Luganda Language-Learning Resources

Luganda is one of the most widely-spoken languages in Uganda. There are a good number of online resources available to help a self-study language learner, or to support someone studying through a class or immersion in Uganda. Here are a few of the free online resources which I think are the most high-quality resources, to help you learn Luganda efficiently and effectively.

  • Buganda.com has some great language pages about Luganda, including a basic grammar page and quite an extensive phrasebook.
  • The University of Wisconsin Madison has a basic set of four worksheets for self-instructed Luganda learners, covering greetings and a handful of basic grammar concepts.
  • Peace Corps Uganda has published a 16-page “survival Luganda” booklet, which can be a great tool for just starting out.
  • Peace Corps Uganda also has a more complete, 158-page Luganda Self-Instructing Learner’s Manual, which is meant to take about three months to complete, and brings a learner up to an intermediate proficiency.
  • “Yiga Oluganda” is a quite extensive series of three ebooks, co-written by foreigner who learned Luganda and a Luganda native speaker, including a grammar guide, a phrasebook, and a dictionary.

If you know of any more great Luganda-learning resources, please let me know in the comments, and I’ll add them to this list!

Photo credit goes to Sara Snider for the featured image from this post.

Zanzibar’s Favourite “Tourist Swahili” (and How To Level Up Your Language Skills)

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

“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.”

Hakuna Matata

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.”

Polepole

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.

Karibu

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

“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

“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.


Interested in learning more Swahili?

Using these basic “level ups” is a great start — if you want to keep learning more, check out how to introduce people in Swahili and how to conjugate verbs in Swahili! Happy language learning.

On Hating Beets (Travel Diary: Bagamoyo, Tanzania)

The Port

I stand by the gate, hesitant, and call out to the guard.

Naweza kuingia?” I ask. Can I enter?

Ingia, ingia,” he ushers me in.

It’s dark, but the beach is busy. A crew of about thirty men wades back and forth through the shallows, carrying sacks from a truck to the dhow, loading the boat for Zanzibar. There are no docks here, no ramps or vehicle bridges over the water. The boats can’t come all the way to shore without beaching themselves in the sand, and so loading means wading, sacks above heads.

Salaam aalaykum,” a man rasps as he walks behind me.

Waalaykum assalaam,” I respond to the greeting, but pull my scarf close around me. It’s a polite greeting, but I can’t help but tense at the sudden appearance of a voice so close behind me. Late night, dark port, new city, and I am the only woman. 

The scene is so foreign, but the feeling of it so familiar. There is no moon, just a few lights along the shore, and the noise is split between the quiet collapse of the waves and the voices of the crew as they heckle each other and laugh, in the way that twenty-year-old men across the world do. I can see faces written with thought, those who clearly just started working and want to impress. Those who have loaded many boats and wonder what else they might do in the future. Those who have given up hope, and those who still hold it close. Those who are serious, intense, thoughtful. Those who splash and are joyous, the class clowns of the nighttime sea in Bagamoyo.

My original tension dissolves when I see that, only to be replaced by the guilty tension of having ever felt tense at all.

The Fish Market

The next afternoon, I walk to the fish market, from the old road down into the tarry blackness of the cooking shacks, where big metal pans on open fires sputter out piles of fried fish, stinking and cooling on wooden boards. I know better than to buy my fish from here, pre-cooked and pre-rotting. Everything is black with soot, and I pull my scarf over my face.

Fresh ni wapi?” I ask a woman, stewing a bucket of tiny silver fish. Where is the fresh fish?

Enda hapo pwani,” she directs me down a narrow walkway, towards the beach.

Fish doesn’t smell when it’s still fresh, and on the beach, the market hardly smells. Tables with umbrellas, and men stand next to the options. These mostly aren’t the fishermen, but middlemen. Big fish, little fish, long fish. One fish, two fish. An octopus. 

I know nothing about fish.

I ask a kind-looking man to approach a table with a fish I like, and ask how much it costs. To avoid the foreigner tax, I ask him, and he laughs. He walks over, asks the merchant the price, and then waves me over.

