Spanish-Swahili Shared Vocabulary (Cognates)

I’m currently beginning to learn Spanish, having already studied Swahili for several years. I always find that one of the easiest ways to learn vocabulary in a new language is to find similar words in a language I already speak. It roots it immediately in my brain, making the new words feel intuitive.

So, this is a little collection of words that are similar-sounding (cognates) in Swahili and Spanish. This doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re directly etymologically linked — Portuguese had a stronger impact on the development of Swahili, because of the Portuguese presence along the coast of east Africa. But, because Portuguese and Swahili are related, and Portuguese and Swahili are related, there are some Spanish-Swahili cognates that can help me out as a language learner.

money (generally)peso (also refers to weight)pesa

If you know of any others to add to the list, please comment below!

English-Amharic Verb Tenses (with Example Sentences) – እንግሊዝኛ-አማርኛ የግሥ ጊዜዎች (ከምሳሌ ዓረፍተ ነገሮች ጋር)

I can see what people search for to find my blog, and this is something people search for A LOT! These are sentences in different verb tenses, in English and Amharic.
የእኔን ብሎግ ለማግኘት ሰዎች የሚፈልጉትን ማየት እችላለሁ፣ እና ይህ ሰዎች ብዙ የሚፈልጉት ነገር ነው! እነዚህ ዓረፍተ ነገሮች በተለያዩ የግሥ ጊዜዎች፣ በእንግሊዝኛ እና በአማርኛ።

Simple (Present/Past/Future)

The first section shows the past, present, and future tenses.
የመጀመሪያው ክፍል ያለፈውን, የአሁኑን እና የወደፊቱን ጊዜ ያሳያል.

Remember: present and future are the same in Amharic, but they are different in English.
አስታውሱ፡ የአሁን እና ወደፊት በአማርኛ አንድ ናቸው በእንግሊዝኛ ግን ይለያያሉ።

For English-speakers learning Amharic, here is how to conjugate Amharic verbs in present and future, and how to conjugate Amharic verbs in past.

past simplepresent simplefuture simple
AMHARICምሳ በላሁ።ምሳ እበላለሁ።ምሳ እበላለሁ።
ENGLISHI ate lunch.I eat lunch.I will eat lunch.

past simplepresent simplefuture simple
AMHARICልብስ አጠብኩ።ልብስ እጥባለሁ።ልብስ እጥባለሁ።
ENGLISHI washed clothesI wash clothes.I will wash clothes.

past simplepresent simplefuture simple
ENGLISHShe worked.She works.She will work.

past simplepresent simplefuture simple
AMHARICተማሪዎች ነበሩ።ተማሪዎች ናቸው.ተማሪዎች ይሆናሉ።
ENGLISHThey were students.They are students.They will be students.

Continuous (Past/Present)

For English-speakers learning Amharic, here is how to conjugate Amharic verbs in the continuous tenses.

past continuouspresent continuous
AMHARICእያጠናሁ ነበር።እያጠናሁ ነው።
ENGLISHI was studying.I am studying.

past continuouspresent continuous
AMHARICእያወራሁ ነበር።እያወራሁ ነው።
ENGLISHI was talking.I am talking.

past continuouspresent continuous
AMHARICእየሄደ ነበር።እየሄደ ነው።
ENGLISHHe was going.He is going.

past continuouspresent continuous
AMHARICእየዘፈንን ነበር።እየዘፈንን ነው።
ENGLISHWe were singing.We are singing.

Perfect (Past/Present)

For English-speakers learning Amharic, here is how to conjugate Amharic verbs in the perfect.

past perfectpresent perfect
AMHARICጨርሼ ነበር።ጨርሻለሁ.
ENGLISHI had finished.I have finished.

past perfectpresent perfect
AMHARICበልቼ ነበር።በልቻለሁ።
ENGLISHI had eaten.I have eaten.

past perfectpresent perfect
AMHARICትኖር ነበር.ኖራለች።
ENGLISHShe had lived.She has lived.

past perfectpresent perfect
AMHARICሄደው ነበር።ሄደዋል::
ENGLISHThey had gone.They have gone.

past perfectpresent perfect
AMHARICአንብበህ ነበር።አንብበሃል።
ENGLISHYou had read.You have read.

