even though everyone in Mombasa speaks Swahili, the people – especially the more educated — speak very good English, and maybe even better English to express professional ideas. So you’ll have a harder time having a Swahili conversation as a visitor.
Swahili in Tanzania’s countryside: Good, but depends where
In the rest of Tanzania, people use Swahili as a lingua franca, but of course there are many other languages spoken by the hundreds of tribes. And yeah they’re totally different!
For example in the Kichaaga lannguage, spoken near Moshi in the north by the Chaaga people, to greet an older person you say “kamsambe” if they’re a man, and “kamsamai” if they’re a woman. Even this gender divide doesn’t exist in Swahili, let alone the totally unfamiliar words.
Or in Kimaasai, spoken by the Maasai people spanning Tanzania and Kenya, to greet anyone, young or old, you touch your head and say “supa”. To say “many wildebeest” (a phrase that came up quite often for us) you say “ingatí kumuk”, quite different to Swahili, “nyumbu mengi”.
For better or worse, Swahili is supplanting a lot of local languages in Tanzania. People will know the language structure, greetings and everyday things in their local language, but any complex interaction will be in Swahili. Many people (volunteers we meet) do learn Swahili in the Tanzanian countryside, first from a teacher, then from a family they stay with, and they learn it well.
But for the itinerant traveller, it’s harder. It’s harder to just roll in and find a good teacher — unless you have a good connection. Like in Zanzibar’s rural areas, it’s hard to have a pretext for a conversation unless you’re living in a village home and just hang out with the neighbours… and you might just find a village home on an AirBnB!
Secondly, whenever you see locals interact with each other in the countryside (this also extends to Kenya), the locals will chit-chat in a mix of their local language and Swahili. When speaking with Tanzanians from other areas, they’ll speak Swahili, as they will with you. So if you make friends, talking to them in Swahili will be easy.
However, you’ll know that to really be friendly you should learn the basics of their own language. This isn’t bad; it’s just a little extra homework on your behalf. And if you want to pick one area to learn… pick wisely, because that language is local to that area only.
Swahili in Nairobi: OK, but mixed constantly with English and Sheng
Nairobi is interesting because most people speak Swahili, but intermingle it constantly with English, as well as with borrowed words from other languages. Two friends, equally familiar with each language, will spend whole parts of their conversations speaking English, and then suddenly start joking in Swahili.
This is called “code-switching”. Anyone who has grown up in a community that has experienced waves of colonialism or migration, like North Africa (Arabic/French), India (Hindi/English), and Malaysia (Malay/English/Mandarin/Cantonese/Hokkien, in the case of Chinese immigrants) will be familiar with it.
Code-switching in Nairobi means people’s knowledge of Swahili is different. Because they switch between languages fluently, it’s actually tough for a Kenyan to purely use “clean” textbook Swahili in day-to-day life. More than that, it’s awkward. Nobody does it. English is easier, as that’s the official language and the language of instruction.
Nairobians will often say that they actually speak a lot of “Sheng”. This originally meant a mix of Swahili and English (Swahili + English = Sheng), but in practise it just means slangy imported words from some other language — sometimes English, but often not. Sheng evolves rapidly, and varies a lot by region. Our friends say you can travel to neighbouring cities, hang out with friends a bit, and bring fresh Sheng home back to your own community. Sheng is thus one of the few African languages actually growing. And I don’t think that’s a bad thing, unlike scholars who thing it’s the end of Swahili.
Whenever we ask people about Sheng words, the first things that come to their minds are words for boys/girls and relationships, sex, swearwords, private parts, money, vehicles, and other everyday things. So at a basis, it’s slang you have to know. But Sheng is evolving.
Nairobians (and Kenyans) tend to simplify Swahili a little, for the sake of intelligibility (I think). For example, some irregular verbs are simplified — in Tanzania people say “njoo” for “come”, using the standard irregular imperative of “kuja”. In Nairobi, people just say “kuja”. Similarly, Tanzanians more often use conditional tenses (“Were I not sick, I might have come”), where as in Kenyan Swahili people colloquially just connect past tenses (“I wanted to come but I was sick”). Neither is more correct, but they differ in style, and Tanzanian style tends to be more complex.
So the consequence is that in Nairobi, you’ll never really have a textbook complex Swahili conversation. It’ll be peppered with English or other slang words, or sentences, or sometimes just be in English. If the purpose of learning a language is to communicate, then that’s fine: you will. But if you want to make rapid progress in just Swahili, Nairobi shouldn’t be high on your list.
On the other hand, if you want to learn to speak with Kenyans: by all means, learn Swahili in Nairobi, and learn how to mix it with other languages in day to day life. If you have a foundation of solid English, and study (in a school) clean Swahili, you’ll quickly learn to adapt to speaking with people every day.
Swahili in Kenya’s countryside: OK, but learn some local language too
In Kenya’s countryside, people speak their local languages first and foremost. There are many languages spoken in Kenya apart from Swahili and English, and they’re highly regional.
We stayed in two main parts of Kenya outside Nairobi. One in Maasai country (for just a few days, around going on safari) and once in Iten, in the Rift Valley region. In both places, we experienced that people have a similar relationship to Swahili: Kenyans speak Swahili to other Kenyans (not from their region), and English to other foreigners. The reason is twofold: firstly, Kenyans do not expect foreigners to know much Swahili beyond greetings, and secondly, Kenyans often are aware their Swahili is not “clean”.
Generally in Kenya, anyone who has been to even just high school (and many have education beyond that) has been educated in English, and taken Swahili as a subject.
Nonetheless, in broader society, people chat and communicate in Swahili (if they’re not speaking to someone from the same tribe/linguistic group). But to a foreigner (anyone with skin that isn’t black), the first instinct for anyone in Kenya’s countryside is to use English. It’s a barrier you’ll have to constantly overcome by using Swahili. And even then, while people are OK to respond in Swahili, many will quickly start teaching you local words.
What makes it difficult to learn pure Swahili is that people are far more responsive to words in a local language than they are to Swahili. You might speak fluent sentences in Swahili and get a smile, but people will laugh with joy if you just use two words of a local language.
The result is that a typical conversation in inland Kenya will begin with local language greetings, and then evolve into a conversation using Swahili-structured sentences, with local language thrown in where possible, and English where you forget a word (or it becomes too complicated). It’s like a Swahili base layer of cake, with English icing and local language decorations.