Elfu kumi,” he repeats the merchant’s price, his eyes sparkling as we watch the merchant catch onto our game. Ten thousand shillings — about four dollars — much less than what I would have been quoted had I asked myself. We negotiate to eight thousand, and I agree to have the scales removed “professionally,” bringing the price back up to nine thousand. I buy a cloth shopping bag for a few hundred more (plastic bags are illegal in Tanzania), and sling my purchase inside, the tail sticking up into the air.

I buy charcoal on the way back, from a teenage boy seated outside an old colonial building. I am unaccustomed to carrying home an entire fish in one hand and a bundle of charcoal in the other, and I am buoyed by the joy of a completely new errand accomplished in a foreign country.

Monday Market

The other women glance at me as I approach the pile of secondhand shirts, but pay me no further attention. I settle onto a corner of the tarp, and join the movement of shirts from one side of the pile to the other, searching for something.

Mia tano, mia tano,” the owner of the bale calls out. Five hundred, five hundred, and he tosses me a shirt. It’s a secondhand import from China, and I toss it aside. I’m larger, and the tiny sizes they send from East Asia never fit me. I look for the Arab styles, from Saudi, which seem to come in larger sizes. A woman sitting next to me, an older lady, holds up a shirt in suggestion, like my mother would do. Amusingly, also like my mother’s clothing suggestions, I hate it, and can’t help but smile as I shake my head.

Chicken and Chips

I storm out of the hotel, frustrated. Shakshuka is supposed to be mostly tomatoes, not beets. I can’t decide whether I even like beets, but I definitely didn’t like them just now. I hate beets, I decide, and step into the street, off to find some actual food. Fancy hotel food didn’t fill my stomach, and there were too many beets! Hate beets. Hate them.

I have a childish desire to stick my tongue out. I might be hangry.

Left and left and there’s the spot, some plastic tables and a bit of hot oil, a glass case of chicken and fried potatoes lit up on the edge of the street. A young man greets me as I approach.

Karibu,”  he says.

Asante,” I reply, and order. “Wote, tafadhali.”

Everything is chicken and chips, with both salad and sauce. He nods, and steps over to prepare the order, while I settle at a plastic table in the corner, back to the corrugated metal walls. I like sitting like this, settled slightly into the shadows, observing while avoiding being observed. Perhaps it’s because I’m a foreigner, perhaps it’s because I’m a woman, but this position, and the periodic escape from attention it provides, is a relief.

He brings the food to the table, piled onto a single plate, with no utensils. I wash my hands from a bucket tap next to the street, and then dig in hungrily. Golden fries, thick with spicy tomato sauce and cabbage, fried to a softness that hasn’t quite lost its crunch. Two enormous pieces of chicken, rich and oily. I’m sure it’s no good for me, but I’m hungry, and this feels like honest food in a way that the hotel’s overpriced egg boiled into a tiny pot of beets never will. I eat, and it feels like home in my stomach.

I hand my host a 5,000 shilling note, and toss my scarf over my shoulder as I begin walking up the hill, back towards the hotel. I pass a group of men, seated around a box television. The sign advertises a schedule of football matches, but there is no cheering. The TV is tuned to a Swahili broadcast about the war in Ukraine. The group of men is silent, thirty faces fixed on the screen. I stand back a few feet, in the street, also taken by the coverage. Images to disturb you from your daily reality, thrown in so casually, as though we should swallow them like dessert.

Soon enough, though, a few of the men notice me, and heads begin to turn, tugged in my direction by my foreignness and femaleness. I steal a few more moments of news coverage as I adjust my scarf, and then head back, dipping in and out of shadows.

Tips for Riding Bodaboda (Motorcycle Taxis) in East Africa

It’s the easiest, cheapest way to get around most cities in Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda, but it can be nerve-wracking if you’ve never ridden on a motorcycle before. Here’s a quick guide on how to use the bodaboda (people will often just say “boda”) system in East Africa, so that you can zip around town in style.

Figure out the price before you go get a boda.

