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.

Decolonising the Imperative Conjugation (Swahili Verbs)

I read an article recently (really sorry I don’t remember exactly what, if I find it or you know what I’m talking about, please remind me and I’ll link it) that was talking about how colonial language guides for African languages continued the colonial structure of a foreign colonialist giving commands to their African servants. So, first chapter of the guide, there would be an emphasis on basic verbs and the imperative form, is that the language-learner could give commands like “make tea” or “bring me my jacket.”

As I’m reading this, I realize that I’ve seen a lot of language guides and textbooks to African languages that start with imperatives and commands. I still see them, rather commonly, actually. It is as though the textbooks haven’t improved since the colonial era, and the first thing you should do when speaking with an African person is issue a command. I don’t have the same impression of textbooks of European languages. Those tend to start their verb lessons either with the present tense, or the verb “I like” — leading to a much more “get-to-know-you” sort of conversation.

As I’ve been doing my own Swahili review and studying, this is what I’ve been thinking about when I think about imperatives in Swahili. If I’m going to write a page about Swahili imperatives, how do I (especially as a white person) actively work to dismantle these colonial structures, and write about this grammar point in a way that doesn’t continue to perpetuate colonial thinking about the African continent?

My thought is this: focus on commands that are given not to delegate work, but instead simply to interact. Teach visitors how to say “please, sit,” so that they can give their seat on a bus to an elderly person. Have tourists learn how to say “eat, drink,” so that they can invite new friends to lunch. Explain how some polite imperatives are suggestions, and how important it is to listen to locals’ suggestions.

So, with that in mind, here we go. Let me know what you think.

Swahili Imperative Tense

The basic thing you need to know about Swahili imperatives, is that they have two basic forms: singular and plural (ie. talking to one person, or talking to a group).

If you’re talking to one person, the imperative form is just the verb (no changes). I use the exclamation point when writing to remind myself that it’s the imperative tense, so forgive me if it “sounds” like I’m shouting. Here are a few examples:

  • Ambia! = Tell! (ie. a story or gossip)
  • Ingia! = Enter! (ie. a house/room)
  • Angalia! = Look!
  • Kaa! or Keti! = Sit! Stay! (ie. be at ease, stay a while)
  • Ngoja! = Wait!
  • Karibu! = Welcome!

If you’re talking to a group, there are two rules to form the imperative:

  1. Add “ni” to the end of the verb.
  2. If the original verb ended in “a,” change the “a” to an “e.”

Here are a few examples of imperatives you might give to a group of people, conjugated with that plural ending (ni).

  • Kunyweni maji! = Drink water!
  • Simameni! = Stand up!
  • Laleni! = Go to sleep!
  • Jaribuni = Try!

Notice how kunywa, simama, and lala all end in “a,” so that changed to an “e.” Jaribu, on the other hand, didn’t end in “a,” so we just added the “ni.”

Ta-da, that’s the imperative verb form! Let’s move on to the subjunctive, which can also be used to give commands, but is generally more polite (more of a suggestion).

Swahili Subjunctive Tense

The subjunctive tense is used to give “suggestions,” which can often be used as a “polite” command. It’s formed relatively simply, as follows:

  1. To start, use the subject pronoun of whoever you’re speaking to. The most common would be “u” (for you-singular), “m” (for you-plural), and “tu” (we, for saying things like “let’s…”).
  2. If it’s in the negative, you add a “si” before the verb.”
  3. Add in the verb.
  4. If the verb ends in “a,” change it to “e.” If it doesn’t end in “a,” don’t change anything.

And that’s it! Here are several examples of how this tense can be conjugated, and situations in which it might be useful. Remember that as this tense is used to give advice, a wise language learner will be listening for this tense more than they are using it (knowing that, as a foreigner, they will likely be listening for rather than giving advice.).

Note: I’ve translated most of these as commands. They could also be translated as “should” sentences, such as “you should greet the guests” instead of “greet the guests.” In any case, it’s a polite command.

  • Ustarehe. Relax, make yourself at home.
  • Uwamkie wageni. Greet the guests.
  • Twende! Let’s go!
  • Usisahau. Don’t forget.
  • Msikimbie! Don’t run!
  • Tushukuru. We should give thanks.
  • Niache! Let go of me! (the “ni” is an object marker for “me”)

And that’s it! I quite like the Swahili subjunctive — it’s used quite often, and is a nicer way of making suggestions than the direct imperative.