Months of the Year (Spanish Class Review)

Los Meses (The Months)

Let’s get to it — here are the months of the year, in English and Spanish.
Note: Unlike in English, months of the year are not capitalized.

  • enero = January
  • febrero = February
  • marzo = March
  • abril = April
  • mayo = May
  • junio = June
  • julio = July
  • agosto = August
  • septiembre = September
  • octubre = October
  • noviembre = November
  • diciembre = December

Para Practicar (For Practice)

Here are three practice exercises, to use los meses in actual sentences/context, with an answer key at the end of the post.

Ejercicio #1 (Exercise #1)

Given the cumpleaños (birthdays) in DD/MM/YY format, fill in the blank with a month of the year to correctly complete the sentence.

example: Mi cumpleaños es 12/3/1994. Mi cumpleaños es en ________.
answer: marzo

  1. El cumpleaños de Rosa es 22/11/2014. Su cumpleaños es en ________.
  2. El cumpleaños de Martin es 2/10/1965. Su cumpleaños es en ________.
  3. Tu cumpleaños es 4/6/2001. Tu cumpleaños es en ________.
  4. El cumpleaños de los gemelos (twins) es 5/9/1991. Sus cumpleaños es en ________.
  5. El cumpleaños de Jonathan es 8/8/2009. Su cumpleaños es en ________.

Ejercicio #2 (Exercise #2)

Fill in the blank with the name of a month to correctly complete the sentence.
Note: después de means “after” and antes de means “before.”

  1. Febrero es después de ________.
  2. ________ es antes de diciembre.
  3. ________ es después de abril.
  4. Marzo es antes de ________.
  5. Agosto es después de ________.

Ejercicio #3 (Exercise #3)

This exercise focuses on spelling, especially with those words that are similar to English. It’s important to notice the differences!
So, the exercise is to fill in the blanks with the correct letters to spell the name of the month.

  1. mar_o
  2. nov_emb__
  3. jul_o
  4. d_c_embre
  5. oct_bre

Respuestas (Answers)

Ejercicio #1: 1. noviembre // 2. octubre // 3. junio // 4. septiembre // 5. agosto

Ejercicio #2: 1. enero // 2. noviembre // 3. mayo // 4. abril // 5. julio

Ejercicio #3: 1. z – marzo // 2. i, r, e – noviembre // 3. i – julio // 4. i, i – diciembre // 5. u – octubre

A Traveller’s Guide to Ugandan MTN SIM Cards

As a traveller to Uganda, you don’t need an international plan or a roaming plan. If you want a phone and internet connection during your visit to Uganda, just get a local SIM card! It’s cheap, convenient, and a great way to understand how things work in the country you’re visiting, Uganda!

There are five mobile phone operators in Uganda, the biggest of which are MTN (the yellow and blue one) and Airtel (the red and white one). As a traveller, I generally tend to opt for the most convenient option, which means the biggest option (when considering which SIM card to buy). This post is going to talk about MTN SIM cards, not because I’ve purposefully selected them as the superior carrier, but simply because they’re the biggest (and therefore the most common). If you want to opt for an Airtel (or other) SIM card in Uganda, it’s going to be mostly the same, although the exact prices and USSD codes (see last section) will be a bit different.

Buying a MTN SIM Card in Uganda

An MTN SIM card costs 2,000 UGX (Ugandan shillings) at the MTN store (meaning a designated MTN sales outlet, not a random shop with an MTN sign above it), although I’ve heard they cost a bit more at the airport. You’ll need your passport (with visa page) to register, as they’ll make your SIM card valid for the term of your visa (meaning that it will expire once you leave the country). You can register one SIM card per person, and can’t get a SIM card without registration. Assuming the system is up and working, and the line isn’t too long, getting a SIM card is a relatively quick process.