If you’re staying in a hotel, ask the desk what a boda should cost for where you’re going. If they recommend a taxi, be polite but insistent, and ask what transport they use (it’ll likely be a boda). Ask how much they pay for the boda trip you want. If you’re not in a hotel, find someone on the street and ask them how much they’d pay for a boda to your destination. In some cities (especially small cities), the boda prices are effectively fixed within town, unless you’re going on an extra-long journey. In Bagamoyo, Tanzania, every boda ride (regardless of destination) was 1,000 shillings (about 50 US cents).

Confirm your price with the driver, and be clear whether it’s per-person or per-bike.

Confirm the price you researched earlier with the driver before you get on the bike. If you’re confident in what you were told, then be confident as you say it. One common confusion I’ve seen is drivers wanting to charge per passenger, while passengers thought they had agreed on the price per bike (which can double or triple the price, if you’ve got 2-3 passengers). So, be clear about that before you depart.

Get on (and consider riding sidesaddle — it’s not so difficult).

If you’re comfortable straddling a stranger, it’s no problem (this is a motorcycle taxi, after all). However, if that strikes you as a bit up close and personal, consider riding sidesaddle. It’s really not as hard as it seems, and it can help if you’re carrying a large bag (as putting the bag in your lap can be more comfortable (I find) for a long trip than having it on your back). Plus, I think it’s always a better view to be facing sideways. Give yourself a few moments to get situated sidesaddle, and don’t be embarrassed if you need to adjust during the ride. You’ll get used to it!

Ask the driver to go slowly (here’s how to do that in Swahili).

Be honest with yourself and the driver — if you’re new to bodas, and are a little bit nervous, it’s totally okay to share that, and ask for a slow ride. “Polepole, tafadhali,” means “slowly, please.” I usually like to follow it with a “naogopa” (I’m scared) to make it clear that I’m just new to this (and not that I think he’s a bad driver). 99% of drivers will be super respectful of that request, and it can turn a stressful ride into a relaxing ride, so don’t hesitate to ask!

Enjoy the ride!

Once you’ve started using bodas, you’ll wonder how you ever survived without them.

Amharic Immersion: Reading Signs in Fidel

When you travel, you can practice a language by reading street signs. Unfortunately, if you’re not travelling, it can be harder to get that “immersion” experience. So, for all you Amharic-learners at home, I’m bringing the street signs to you! Here are several street signs in Amharic, from across Ethiopia, to give you the chance to practice your fidel. Happy reading, and please comment if you have any questions about anything!

If you don’t yet know, here are some resources to learn fidel (the script used to write Amharic and several other Ethiopic languages)!

ADDIS ABABA: This Amharic-English sign advertising office services is great practice, because the first four words on the list are simply English words written in Amharic fidel, so you can understand it, even if you don’t know the vocabulary. Here are some notes on each:

  • ፎቶ ኮፒ: photocopy, nothing special here.
  • ፕሪንት: shortens “printing service” to simply “print”
  • ስካኒግ: reads “scannig” (hard g, like “good”), since there’s no “ng” sound in Amharic.
  • ላሚኔቲንግ: takes a different approach to representing “ing” than the line above… technically reads “laminating,” although the ንግ combo in Amharic would be pronounced with a hard “g,” like “good,” so it’s a little strange. But hey, they’re doing their best with sounds that don’t exist in fidel.

The last two (መጠረዝ and የዕህፈት ስራ) are actual translations into Amharic vocabulary.

Image Credit: “Firefox” by Fran Villena (villano), CC BY 2.0 (has been cropped and edited for brightness)

BAHIR DAR: These signs for cosmetic shops are great reading practice, too! If you can read fidel, you can read the main part of the sign (ቶፕ ሌዲ) without knowing any Amharic vocabulary (hint, it’s in English, too), and then the “subtitle” on the sign (የስጦጣ የውበት ዕቃዎች መሽጫ) is great reading practice, too. Here’s a breakdown of the vocabulary from the “subtitle” –

  • ስጦጣ: gift
  • ውበት: beauty
  • ዕቃዎች: things/items
  • መሽጫ: shop

Finally, notice the sign to the left — it’s spelled in fidel (ኮስሞቲክስ) according to their spelling in English, so even the Amharic version reads “cosmotics.” Perhaps it’s space themed?

