As you all know, I’ve been trying to learn Swahili for the last eight weeks. This is especially relevant as I set off for my trek around East Africa. It is going slowly, mostly because I started from zero, and haven’t had time to memorize sufficient vocab. I’m confident that I will at least be able to get around during my travels: order in restaurants, get directions, ask a few basic questions, answer their basic questions, etc, of course with the help of my trusty Swahili Phrasebook. This book has been great, except for a couple, rather glaring, holes, which seem to indicate that the book was written in English for another Romance language, and then translated to Swahili. As such, I think it highlights some key differences in Tanzanian culture.
The Phrasebook (aka Life Saver)
First, greetings. People have said that language indicates what is important to people by the number of words that that language has for a concept. In Swahili, that concept is “hello.” The phrasebook lists one greetings sequence – “hujambo” followed by “sijambo,” but I’ve found that this is rarely used. My sense is that it is equivalent to a formal “hello, how do you do,” rather than an everyday greeting. I feel like I come across new greetings every week, but some of the commonly used ones are: “mambo,” (response: “poa,” cool), “vipi” (response: “safi”, clean), shikamoo (greeting for a respected elder), “habari” (response, “nzuri”), “habari za …” (can be filled in with a seemingly endless set of words, at least dozen, to denote good day, good evening, good afternoon, etc), “shwari”, “jambo”, “sema komanda,” etc. Many of the responses can be mixed and matched, and there are a bevy of other responses, most of which I can’t remember in time to use. So I stick to “safi,” “poa,” and “jambo,” and hope I don’t offend anyone. Also, when someone says “shikamoo” to me, which happens more than you might think (I guess I’m getting old), the correct response is “marahaba,” which can be shortened to “maraha.” Tanzanians take their greetings very seriously, and a single greeting sequence might involve three or more of the above phrases.
I want to talk more about “sema komanda” because I love this phrase. William taught it to me on Kili, and apparently it’s Tanzanian street lingo. It translates roughly to “What’s the word, Commander!” at which point you launch into normal greetings. From what I gather its like “Yo, what up, dawg” in English. There are also a number of other military inspired greetings like “meja, meja,” (Major, Major) and I forget the others.
Sema Komanda! Guides and porters often used this greeting on the trail. Here's WIlliam greeting someone on the phone.
Second, “hamna shida.” This phrase did actually make it into the book but it’s buried in the middle somewhere. It needs to be on the front cover in BOLD. The song “hakuna matata” (Kenyan Swahili) from the lion king should really be “hamna shida.” And, as strange as that song’s subject matter sounds to us, it sums up the laid back Tanzanian attitude towards life more than any other two words can. We’ve talked about this before, so I’ll stop here.
Third, “please.” The word is “tafadhali,” but I don’t think I’ve heard a single Tanzanian use it in eight weeks. They use “asante” (thank you) a fair amount, and “karibu” (welcome, as to a house, or you’re welcome, after you say “thank you”) all the time. However, “please” just doesn’t make it into their vocabulary. I’m not entirely sure why, but Tanzanians are extremely nice in general and I think it may be assumed that a request is polite or not meant to impose, without the need for an explicit indicator of politeness.
I asked Japhet, one of the CPAR staff about this, and he said that yes, it is often assumed that you are polite. Tanzanians are seen as very polite in general by other East Africans. Apparently, people use “naomba,” which I haven’t found in the phrasebook, meaning something along the lines of “I’m begging you,” and it is actually considered to be more polite than “tafadhali.” Japhet also said that people with a lot of contact with wazungu have started to use tafadhali more often.
Fourth, prefixes. This has probably been the hardest part of the language for me to grasp. In English, we attach the main meaning of a word to the beginning, which does not change, and details go at the end (for instance, “I have a hammer, I am hammering, The nail was hammered, etc). However, in Swahili, the verb conjugation, tense markers, direct and indirect objects and plural or singular indicator syllables all go at the beginning of a word. For instance, “mzungu” is one white person, and “wazungu” is more than one, and “ninapenda” means “I like” while “utapenda” means “you will like.” To add to the confusion, sometimes the endings of verbs change too: “nataka” means “I want,” while “sitaki” means “I don’t want.” Anyway, it took six weeks for my brain to start attaching meaning to the back of words, and I still sometimes have trouble parsing the beginnings to appreciate the full meaning. I often find myself going back over my memory of what someone just said to figure out the meaning, and having flashes of revelation days later.
Fifth, “yes” and “no.” The word for yes is “ndiyo” (n-dee-yo) and the word for no is “hapana” (ha-pa-na). I was wondering before I came how this worked, because how can you use three syllable words for yes and no? Every other language that I know has one-syllable affirmatives and negatives. Well, the secret is, they don’t actually use these two words that often, definitely not as often as we use yes and no. In fact, “ndiyo” is probably more like “correct” or “affirmative.” For everyday speech, people use “ey” or just nod, or do something else that I haven’t picked up on. I’m not entirely sure what they do for “no,” but sometimes people use “sina” (I don’t have) or shake their heads.
No eye contact: this woman is speaking with Emmanuel, out of the frame top left.
Sixth, eye contact. Eye contact is not as important in Tanzania as it is in the US. While it is still used to initiate conversations and such, often people will have entire conversations with their backs turned. Or, two people will greet each other as they are passing (and not looking at each other) and continue the conversation as they are walking away from each other. As long as the two parties can hear each other, no one seems to mind that they’re talking into empty space.