A question on a lot of Swahili learners’ minds: Where can I speak Swahili?
You’ll be pleased to know Swahili is one of the most widely spoken languages in Africa. In fact, it is considered the lingua franca of East Africa, and is an official working language of the African Union.
But what about in day-to-day life?
Swahili is currently an official language in four countries – Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, and Democratic Republic of the Congo. Let’s go through each of them.
Tanzania is where you will find the most grammatically correct and formal version of Swahili. In fact, it is kind of an inside joke in the region that Tanzanians are the grammar nazis of Swahili, always correcting the Kenyans on their slang ways of saying things.
When you do visit Tanzania, you will notice that it is actually very important to learn Swahili while there. Many Tanzanians do not speak English well, and communicate only in their tribal language and Swahili. For example, many Masai will only speak Kiswahili and Kimasai, many Chaga will only speak Kiswahili and Kichaga.
Therefore it’s important to know at least some Swahili so you can communicate, unlike say, Uganda or Kenya, where English is widely spoken.
While “proper” Swahili is found throughout Tanzania, it’s a little bit different up in Kenya.
First, we’ll start with the subtle differences.
The Swahili in Kenya is a lot more direct and impersonal than it is in Tanzania. You won’t see people stopping to exchange four to five greetings on the street as you do all the time, and you won’t hear shikamoo being said nearly as often.
As a further example, when you ask for something in Tanzania, you generally use the phrase Naomba, which means “I would like”.
In Kenya, they more often use the phrase Nipe, which means “give me”.
Kenyans will often tell you they find it odd to use such a polite phrase when you’re simply asking for something. Tanzanians on the other hand always find it important to be as polite as possible, even if it means being over polite.
Another interesting thing you’ll find in Kenya is the Swahili spoken in the capital, Nairobi. In fact, you can get by in Nairobi without any Swahili at all, as many Kenyans, especially young Kenyans, prefer to speak English.
When they do speak Swahili, they sometimes prefer to communicate in sheng, a type of street/slang version of the language. One funny sheng word I heard used was mbleina, which means “complainer”. Sheng is constantly changing, and is very popular with the young crowd in Nairobi, who typically mix it with English while talking.
Swahili in Uganda is interesting, because it is actually not so widely spoken. The most spoken language in the country is actually Luganda.
However, as Luganda is the language of the Luganda tribe, it is not appealing for many Ugandans to learn. For this reason, Swahili and English were made official languages of the country, in order for them to find a common tongue.
As a result, it’s very rare the Swahili is the first language spoken in any interaction in Uganda, unless of course it is within a Kenyan or Tanzanian community in the country.
Learning Swahili is not necessary on a visit to Uganda – English will be far more helpful!
Democratic Republic of the Congo
The first thing you should know about the Congo is that it’s enormous. There are over 200 languages spoken in the country.
The second thing you should know is, the official language of the country is actually French.
There are four other nationally recognised languages: Swahili, Lingala, Kituba and Tshiluba.
While Lingala dominates the capital and much of the western side of the country, the borders shared with Tanzania and Uganda on the eastern border is largely Swahili speaking.
One thing to note is the Swahili in the DR Congo can be quite different from the Swahili in Tanzania, as many people speak local variations of the language, the most popular being Kingwana.
Nonetheless, basic Swahili will still get you very far in these parts.
Wherever you’re going, keep studying!