Image Credit: “Scenes from Bahir Dar, Ethiopia” by A.Davey, CC BY 2.0 (has been cropped and edited for brightness)

ADDIS ABABA: This stationary shop has a lot of signage. It always amuses me when there’s extensive signage in Amharic, and then minimal translation into English. While the English simply says “Medhin Stationary,” here’s what the Amharic version actually reads:

  • መድሕን፡ Medhin
  • (የ)ፅህፈት: Writing
  • መሣሪያ(ና): Tools (and)
  • (የ)ኮምፒውተር: Computer
  • እቃዎች: Things/Items
  • መደብር: Store

You might have to zoom in to see some of the smaller signs to read them, although it’s a good approximation of how hard it is to read signs zooming past on a bus! Being able to read signs at a glance is a good sign you’re getting quite skillful with your fidel.

Image credit: “Streets of Addis” by Irene200CC BY 2.0 (has been cropped and edited for brightness)

Swahili Pronunciation: A Crash Course

I just spent several months leading tourists on a trip around East Africa, and spent a good chunk of time helping foreigners become comfortable pronouncing and speaking Swahili. I thought I’d share a few of my pro-tips for pronouncing Swahili (many of which I learned from my university Swahili teacher, shoutout Mme Dumeril!).

I digress, and here we go!

Emphasize the Second-To-Last Syllable

If you remember (and internalise) nothing else, remember this: in Swahili (and most Bantu languages), you generally emphasize the second-to-last syllable in a word.

What does that mean?

For example, in the word chakula (food), it would be pronounced as “cha-KU-la” (and not “CHA-ku-la” or “cha-ku-LA”). The second-to-last syllable gets the emphasis. As another example, we can take the word nakupenda (I love you). This would be pronounced as “na-ku-PEN-da,” with the second-to-last syllable getting the emphasis.

If a word only has two syllables, the same rule still applies. For example, the word maji (water) is pronounced as “MA-ji” — still emphasis on the second-to-last syllable, even though the second-to-last syllable is now also the first syllable. Another example is simu (phone), pronounced “SI-mu” and not “si-MU.”

Bonus Point: An interesting thing to note here is that even in related words, the emphasis changes when additional syllables are added. Karibu (welcome, to one person) is pronounced as ka-RI-bu, with the emphasis on the “RI.” However, when the plural suffix is added, forming karibuni (welcome, to multiple people), it’s pronounced as “ka-ri-BU-ni.” The emphasis shifts to the “BU” instead of the “RI” because that’s now the second-to-last-syllable.

That’s it! This is a rule you need to internalize, since you’re not going to be counting syllables and thinking this through as you read or speak. Don’t worry, it becomes second nature soon enough.

The Vowels Don’t Change: Learn Them

If you’re a native English speaker, here’s a pleasant surprise: vowels in Swahili are pronounced one way, and they don’t change. They don’t combine, there aren’t exceptions, they’re just there. So, to pronounce Swahili, just learn them, and say them. Here they are:

  • A: like in “avocado”
  • E: “ay” sound, like “day” or “way”
  • I: long “e” sound, like in “feet”
  • O: long “o” sound, like “oh no”
  • U: rhymes with “too” or “you”

So, as an example, wali (cooked rice) rhymes with the animated movie name — WALL-E. Easy, right?

Finally: The Consonants

Swahili takes a lot of words from other languages (Arabic, German, Portuguese, Bantu languages… the list goes on), and so there are oftentimes sounds you wouldn’t necessarily expect. That being said, the spellings are amazingly consistent, and there are no pronunciation exceptions or weird words (what an amazing language).

I’m not going to go through the entire alphabet, as most as the same as English. I’ll just highlight a few key points for beginning language-learners. My motto is that pronunciation shouldn’t stress you. As a language-learner, especially as a beginner, an accent is inevitable to start. It will dissolve with time — no use trying to eliminate it completely before you even know words. Plus, focusing so much on “exact” pronunciation of foreign sounds is intimidating and can crush your confidence, which is exactly what we’re trying to build up!