In any case, there you have it! I hope that’s a bit of an improved approached to the “command” tenses, and remember — especially as a traveller: be the type of person who listens for suggestions and the ideas of others, rather than the type who is always ordering others around.

Got any thoughts on other ways colonialism, language-learning and grammar intersect? I’d love to hear it, leave a comment below!

Swahili Verbs: A Crash Course

So, you’re going on a trip to one of the Swahili-speaking countries of eastern Africa. You want to learn a few words, to be able to communicate the basics, but don’t plan on diving into a full course. Nouns are cute, but unless you just plan on pointing at random objects and declaring “table” and “chicken,” you’re going to need some verbs.

You’re in the exact right place. Welcome to a crash course in Swahili verbs, made just for you.

I get it — you don’t want a grammar lesson. But, there’s nothing more confusing than saying “you want” when you really mean “I want”. So, allow me the teensiest little bit of grammar, and you’ll be on your way soon enough.

How Swahili Verbs Are Formed (A Grammar Lesson You Won’t Hate)

Swahili verbs have three basic parts, so when you see a verb, I want you to think “who-when-what.”

WHO

Swahili verbs usually start with the “who” — the subject. Swahili has many subject pronouns (more than English), but here, we’ll just look at six related to people.

  • ni = I
  • u = you (singular)
  • a = he/she
  • tu = we
  • m = you (plural, like ya’ll)
  • wa = they

If that’s too much, you can focus on just learning “ni = I” and “u = you,” but if you can take a few minutes and remember all six, that’ll really expand your Swahili skills without too much effort.

WHEN

Got nightmares of high school language class, and horribly complex conjugations? Welcome to your salvation. While Swahili verbs have some complex conjugations, the basic tenses are both regular and quite straightforward.

  • li = past
  • na = present
  • ta = future

You might also hear “me” being used instead of “li” for the past tense. “Me” is used for the present perfect (ie. past events which happened very recently) compared to “li” for the simple past. You can think of “me” in sentences like “I have eaten” vs. “li” in sentences like “I ate.”

WHAT

So, the last part is the “what” — what is actually happening, what verb do you want to use?

Verbs in Swahili are written with a “ku” at the beginning in the infinitive. So, simply put, “kusafiri” means “to travel,” and then (if we take away the “ku”), “safiri” means “travel.”

PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER: WHO-WHEN-WHAT

So, now that you know the three parts, we can smash it all together. No, seriously – you just smash them all together, into one big word. Let’s look at an example.

NINASAFIRI: If you break it down, you’ll see we’ve got ni-na-safiri, which is literally I-present-travel. So, “I travel” in Kiswahili is “ninasafiri.”

Now, we’ll go through a set of basic verbs — the ones you’re most likely to use during your travels.

Useful Swahili Verbs, Conjugated and Ready For Action

Now, there are certain sentences you’re more likely to use than others. For example, you might say “I want” on a regular basis, but you’d rarely use “you all want.” So, as I list some useful verbs, I’ll include some of the useful possible conjugations, and leave out the less frequent versions.

Note: We haven’t gone over conjugations in the negative, but it can often be quite useful. I’ll include negatives for certain verbs, where it might be useful for you.

  1. kuomba (to ask for, request): ninaomba (I am asking for, often used as “could I please have), tunaomba (we are asking for)
  2. kuenda/kwenda (to go): tunaenda (we are going), nilienda (I went), nitaenda (I will go), siendi (I don’t/won’t go)
  3. kutaka (to want): ninataka (I want), sitaki (I don’t want), unataka (do you want), wanataka (they want)
  4. kuhitaji (to need): unahitaji (you need), ninahitaji (I need)
  5. kusafiri (to travel): wanasafiri (they travel), ninasafiri (I travel)
  6. kurudi (to come back): ninarudi (I’m coming back), tunarudi (we’re coming back), utarudi (you will come back)
  7. kupenda (to like/love): ninapeda (I like), unapenda (you like)
  8. kulala (to sleep): umelala (you have slept), nitalala (I will sleep)
  9. kutembelea (visit): nimetembelea (I have visited), utatembelea (you will visit)
  10. kula (to eat): nimekula (I have eaten), sili (I don’t eat), tunakula (we eat)

As I’m writing this, I am sure there are more things that could do with a further explanation, if you’re interested. I’ll leave it there for now, to keep this a quick traveller’s guide, but please comment if there’s anyt

Americans: If You Want To Watch A Movie About Africa, Watch “Binti.”

