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

10 Travel Writing Prompts (To Find Grounding in Overwhelming Foreign-ness)

It happens sooner or later — as a traveller, you find yourself overwhelmed by simply how “different” and “foreign” the place where you are is. The diversity and complexity of our world is something to cherish and appreciate, but it’s hard to process, much less distill into something relatable and comprehensible in your writing. Here’s a list of ten travel writing prompts to help yourself find grounding in the most foreign-feeling of places, and to help you write through the curtain of “foreign-ness.”

  1. Select a food that you don’t really like, that you don’t really connect with, and write about the moment you’d crave it. Whether it’s a soup that would be perfect on a cold, rainy day, or a sweet pastry that is absolutely what you’d want for a brunch with friends, or a street food that is the absolute must-eat for that panoramic view, describe the food in its most perfect context.
  2. Walk around for a while, and describe people. Give a sentence or two to each person. See them as people. Include yourself, as just another person on the street, being described in a sentence or two. Make yourself one of the crowd, in third person. Find the parts of yourself that aren’t so foreign, and just mention those. Continue writing about the people you see. Let yourself just melt in.
  3. Write about your process of going home, whether to an apartment, a guesthouse, or to an overnight bus. Describe how you “closed up” for the night. Did you pay the bill and walk home? Did you zip up a backpack and head for the bus station? Describe your sense of closure and routine, regardless of whether you have either. Write about the evening as a conclusion, and welcome the evening as a homecoming. Greet the moon.
  4. Write about experiencing a familiar smell, amongst absolutely unfamiliar sights, sounds, and feelings. Situate that familiarity within the unknown, allowing for the simultaneous combination of both. Allow yourself to find comfort in the speck of familiar. Breathe deep, and write about how you carry that smell with you, through unfamiliar streets.
  5. Seek out an interaction, however substantial or insubstantial. Write about the interaction with great appreciation. Do not comment or critique, neither the other person nor yourself. Just describe it, in as much detail as possible. Describe it in overwhelming detail, yet focus on the ordinary. Do not concern yourself with exotic dress or foreign flavours — focus on their fingernails, the wrinkles near their eyes, the depth of their voice. Write about the crinkles in the currency, the texture of the receipt, what the paper plate looked like. Did the neon flicker? Did you tap your toe? Become lost in the mundane details. Don’t frame the interaction as “foreign.”
  6. Describe what parts of the place you’re in give you energy. What feeds you; what opens your eyes wide and makes you smile like a child? Describe whatever gives you a pep in your step, the little café you keep returning to, the “secret” spot you’ve come to love for sunset, that crazy thing you’ve noticed here that always makes you smile. When you woke up this morning, what were you excited to experience again?
  7. Write about how overwhelmed you are! Admit what you don’t know. Instead of focusing on the place, frame the foreignness as a gap in your own understanding of the place. List your questions, identify your misunderstandings, and enumerate your curiosities. Write your to-do list, your to-understand list, your to-learn list. Embrace the excitement of everything being new. Concretise the overwhelming nature of the whole experience. 
  8. Select a boring errand, and describe how it works where you are. Buy toothpaste, do your laundry, find a public restroom. Write about the process, the ordinary routine of fulfilling your needs in a foreign place. Write about the people you encounter along the way, the places you end up along your mission. Celebrate your minor accomplishment.
  9. Describe the parallels between here and home. Focus on the little things which feel familiar, no matter how random or small. Smile at the window frames which feel like home, high-five the street signs, and notice that the voice announcing incoming trains sounds just like the one in your hometown.
  10. What have you figured out? What challenges of this place have you overcome? Surely, there are things you didn’t know how to do yesterday that you are capable of today. What has this place taught you? What growth has it sparked? Write about the things you can do now, after being in this foreign place, that you weren’t previously sure you’d be able to do.

If you happen to use any of these prompts and post the results anywhere, please include the link back to this page, and let me know! I’d love to read what comes of this, if anything, and would love to share your writing, as well!

Want more travel writing prompts? Check out my list of 10 Travel Writing Prompts (To Smile During Travel Delays).