  • Swahili doesn’t use an independent “C,” so don’t worry about it. You’ll only see “c” as “ch,” and it’s pronounced the same as English.
  • Some teachers fuss about “J.” Politely ignore them. For your purposes as a language-learner, it’s pronounced the same as in English, and you’ll get used to the accent as you progress.
  • “DH” seems to stress some students, as does “GH.” First of all, these are relatively uncommon (although tafadhali/please and ghali/expensive come up pretty early), so don’t stress too much. As a beginning language-learner, just pronounce them as “D” and “G” — you’ll be understood.
  • “SH” is the same as English.
  • “G” is always hard when alone (always like “good” in English, and not like “giraffe”).
  • “NG” is like at the end of “thing,” and can sometimes take some practice for English-speakers who aren’t used to seeing it at the beginning of words. Some people will laugh at foreigners as they try to pronounce ng’ombe/cow. Have patience with yourself.
  • “NY” is pronounced like ñ in Spanish. English speakers might be familiar with the sound from the word mañana (which would be spelled in Swahili as “manyana”).

That’s it!

Swahili is a very regular language in terms of pronunciation, which makes it great for language-learners! Just follow those rules, and you will honestly be able to read anything, even a full article, and sound like you’re completely fluent. Next step is to learn some vocabulary!

Swahili Immersion: Meserani Village, Tanzania

When you’re travelling, there are language-learning opportunities all around you. But, when you’re at home, it can be harder to see the language in real life. So, here are three images from Meserani, a village in northern Tanzania (just outside of Arusha), to help you practice your beginning Swahili skills in “real life” contexts. Good luck!

This is a sign outside of a crocodile (mamba) enclosure in the Meserani Snake Park, warning visitors to not put their hands (mkono) inside or throw rocks (mawe).

This is a mural from the Meserani Adult Education Center (Kituo Cha Elimu Meserani, in Swahili, abbreviated as KCEM). There’s lots of great Swahili vocabulary here, including compass directions. Do you see the grammatical difference between “north” as a noun (on the compass) and “north” as an adjective (before “America”)?

This is a student’s homework from KCEM (Meserani’s Adult Education Center). The assignment is to help the students practice English, but since there are translations involved, it’s also a great resource for a Swahili-learner! Focus on question words, because that’s what the assignment is practicing.

Pro-tip: When you’re travelling, looking at students’ books and homework is a great insight (if you come across students willing to take the time to share with you), both into languages and the local culture!

If you have any questions about the Swahili or context of any of these images, please don’t hesitate to comment and ask! As always, happy language-learning!

25 Swahili Verbs: A Base List

It’s impossible to learn all the Swahili verbs right at the beginning — but, you’ve got to start somewhere. Here’s my base list of Swahili verbs, for someone just working towards a basic proficiency in Swahili (cough cough, myself, cough).

I’ve split the Swahili verbs into “functions,” or different situations where they’d be useful. Without further to do, here we go!

Swahili Verbs for Greetings and Introductions

  1. kushinda (various meanings, including “to spend a day,” so it’s often used in the greeting “umeshindaje?” asking “how was your day?”)
  2. kuamka (to wake up, used in the greeting “umeamkaje?” asking “how did you sleep/wake?”)
  3. kukutana (to meet, such as “tumekutana” meaning “we met.”)
  4. kukaribu (to welcome, often used in the imperative “karibu” and “karibuni,” telling people to be welcome).
  5. kutoka (to come from, used to ask where someone is from and say where you’re from… “unatoka wapi? mimi ninatoka…”)

Swahili Verbs for Understanding and Knowledge

  1. kujua (to know, ubiquitious as “sijui” — I don’t know)
  2. kukumbuka (to remember, “nakumbuka” means “I remember)
  3. kusahau (to forget, you can say “I forgot” as “nimesahau”)
  4. kujifunza (to learn, useful to say “ninajifunza” as a response if someone asks if you speak Kiswahili)
  5. kuelewa (to understand, very useful as a language learner to say “I understand”/ninaelewa or “I don’t understand”/sielewi)

