Tanzania is at the cultural crossroads of Africa, the Far East, and Europe, making it a multi-lingual and multi-cultural country. And although English is widely spoken and is an official language, more people in Tanzania speak Swahili.
Swahili is a Bantu language that’s spoken all the way up into Kenya and Uganda, west into Rwanda, Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo and south into Mozambique. Swahili was strongly influenced by Arabic, and was originally written in Arabic but now it’s more common to use the Latin alphabet.
That’s the theory, but what about the practice? Language and everyday culture are intertwined, so it’s worth learning some polite Swahili phrases as making the effort to speak another’s language is welcome in any country. But the Swahili culture has its own idiosyncrasies in what’s polite and what’s not. It’s not just about the words you use but also the traditional social customs.
Greetings are important
Take greetings, for example. In Swahili culture, greeting etiquette is tremendously important and it’s considered very rude not to greet correctly. How you greet someone in Tanzania has an impact on how they will behave towards you. For instance, if a person doesn’t greet their neighbour, it’s automatically considered that they dislike each other.
Allowances are usually made for tourists but here are some general guidelines so that you can get a good start with your Tanzanian contacts; everyone from your tour guide to your taxi driver.
The key thing for a beautifully polite greeting is to spend some time asking about the person – how their health is, how their parents are, the health of their family and how business is going. Social relationships are very important in Tanzania and sometimes life-saving, so it’s important to take the time to understand their situation and their wellbeing. Ask at least three different types of questions about their wellbeing and that of their family.
Handshakes (right hand only) are extremely important and sometimes hands are held much longer than you might be used to – sometimes for the duration of the conversation. Your hands might meet and gently entwine fingers, perhaps there might be some wrist-holding – there are a few variations, but don’t get hung up on it. If you’re respectful and friendly no one will take offence.
Learning a few of the basic Swahili phrases will help you seem even more polite and gracious to your Tanzanian hosts. Here are a few of the most useful phrases (the syllables to stress are in bold):
♦ “Hello”: “Hujambo”, sometimes shortened to “jambo”. You can also use “habari” which has a rough meaning of news (i.e. “What’s the news about….?”). Use any of these, said with a smile, as you’re going in for the handshake.
♦ “Good morning!”: There’s nothing like a cheerful “habari za asubuhi!” to show friendliness and good wishes. Use “habari za mchana” for “good afternoon”.
♦ “How are you?”: Ask “habari gani?”. But if your friend gets in first with “habari gani?” then answer: “nzuri, ahsante!” (“good, thanks!”). You can also say, “poa” or “safi!” or, if you’re already on good terms, you can be less formal: “Poa, kichisi kama ndizi kwenye friji” (“I am cool like a banana in the fridge”).
“Habari” – the most useful Swahili word
“Habari” is a very useful word as you can use it to say “hello”, but also to ask what’s the latest news. You’ll impress if you ask “habari za familia?” (“how is your family?”) and follow it up with “habari za kazi?” (“how is work?”). You can also try “habari za kutwa?” (“how was your day?”).
Other useful words
♦ “Please”: “Tafadhali”
♦ “Thank you (very much)”: “Ahsante (sana)”
♦ “Goodbye”: “Kwaheri”
♦ “Good night”: “Usiku mwema” or “habari za jioni”
If you have a smattering of Swahili and the knowledge of how to greet the locals properly, you’ll be sure to charm everybody you meet.
Have the opportunity to test out your Swahili with the locals by joining Viva Africa Tours for your very own adventure to Tanzania!
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