From what I’ve seen, too many “African” films (about Africa, but with heavy foreign involvement in the production team) seem to rhyme. As shown in these movies, African people have Difficult Lives because of an African Problem (usually something like Poverty, AIDS, Female Genital Mutilation, Armed Conflict, or Forced Marriage). The movie is about overcoming their specific African Problem, and then they have a Good Life. It is all too simple, and for American audiences — who seem to be easily convinced that African problems are easily solvable — continues a dangerous narrative. Audiences learn that African Problems are different from Our Problems, that African problems can be solved with such readily available silver bullets, if only anyone bothered to Do Something.

Furthermore, the characters are never developed — they don’t exist except to showcase these “African Problems.” Audiences don’t really get to know the characters, and for American audiences accustomed to a lifelong diet of these “African” movies, the collective perception becomes that Africa is a continent of forgettable individuals and Big Needs.

Can I suggest an alternative? Check out “Binti” — Netflix’s first Tanzanian film, created by a completely female team.

“Binti” (2021, directed by Seko Shamte) is a Tanzanian film about four women in Dar es Salaam and the struggles they face — a woman reconciling the pain of family history and hopes for independence with the burden of debt, a woman struggling to imagine herself beyond the reach of her abusive boyfriend, a woman forced by infertility to reimagine her vision of her own family, and a woman whose marriage and sense of self are challenged by the trials of raising a child with special needs.

Each situation is dealt with, although not quite in the ways the women had dreamed of. It is painful and frustrating to watch. There are no soothing resolutions, no happy endings, just another step forward. These are not inspirational stories; these are honest portrayals of the pain and frustration of being a woman, and it hits hard.

So, for my Americans trying to find some sort of education about Africa through film, don’t bother with “Blackhawk Down” or “Blood Diamond.” Search for “Binti” on Netflix, and welcome to the frustrating concept that African problems can look very similar to American problems, and there’s no silver bullet to solve the pain of being a woman.

On Hitting Stride (Re-Learning Swahili with Duolingo, P.4)

I imagine this is what it’s like to be a plumber, faced with a blockage, where the water is just barely dripping out. After tinkering for a bit, something budges, and suddenly there’s water rushing out of the pipe again.

It all makes sense again, both slowly and suddenly. The vocabulary, the grammar, the language has come back to me, come out of its dormancy. At this point, Duolingo is falling to the side of my routine — its exercises are simply too easy. I keep doing them, but I’m getting 100% consistently, on everything. I take the quizzes to skip ahead, and behold — I skip ahead!

Of course, Duolingo is just one tool, and I think it’s time I move back towards other tools, a combination — books, grammar guides, conversational audio clips, TV shows, movies, reading the news in Swahili…. you name it, I’m going to do it. I promise — Duolingo might be easy now, but I’ve still got a lot of work do to! Just need to keep putting in the elbow grease.

Regardless, it does feel good to re-hit that stride, to realize that it’s just hidden in the depths of my brain, not gone entirely.

(More) Somali Food Vocabulary

In a previous post, I learned vocabulary for foods, mostly fruits and vegetables. Today, I’ll be expanding my repertoire to include other words related to food, such as kitchen items, flavours, and dishes.

  1. cup = bakeeri/koob
  2. fork = farogeeto
  3. spoon = malqacad
  4. knife = mindi
  5. plate = bilaydh/saxan
  6. spicy = besbaas
  7. bad = xun
  8. sweet = macaan
  9. bland = bilaa-dhadhan
  10. egg (from a chicken) = beed/ukun (plural = ukumo)
  11. egg (generally) = ugax (plural = ugxan)
  12. flour = daqiiq
  13. honey = malab
  14. oil = saliid
  15. salt = cusbo
  16. loows = peanuts
  17. cinnamon = qorfe
  18. spices = xawaash
  19. ice = baraf
  20. juice = casiir
  21. wheat = sarreen
  22. stew = sanuunad