There seem to be a handful of Swahili words that tourists learn pretty fast, because they’re the only words they see/hear during their visit to Zanzibar. They’re not the most practical words, they’re not the most common words, but they seem to be the words that have been engrained into the tourist culture. While they’re a fine starting point for speaking Swahili, they’re not really much more than that.
I love interactions where someone speaks in “tourist Swahili” to me, I reply with something just a little bit more advanced, and their eyebrows hit the roof in surprise. So, what I want to do here is give you a quick run-down of these “tourist” words, and also present a “leveled-up” alternative to improve your Swahili skills past “tourist level.”
“Jambo” literally means thing or issue, but is most commonly used as a greeting — mind you, a greeting for tourists. In a really interesting (honestly, must-read) 1995 article about tourists and Swahili, Carol Eastman (a Swahili speaker) describes the following interactions when she joined a tourist group and was perceived as a non-Swahili speaker.
“When the author, for example, would use fully grammatical sentences rather than simplified forms, she would be “corrected.” The greeting jambo is used on safari as both salutation and reply to a single individual or group. In coastal Swahili, one greets hujambo (sg.) or hamjambo (pl.) “How are you?” and answers sijambo (sg.) hatujambo (pl.) “I/We am/are fine.” On safari, it is jambo jambo everywhere.”
Frustrating, hey? In any case, her description includes the grammatically correct terms, which is one option to up your Swahili game. Alternatively, just consider using another Swahili greeting, in place of “jambo jambo.”
I’m not sure if this entered the foreign lexicon via “The Lion King,” and then just reverberated back through the tourist circuits of Kenya and Tanzania, but it’s everywhere. “Hakuna matata” translates into “no problem,” which is a super useful phrase… except that this isn’t how locals would usually say “no problem.” The “leveled-up” options would be to replace “matata” with either “shida” or “mtatizo.” All three mean “problem/issue,” but a Swahili speaker would be much more likely to use “mtatizo” or “shida.”
If you want to double-up your Swahili skills, consider also replacing “hakuna” (there isn’t) with “hamna” (you don’t have). So, you could say “hamna shida” to mean “you don’t have a problem.” It sounds strange in English, but it’s quite natural in Swahili (much more so than “hakuna matata”). Think of it as “don’t worry, you don’t have a problem on your hands.”
Right off the bat, here’s a distinction all tourists should know right away: “pole” means “sorry” and “polepole” means slowly.
Okay, now that we’ve got that taken care off, while “polepole” is fine, I’ve got an alternative that will probably get some smiles and laughs from locals. There’s a great Swahili saying that goes “haraka haraka haina baraka” — hurry brings no blessing, meaning that there’s no reason to be in a rush. No prize for finishing first. So, the next time someone says “polepole” to you, just nod and reply thoughtfully “haraka haraka haina baraka.” Level up.
There’s also nothing strange about “karibu” — it’s the right word, used for tourists same as it’s used for anyone. The only thing to note is that when welcoming one person, you say “karibu,” and while welcoming a group, it’d be grammatically correct to say “karibuni.” In the same vein, when replying, if you’re thanking one host, you’d say “asante.” If there are multiple hosts to thank, you’d say “asanteni.”
If you’re looking to level up in your way of greeting someone, you can say “karibu, nimefurahi kukuona” (welcome, I’m happy to see you). If you’re looking to level up in your response, you can say “asante, nimefurahi kuwa hapa” (thank you, I’m happy to be here).
“Karibu tena” means “welcome again” (a phrase you’ll also often hear people say in English — they’re just trying to translate Swahili, even though the result might sound strange to a native English speaker), meaning “goodbye, you’re welcome back any time.” This is common with both tourists and locals, and is in and of itself a decent “level up” for Swahili-learners (it’s a nice phrase and usage of “karibu” with a completely new meaning, as a goodbye). Another option for a level-up here is “see you soon” (tutaonana hivi karibuni) or “see you later” (tutaonana badaaye).
“Rafiki” means “friend,” and is used for tourists and locals, so no issue there. As far as a level-up, I’d say to add the possessive pronoun and say “rafiki yangu” (my friend) instead of just “friend.” Usually, this word is useful to greet someone or address someone, even if you’re not sure of their name.
You can find a more detailed explanation of possessive pronouns (my, your, etc.) in Swahili at the bottom of this page.