Swahili Verbs about Coming and Going

  1. kwenda (to go, such as “twende” for “let’s go!”)
  2. kujaa (to come, although you’ll often hear it in the irregular imperative of “njoo” for “come here!”)
  3. kurudi (to return/come back, useful to tell someone “I’m coming back!” which would be “ninarudi!”)
  4. kukaa (to sit/stay, useful to kindly ask someone to “stay here” by saying “kaa hapa”)
  5. kusafiri (to travel, which is generally useful for travellers to say things like “ninasafiri” to say “I’m travelling”)

Swahili Verbs for Requests

  1. kutaka (to want, such as “nataka” for “I want”)
  2. kuhitaji (to need, such as “tunahitaji” for “we need”)
  3. kuomba (to ask for, often used as a polite “could I have,” such as “naomba”)
  4. kuleta (to bring, used in the polite request form as “lete” and then the item you’re requesting, preferably with “tafadhali”/please)
  5. kuwa (to be, often used to talk about the future state of things, so could be used in response to a request, such as “ilikuwa” for “it will be”)

Swahili Verbs about Food

  1. kula (to eat, useful for sharing dietary restrictions with “I don’t eat,” which is “sili”)
  2. kunywa (to drink, such as “wananywa” for “they drink”)
  3. kupika (to cook, to defend your own cooking abilities by saying “napika!”)
  4. kununua (to buy, to say that you can’t cook, but “I will buy,” as “nitanunua”)
  5. kupenda (to like, useful to say “ninapenda” for “I like” — show some appreciation for this delicious food you’re eating!)

Whelp, that’s about it for now! Comment if you have other basic verbs in Swahili you use all the time, that you think should be included in a list like this. Good luck with your Swahili studying!

How To Pack for Long-Term Backpack Travel

We’re not talking about a weeklong trip to the beach, in which you’re restricting yourself to a single checked bag because you’re trying to go “minimalist.” We’re not talking about moving abroad, where you cram everything into a giant suitcase to be exploded exactly once (when you arrive) and packed exactly once again (when you depart).

No, we’re talking about taking a backpack (and not one so big you could fit inside it), and figuring out how to live sustainably from it: packing and unpacking each day, traveling regularly and carrying everything, and not going completely mad in the process.

I’ve just finished packing for a three-month backpack stint, and thought I’d share the cardinal rules of life with one zipper.

Trust your backpack (and don’t worry — you don’t need a fancy, new one).

My mother always said: it’s not worth splurging on gear, so long as you trust your shoes and your backpack. That being said: you don’t need to splurge on the “perfect” backpack. So long as it’s sturdy (a broken strap is a real pain), comfortable (this will usually mean some form of hip straps), and generally the right size (for most, you’re going to need a bit more space than a school/work backpack), it will probably be fine. If you have a pack you’ve been using, which hasn’t failed you so far, just keep using it.

Pack less than you think you need. 

If you’re wondering whether you need it, you don’t. If you haven’t worn it recently and you’re wondering whether to bring it, don’t. If it seems vaguely inconvenient as you’re putting it into the bag, leave it out. There’s an old adage that says as long as you’ve got your wallet and your passport, you’re fine. I’d suggest also bringing at least a minimum of clothes and toiletries to support your existence on the road. That being said, you truly don’t need much more than that, and you’ll most likely manage with whatever you bring (and you can buy everything overseas, if you are genuinely missing something).

Remember: whatever you put in the backpack, your shoulders have to carry. Your body and soul will thank you for lessening your own burden.

Capsule wardrobe, capsule wardrobe, capsule wardrobe.

A capsule wardrobe is the idea that instead of packing individual outfits, you pack clothing items which can be mixed and interchanged, allowing you to create multiple outfits and looks from a limited number of pieces (hence, a wardrobe). In practice, this usually means solid colors, a coordinated color palette, multifunctional items, and a good bit of layering. Rule of thumb: any top should match any bottom.

Remember: laundry exists. Anticipate doing it.

Going to a more practical level: when living on the road, you will do laundry. There is no way you can pack an infinite clothing supply, so washing is inevitable. For most people, this will happen every 1-2 weeks, depending on your preferences (of both how much you like laundry, and how much you’re willing to pack). Depending on where you are in the world, options can range from full-service laundromats to a bucket for hand-washing. When packing for long-term travel, however, expect the unexpected and prepare yourself for at least some amount of handwashing (even if it’s just in hotel sinks).

