Before you get your hopes up, I’d like to clarify that this is not a guide on how to speak Swahili. As great as that would be, I’m not exactly qualified to teach it yet. I am getting an idea of how best to go about learning it though.

Know the Big Three

First, it helps to know the Big Three:

  • How are you? – Habari
  • Fine – Nzuri
  • Thank You – Asante

These are the essential phrases to break the ice in any language, I think. And they should be easy to memorize since they are used so often.

My only problem with this step is that I have a bad habit of combining “Habari” with “Karibu,” which is Swa for “you’re welcome.” It often comes out “Ha-ribu,” and is met with very confused looks.

Unfortunately, a friend recently informed me that the word haribu does exist in Swahili, and it means “to destroy.” Oops!

Once you can exchange these three key phrases with a Kenyan, and say it with a smile, then you’ve most likely convinced them that you know a lot of Swahili for a Mzungu, or at least that you want to learn more.

Ask Questions

Swahili grammar is best saved for the courageous students!

Swahili grammar is best saved for the courageous students!

Next, a real student of Swahili must ask questions. Once you’ve found a patient teacher, don’t stop asking!

How do you say “it’s hot?” What do you call this food? Can you say that slower?…I mean A LOT slower?

Sometimes it takes Kenyans a minute to think of the translation. Even if they are fluent in both languages, equivalents don’t always exist. I’ve seen people consult with others for several minutes before telling me how they would say simple things like “good luck.”

Write down the answers!

Then be sure to write down the answers they give. I can repeat a series of syllables as soon as I hear them, but I’ll forget them immediately if I don’t see it in writing. And if your teacher just can’t seem to slow down, I always resort to having them spell it out.

Use what you know

Next, use what you know. It’s comfortable to speak English here since almost everyone will be sure to understand you, but pulling out some Swahili will always make the conversation more fun…at least more entertaining for your listeners.

For this step, children are a must! They are the best to practice with since they never get tired of hearing our funny accents, and they speak more simply, too. Visiting the kids of Huruma slum helped me learn questions like “what’s your name?” really quickly.

Get a Swahili language book

A language guide book will quickly become your best friend.

A language guide book will quickly become your best friend.

At this point, a Teach Yourself Swahili book, or something similar, is essential for understanding the grammar – and you need that to get deeper into the language.

Or you can use it for other purposes. One of my favorite things to do is to find a random word in the glossary, and throw it in a sentence. “Hey look at the mdudu!”… look at that bug! Your friends will wonder where you ever learned what an mdudu is.

Be ready to laugh!

The final tip is a no-brainer: be ready to laugh.

When I begin using Swahili with someone, it’s guaranteed that the conversation will progress beyond the point that I can comprehend…whomever I’m talking with will begin to rattle off a whole paragraph of complicated new words.

In this scenario, you can smile and nod, but the danger here is that you have no idea what you might have just agreed to! I usually just decide to laugh it off and let them know how lost I am.

For example, I was recently with a group of women who were speaking a mix of “Swa” and Kikuyu. At one point they all looked at me and broke out in laughter. Later I was told they were joking about the dowry price I might fetch if they were to marry me off to any eligible bachelors they might know. So don’t nod your head to everything people say – you could walk away with a husband!

For your viewing pleasure, here I am learning Swahili from James!

Hopefully following this advice will have you well on your way to communicating with people all over Kenya, and East Africa in general.

But just to keep you humble, you should be warned that there is also ever-evolving slang language called Sheng that Nairobians use all the time. Originating in the rougher neighborhoods of the city, it is so different from official Swahili that younger generations use it as a code language when they want to keep their parents in the dark. When Shang phrases become too mainstream, they just invent new words.

I’ll let you know when I find a book on Sheng, but for the mean time, Heri na fanaka kwa Kiswahili…good luck with Swahili!

Enjoy this post? Get future updates sent to you for free! Join by email or RSS

About the Author: Jessica Shewan is a journalist with World Next Door. She graduated in 2009 from The University of Evansville with a bachelor's degree in History. She loves making new international friends and is passionate about seeing the global church pursue justice and peace!

More posts by Follow Jessica on Twitter


  1. Michelle said... 


    July 2nd, 2009 at 12:43 pm  

    Thanks for modeling a go-for-it attitude to learn your host country’s language when it would be so much easier (and less embarrassing!) to stick with English. I appreciate the challenge, as I come into contact with Latino people here, to make an attempt to converse in my very elementary Spanish! And Happy Birthday!!!

  2. Aaron Elliott said... 


    July 2nd, 2009 at 8:38 pm  

    Way to go Jessica!!



  3. shelli said... 


    July 3rd, 2009 at 8:26 am  

    I know what you mean about needing to see a word written down! When my friends Cyrus and Susan Gikori lived in Indy for a year they would often greet me at their home with a friendly “Karibu” (welcome/come in). For the longest time (about the whole year) every time they said that I had a picture of a caribou in my head. I knew what they were saying was some form of welcome and it wasn’t English but I still couldn’t help picturing a big hairy reindeer each and every time. Gave me a good chuckle in my head.

  4. grandma mack said... 


    July 5th, 2009 at 9:45 pm  

    Jess, Such a neat video clip and description of learning something so different. you are writing so well! I am in Mich. with Sherri while Jay and Loran are in Wash. D.C. for a fun trip. sherri sends her greeting s to. You are in our prayers. Love, grandma mack

  5. rob said... 


    July 9th, 2009 at 9:21 am  

    Hmmm dowry price? Such a difference in cultures. Awesome and hilarious.

  6. salama said... 


    March 14th, 2010 at 1:14 am  

    Naweza pata rafiki apa?

  7. pay as you go sim with phone number said... 


    April 10th, 2016 at 11:55 am  

    I was suggested this website by way of my cousin. I am now not certain whether or not this publish is written by him as no one else understand such precise about
    my difficulty. You’re wonderful! Thank you!

Leave a Reply