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.

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!

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

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

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.

Wild Animals (Swahili Vocabulary and Tidbits)

For those who are familiar with safaris in eastern Africa, you’ll know that guides and rangers are in constant communication with each other, sharing the locations of different animals in Swahili. For a long time, I assumed that the use of the language was so that guides could make their way towards the attraction, and yet avoid disappointment for the non-Swahili-speaking tourists, in case the animal ran away or couldn’t be seen anymore.

Then, I heard another perspective: for tourists on longer, multi-day safaris, there is something to be said for stretching out the wildlife-viewing experience, so that guests feel their longer (more expensive) trip was worth it. In order to do that, it’s imperative that they don’t see every animal in one day; if you can see the big five in one day, why did we pay for ten? In these circumstances, communication is done in Swahili to evade the tourists’ ears, so they don’t realize that they’re actually avoiding certain animals, or at least saving them for tomorrow.

Either way, or even just to point and name the animals you see, here’s a list of some wild animals you might see. This isn’t an exhaustive list; I will just include the well-known ones, that I’m most likely to study and use and remember. I don’t know the difference between an antelope and a gazelle and an impala and a hartebeest in English, so I’m not even going to worry about it in Swahili.

  • nyani = baboon
  • nyati (or mbogo) = buffalo
  • duma = cheetah
  • mamba (or ngwena) = crocodile
  • ndovu (or tembo) = elephant
  • twiga = giraffe
  • kiboko = hippo
  • chui = leopard
  • simba = lion
  • kima (or tumbili) = monkey
  • kakakuona = pangolin*
  • kifaru (or pea) = rhinoceros
  • nyoka = snake
  • punda milia = zebra

*You might not think that pangolins are a common animal, but I wanted to include it because (fun fact) at this point in history, more than elephants or rhinos, pangolins are actually at the top of the list for poaching and export. Hippos, surprisingly enough, are also way up there. Additionally, if anyone can explain to me the word derivation of “kakakuona,” I’d love to hear it, because it sounds like “sister to see” (kaka kuona), and I’d love to know the story behind that.

Okay, enough stories and tidbits, go study the vocabulary! At least, that’s what I’m going to go do.

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.”


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.


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.”


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.”


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

One Backpack (Beginner’s Swahili Reading Practice)

With a trip to eastern Africa soon approaching, I’ve been working to dust off my very rusty (and, at this point, frankly quite mediocre) Swahili. Regardless of the current condition of my language skills, work pays off, so it’s time to but in the elbow grease!

So, I’ve written the following passage in Kiswahili, as a writing exercise for myself. It’s quite basic, but I figured it could be decent reading practice (just like it was good writing practice for me). If you’re also a beginner, hopefully this is good practice, and if you’re fluent/advanced, please feel free to comment with any suggestions/corrections!

“Mfuko wa Begani Mmoja” (One Backpack)

Kwa safari yangu ya Afrika Mashariki, nina mfuko wa begani mmoja. Katika mfuko, nina nguo, sabuni, vitabu, na kilalio. Sina nguo nyingi, kwa sababu mfuko si mkubwa sana. Nitabeba mfuko mwenyewe wakati wa safari hiyo, kwa hiyo sitaki mfuko mkubwa.

Kabla ya safari, wasafiri wanafikiri mengi kuhusu mifuko yao. Lakini, baada ya safari kuanza, hawafikiri juu ya mifuko yao. Mifuko si muhimu sana, na mimi nimechoka kufikiri juu ya mifuko yangu! Nimechoka kusubiri. Niko tayari kwenda, na ninataka kupata ndege!

For my trip to East Africa, I have one backpack. In the backpack, I have clothing, soap, books, and a sleeping bag. I do not have a lot of clothing, because the bag is not very big. I will carry the bag myself during the trip, so I do not want a heavy bag.

Before a trip, travellers think a lot about their bags. But, after the trip starts, they don’t think about their bags. Bags are not so important, and I am tired of thinking about my bag! I am tired of waiting. I am ready to go, and I just want to get on the plane!

On Scaffolding (Re-Learning Swahili with Duolingo, P. 3)

Having studied both Arabic and Swahili, I’ve always felt stronger in Swahili. I studied Swahili for two years in university, lived in a Swahili-speaking country, and did so that within the past decade. Arabic, on the other hand — I did a brief study abroad in Jordan as a high school student (over a decade ago), neglected the language for a decade, and then began taking twice-weekly Arabic classes for the past three months. At this point, I’m honestly not all that strong in either language, but I definitely thought I was better in Swahili. Regardless, out of curiosity, I recently took the “placement tests” for both Swahili and Arabic on Duolingo.

Spoiler: I didn’t place out of ANY of the Swahili skills.

This, frankly, was a bit of a shock to me. Any skills? I don’t know ANYTHING abut Swahili? I find this a little bit hard to believe (because I definitely know some things). But, when you evaluate language knowledge by asking someone to translate a handful of specific words and phrases, there’s a definite probability that I simply won’t know those exact phrases! Sauce, for example. I didn’t know how to say “sauce.”

Now, for the double-spoiler: I placed out of 26% of the Arabic course. TWENTY-SIX PERCENT!

This was even more of a shock to me. I hardly knew anything — but many of the questions were phrased in such a way that I could guess the answer. It’d give me a sentence, and have me translate using a word bank. By knowing a few words, plus the suffixes for “my” and “your,” I could usually get it correct. In fact, I got almost every question on the placement test correct, generally by guessing.

The whole point of this story is that, as a language-learner, it’s a great reminder that scaffolding is everything. Scaffolding means easier exercises first, oftentimes matching or with a word bank, followed by more complex, “productive” (write the sentence yourself) exercises. I think what happened with the Duolingo tests is that the Arabic placement test was entirely lower-level, matching-style questions, with very few productive exercises (I didn’t have to type a single sentence)! On the other side of the spectrum, the Swahili placement test was entirely productive, with very few word banks or lower-level questions (which is, admittedly, quite challenging). I don’t know exponentially more Arabic than Swahili (quite the contrary). The results of the test reflected the test, not my language knowledge.

In educational jargon, we call this test validity (and these tests… sorry, Duo, not valid).