So, pack things you can handwash and which can dry overnight. Thin fabrics are usually better (I’ve never been fussy enough to know the names of materials, but you can tell what will dry faster just by feeling and looking at it). If you’re headed to cold weather, layers aren’t just convenient and a good dress option: they’re easier to handwash and dry faster than thick sweaters and coats. That said, have a plan (ie. an empty plastic bag) in case some random sock or undergarment isn’t quite dry by morning, so that your whole bag isn’t soggy.

Packing cubes, bags, whatever: use them.

The key to not going insane with your luggage is avoiding the infamous “luggage explosion” every time you open your bag. The trick here is simple: pack your main bag full of little bags. Whether they’re bona-fida packing cubes, random cloth bags, plastic bags, fishing nets, whatever — organize your pack. That way, you can take everything out, pull out that shirt from the bottom, and re-pack everything again, without tearing your eyebrows out. And, you’ll be less likely to lose your socks and underwear.

If this is a new concept for you, I’d highly recommend packing the week before your trip starts, and forcing yourself to live entirely out of your suitcase for a week. Every evening, you can open it, and every morning, you have to pack everything up again and zip it before you start your day. You’ll quickly see the need for some in-pack organisation. 

Extra bonus points if a few of your “packing cubes” are smaller bags and purses, which can be great for extra flexibility on the road. Cloth tote bags are great for this.

Purposeful organization is everything.

Beyond just using packing cubes, there are some other things to consider when organising the bag you’ll be living out of. I like to keep my pajamas and toiletries right at the top of a bag, so if I get somewhere late at night, I can get cleaned up and dressed for bed without having to pull anything else out. Rainjacket and/or sweatshirt are other top picks for that easy-to-reach top space of the bag, in case the skies open up without warning. If you’re travelling with a laptop or tablet, be aware that’s going to need to be pulled out at every airport screening, so don’t bury it. Pack anything you’ll need to access during the day in an outside pocket, while things you generally don’t reach for (like a change of pants) can stay more towards the bottom. Have a day pack or a smaller “grab bag” of your essential and valuable items you can pull out of your main pack and keep with you, in case your bag needs to be checked at the airport or tied on top of a bus or otherwise separated from your person.

Don’t pack to the brim: life isn’t that simple.

It’s much easier to pack at home, over time, than it is at five o’clock in the morning in an unfamiliar room which may or may not have good lighting and a flat surface. Assume your packing job on the road will be several degrees worse than your initial plan. So, leave space for those wrinkled clothes, and remember that you probably won’t want to fold your laundry. You’ll thank yourself for packing only 80-90% of the space in your backpack. Whether for souvenirs or your own eventually-expansive messiness, that space will fill.

At the end of it, your suitcase will only define your trip if it’s a pain. Most of the time, though, as long as you pack lightly and reasonably, you won’t even remember your luggage when you look back on the trip. Just follow these tips to keep yourself organised and collected, and enjoy life on the road!

Introducing People in Kiswahili (Crash Course)

We’ve got no time for fluff today, so here’s the deal: I studied Swahili for two years in university, and lived for six months in Kenya. I’ve never been fluent or advanced in Swahili, but my proficiency used to be a lot better than it is now. Soon, I’ll be headed back to east Africa, so I’m trying to bring my Swahili language skills back up to a functional level.

Whether you’re trying to review yourself, or teach yourself for the first time, I hope this can be helpful (and not too overwhelming — it is a crash course, after all, not a doctoral thesis).

Personal Subject Pronouns (I, You, We, They, He, She)

Use these are the beginnings of sentences, although they are more “optional” than in English (as the subject is often already implied according to the verb conjugation in Swahili). My old Swahili teacher (shoutout to Mme Dumeril) often translated “mimi” as “as for me, I” (instead of just “I”).

IYou (s)He/SheWeYou (pl)They
MimiWeweYeyeSisiNyinyiWao

Ni: The Verb “To Be” (Am, Is, Are)

Here’s a gift: the verb “to be” in Swahili, conjugated for anyone in the present tense, is simply “ni.”

