Mambo wanafunzi! (Hello students).
Today we’re going to talk about greetings in Swahili.
This is an important topic because in Swahili, greetings hold very strong importance, more so than other langauges.
This is because of the strong sense of community in the Swahili culture.
If you’ve been to Kenya or Tanzania, you might notice things are a little (or a lot!) more slower and relaxed.
This is very typical of Swahili-speaking people, who put a very strong focus on friendship and relationships within their communities.
The difference between greetings in English and Swahili
In English, greetings are very quick.
John: Hey! How are you?
Mary: Good how are you?
John: Great! So I wanted to ask… (begins conversation).
If you’re observant, you’ll quickly notice that it is quite different in Swahili. People don’t just greet each other once before their conversations, rather, they greet each other two, three, maybe even four times before they begin the actual topic of conversation.
Juma: Mambo! (How’s it?)
Mary: Poa (Good)
Juma: Mzima? (All is well?)
Mary: Mzima (All is well)
Juma: Habari (How is everything?)
Mary: Nzuri (Everything is good). Za kwako? (And you?)
Juma: Nzuri. Habari za watoto? (Good. How are the kids?)
Mary: Nzuri sana (Very good).
Juma: Niambie, unaweza saidia mimi…. (Tell me, can you help me something…[begins conversation])
As you can see, in Swahili it is very normal for people to share three or four greetings before actually starting their topic of conversation. You will see this particularly clearly in Tanzania, DR Congo, and the smaller cities in Kenya, outside of Nairobi.
Why is this?
This is a cultural trait in Swahili-speaking society. It is generally thought to help maintain close and caring relationships between people, especially between families and the wider community.
Next time you’re in East Africa, try to be mindful of this.
While it can be normal to just ask a stranger on the street a question without greeting them (Excuse me, where is the bus stop?) this can actually be quite sudden and rude in Swahili.
Of course, if you’re obviously a foreigner, they will certainly understand and forgive you. But it would be nice to try have more of a local attitude, wouldn’t it?
Give them a Mambo, and after that a Habari za leo? (How is today going?) before talking to someone or asking them a question. Not only will you fit in a little better, people will greatly appreciate the effort, and probably be quite shocked that you speak just like a local!
Not only is it a great way to immerse yourself and make local friends, it’s also a great way to show respect.