Learning your first words in Swahili

Authored by:
Harry L.

Harry L.

One of the most stressful things about coming to Tanzania is the new language. Swahili isn’t taught in many places in the States and it was a very foreign language to me when I first came to Tanzania. Fortunately, Swahili is a beautiful language and one that’s easy to quickly learn the basics. In this post, I’m going to talk a little bit about the basics of greetings in Swahili!

One of the first lessons that Mwalimu Paulo teaches during orientation is Swahili greetings. They're an important part of Swahili and Tanzanian culture—improperly greeting someone can cause offense. I figured I’d share a few of the more common greetings so you’re properly prepared when you arrive in Tanzania!

If someone comes to your room, or to your house, they introduce themselves with the greeting:

“Hodi, hodi!”

To welcome them and invite them inside, you reply:


Once inside, you would greet them properly. There are two different types of initial greeting in Swahili, one used for people who are your peers or a similar age to you and the other used for an older or younger person. If they’re a similar age to you or a friend, then you would use the greeting:


And they would reply with:


If the person is older or younger than you, then there’s a specific greeting for that. In Tanzanian culture, age is an important sign of social standing. Respect for elders is extremely important. If the person you are greeting is older or more senior to you, then you would use the greeting:


They would then reply:


This response acknowledges your respectful greeting and their standing as your elder or superior. It’s a good way to start off conversations with someone that is in a position of authority.

Once the initial greetings are out of the way, the next form of greeting is to ask about the person, their life, and their day. This is accomplished with the greeting stem:


This stem then has a number of additions to ask about the person and their life. I’ve included a few of the more common ones below:

“Habari za leo?” = How is your day?

“Habari za asubuhi?” = How is your morning?

“Habari za kazi?” = How is your work?

“Habari za maisha?” = How is your life?

Common responses to these questions include:

"Nzuri" = Good
"Poa" = Cool
"Safi" = Clean/Fresh
"Salama" = Peaceful

In a single conversation with someone, several of these "habari" statements will be used before moving on to the actual topic for conversation. By starting a conversation in Swahili with these greetings, you will stand a good chance of getting things off on the right foot!

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