I amYou (s) areHe/She isWe areYou (pl) areThey are
Mimi niWewe niYeye niSisi niNyinyi niWao ni

Words About People That Start With “M-” (ie. Singular)

If you’ve heard about Swahili noun classes, that’s wonderful, but for this crash course, we’re not going to get too far into that. For now, let’s just start with Swahili words about people (nouns, specifically) which begin with the letter “m.”

  • Mkenya = Kenyan person
  • Mtanzania = Tanzanian person
  • Mwafrika = African person
  • Mmarekani = American person
  • Mzungu = foreign/white person
  • Mwanafunzi = student
  • Mwalimu = teacher
  • Mhandisi = engineer
  • Msafiri = traveller
  • Mwandishi = writer
  • Mwanasiasa = politician
  • Mkulima = farmer

Feel free to add any other vocabulary you’d like, depending on your situation and what’s useful to you.

Now, we can easily make sentences.

  • Mimi ni Mmarekani = I am American.
  • Yeye ni mwalimu. = She is a teacher.
  • Wewe ni mwandishi. = You are a writer.

As a note: there is no separate word for indefinite pronouns in Swahili (ie. no “a” or “an” before nouns), so you can just omit it when translating.

Word About People That Start with “Wa-” (ie. Plural)

Spoiler alert: when the “m-” changes to “wa-,” the word changes from singular to plural (like adding an “s” to the end of English words).

  • msafiri = traveller, wasafiri = travellers
  • mkulima = farmer, wakulima = farmers
  • Mkenya = Kenyan person, Wakenya = Kenyan people

So, you’ll use “m-” nouns with the singular subject pronouns (mimi, wewe, and yeye) and “wa-” nouns with the plural pronouns (sisi, nyinyi, and wao).

  • Mimi ni mwanafunzi. = I am a student.
  • Wao ni Watanzania. = They are Tanzanian.
  • Yeye ni mhandisi. = She is an engineer.
  • Nyinyi ni wanasiasa = You (all) are politicians.

Words About People That Don’t Start With “M-” or “Wa-” (Family Vocabulary)

A lot of family related words don’t start with “m-” or “wa-,” and they’re their own grammatical category.

  • mama = mother
  • baba = father
  • kaka = brother
  • dada = sister
  • bibi = grandmother
  • babu = grandfather
  • shangazi = aunt
  • mjomba = uncle
  • binti = daughter
  • mwana = son

Possessives (My, Your, His, Her, Our, Their)

Possessives in Swahili are formed with a possessive marker (an extra word), which comes after the noun. You can think in your head that you’d say “mother my” instead of “my mother.”

The possessive marker has two parts. Let’s start with the ending, because that’s the part that translates to English. I’m writing the Swahili word with a dash in front, to remind you that this is only the second part of the word.

MyYour (s)His/HerOurYour (pl)Their
-angu-ako-ake-etu-enu-ao

The beginning of the possessive marker comes from the word that is being “possessed.” For example, if you’re trying to translate “my teacher,” the first part of the possessive will come from “teacher.”
Here’s what the first part will be:

  • If the word is a word about people that starts with “m-” (singular) OR “wa-” (plural), the possessive starts with “w-.”
  • If the word is a family-related word that doesn’t start with “m-” or “wa-,” and it’s singular, the possessive starts with “y-.”
  • If the word is a family-related word that doesn’t start with “m-” or “wa-,” and it’s plural, the possessive starts with “z-.”

Here are some examples:

  • mama yangu = my mother
    y- from mama, -angu for “my”
  • mwalimu wake = his teacher
    w- from mwalimu, -ake for “his”
  • binti zao = their daughters
    z- from daughters, -ao for “their”

You can also use this in full sentences.

  • Yeye ni dada yangu. = She is my sister.
  • Wao ni wanafunzi wetu. = They are our students.
  • Shangazi yako ni mhandisi. = Your aunt is an engineer.

And keep going from there!

Obviously that’s not everything you’ll ever need, but it’s a crash course! Let me know if you have questions or specific requests about other topics/sections to cover.