Pre-Paying Credit for Ugandan MTN SIM Cards

Phone credit in Uganda is prepaid, meaning you pay in advance for as much as you’ll use. As a traveller, this is great news — you don’t have to subscribe to anything, don’t have to worry about monthly plans, and can pay for exactly how much you want (and nothing extra). Here’s how it works:

When you buy your SIM card, as them to also load credit (also known as “airtime”). How much credit depends on how much you’ll be planning on using your phone. As prices will likely change, I won’t list prices here, but instead recommend the following strategy: decide how much you want to buy initially in terms of calling, texting, and data usage. Then, just ask how much “an hour of calls and four GB of data” would cost, or “200 SMS and one GB of data,” for example. The MTN staff will be able to tell you how many Ugandan shillings that costs, and help you load the credit.

A quick note, however: staff can be quick to assume that foreigners need huge amounts of data, and want the most expensive plans. If you’re a budget traveller, or simply don’t want full-full mobile usage, be clear that you don’t want unlimited, and don’t accept it if you’re told the smallest packages are bigger than you want. There are no minimum purchases, and there’s really no need to buy a bigger package than you need. You don’t even need a package at all — for example, you can make a call without buying a “call” package. If you’re going to be making many calls, the “call” package will get you discounts. But, if you only want to make a single, quick call, you don’t need to buy a “100 minute” package or anything. Just make the call.

If you need to buy more credit, you can buy it from any little stand or shop with an MTN or “airtime” sign you see. They’ll either sell you a card or send it directly to your phone (you’ll have to give them your phone number). If they send it directly, you’ll get a notification when the transaction goes through.

Using USSD Codes on Ugandan MTN SIM Cards

Now, here’s the magic part that can be a bit disorienting for travellers. Ugandan SIM cards use USSD codes, which are very common across Africa and almost unheard of in Europe and North America. USSD codes are different codes, which you type directly into your phone (as though you are making a call) that serve different functions. They don’t use data, just cell service (so as long as you have service, you can use them, even if there’s no data network). The USSD codes available in Uganda as extensive, but here’s a rundown of the MTN USSD codes which are most useful as a traveller in Uganda.

For each USSD code, you type it in exactly as written (with the asterisks and pounds), and then hit “call.” It will probably say “USSD loading” before the actual thing you want pops up.

  • *150# is for purchasing bundles using Airtime. So, you would load the airtime (either at the MTN store or at a smaller shop), and then type *150# to see your bundle options. The menu should be in English, and is quite intuitive.
  • *131# is to see your balance (how much airtime and how much of a bundle you have left).
  • *135*8# is to see your own phone number. Sure, if you’re staying in the country for a long time, you’ll learn it, but most travellers don’t. If you need to tell someone your number, just type this in, hit “call,” and then show them the screen.

Before Leaving the MTN Store in Uganda

Okay, so now you’ve got your SIM card, and you’re loaded up with credit. You’re about to leave the store — but before you go, here’s a final checklist of things to be sure of before you walk away from the desk.

  • Make sure the SIM card works for whatever purposes you want it for. If you want it for the internet, load something. If you want to make a call and/or send a text within Uganda, test it. If you want to call/text internationally, test that specifically. Everything is easy to solve when you’re still standing at the service desk.
  • Make sure you have however much credit/airtime you want/need. If you want a package, make sure you know how to do that or already have it done (with the assistance of the MTN staff).
  • Make sure you know the USSD codes for the basic things you’ll need during your visit to Uganda. I recommend at least the above codes for loading airtime, checking balance, and seeing your own number, but if there’s something else you want to do, ask!

And that’s it! You’re now the new owner of a Ugandan MTN SIM card. But remember, put the phone down and just be sometimes, okay?

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.

  • 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” 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.”


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

“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.

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!