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Greg's Useful Swahili Phrasebook

Arusha, Tanzania

I don't know much Swahili at all. Swahili is the official language of Tanzania, but most everyone you run into speaks English. I would attribute this to the fact that Tanzania used to be a British colony, but it also was a German, Portugal and Arabic colony, and I haven't run into too many people speaking German, so I suppose it is probably just because tourists speak English and spend money.

I have learned some phrases in Swahili, mainly because the locals will drop them into the conversation. I present them here for you now.

Jambo - this means hello. But it is only used by the locals when directed towards tourists. If you are walking down the street and hear "Jambo!" and you are the only mzungu (white person) around, they are talking to you. Jambo will usually be followed by a phrase like "what are you looking for?" with the hopes that you say something that they can provide, whether it be a painting, a coca-cola, safari tour, woman for sex or unrefined uranium. A polite, "no thank you, I have all the unrefined uranium I need," is enough to stop the pestering.

Asante Sana - thank you very much. The odd thing around here is when you thank someone, they tend to say thank you back. A waiter brings me a cup of tea. "Asante sana," I will say. "Asante sana," he will reply. To which I am unsure of how to reply. Should I say "Karibu," which means you're welcome? That doesn't seem right. So I say "Asante sana," again. And he re-replies "Asante sana." It's a never ending cycle. I have figured out that the secret is to just stop after one open of Asante sana and their re-raise back to you with asante sana. There is an akward moment of silence, but then you can both go about your business.

Pole pole - This is Swahili for slowly, slowly. Originally I learned this on the mountain, because that is how you want to walk - slowly slowly to allow yourself to acclimitize. However, Pole pole also seems to be a way of life around here. When the tour guide shows up 1 hour late and takes 50 minutes to pack your bags in the car, any frustration you might show will be met by a smile and the phrase "pole pole." Don't worry, we will eventually get where we are going.

Hakuna matata - All you Disney fans will recongize this one - no problem or no worries. Used in much the same way that the Jamaicans use "no problem, mon." "Joseph, the axle seems to have fallen off the safari vehicle, and we are surrounded by rampaging elephants." "Hakuna matata, my friend," Joseph would reply. Somehow, everything is gonna be alright.

Ninataka Tusker - "I would like a cool, refreshing, top quality Tusker lager, brewed by the Tanzanian Brewing Company under the supervision of the East African Brewing Company, headquartered in Kenya." When things seem really, really bad, I have found this phrase allivates much of the anxiety. "Joseph, the axle seems to have fallen off the safari vehicle, and we are surrounded by rampaging elephants." "Hakuna matata, my friend," Joseph replies. I counter with "Ninataka Tusker." After saying this phrase 3 times, and consuming the 500ml bottles of the sweet amber poison, I am likely to say, "hey, Elephant tusks are white! Boy am I sleepy. Lala salama." (lala salama means sleep peacefully). And somehow, when I wake up, what do you know, every little thing turned out alright.

Kwaheri sasa,

Posted by GregW 12:00 Archived in Tanzania

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