Sunday, November 4, 2012

Survival Swahili

My time in Tanzania is coming to a swift end. I'm lying. It is very slowly coming to an end. My flight leaves at 3:30 am. That's local time, folks. So I am currently biding my time at a lodge near the airport. I slowly ate my dinner, slowly sipped my Coke Light, slowly sipped a second Coke Light...then I noticed a computer in the bar that appeared to be available for public use. The bartender must have sensed what I was thinking, because as I peered at the computer, he said, "Yes. You can use it. It is free."

You don't have to tell me twice.

So, in commemoration of my last few hours in Tanzania, I will share with you some of the important words/phrases I learned in Swahili.

Jambo: This is a greeting, one of the many. There may be another syllable before -jambo, but I found those weren't as important, so I rarely worried about it. Many of the locals don't even bother with the first syllable.  If you hear "Jambo" you can either respond with "Sijambo" or you can just skip to "Jambo." Pretty simple.

Mambo: This is my favorite greeting. It is very informal, so it is best to reserve it for a younger crowd. Maybe under 30. If you pass someone who is clearly your elder, best not to use Mambo. When in doubt, just say "Jambo."

Poa/safi: Appropriate responses to "Mambo." I believe they mean cool and fresh, respectively. Safi is also a good word to keep in mind because you can use it the way you would use "cool" or "awesome." For example: someone intercepts the frisbee during your game of Ultimate. "Safi!"

Habari: A greeting. Habari literally means "news." It is basically like the Swahili equivalent of, "How are you?" But really, it is so much more. Habari may be followed by any number of nouns. Work. School. Town. Trip. Family. Morning. Day. And it goes on. Don't worry about what noun is used. If you are proficient enough in Swahili that you want to understand when someone is asking you about work so that you can expound on your answer, then you are too advanced for this lesson. Just remember this: if you hear "Habari"  say, "Nzuri." Or, if you're feeling especially good, "Nzuri sana." Even if you're not having a good day, just stick with "nzuri."

Shikamoo: This is yet another greeting. The respectful greeting. Use this to address someone older than you. This is just a cool greeting to know.

Marahaba: The response to shikamoo. If someone says this to you, that means they accept your respectful greeting. This is part of survival Swahili because many of the children will say "shikamoo" to you, and it is good to know what to say in response.

Nzuri: This word means sooooo many things. Good, beautiful, nice, cute....if you like something, just say nzuri. Sometimes it is supposed to be vizuri or some other -zuri, but honestly, I'm not sure when. But people will know what you mean.

Nzuri sana: Very good/beautiful/nice.

Asante: Thank you. A good one to know. And if you are really grateful, "Asante sana."

Karibu: You'll hear this a lot. It means "welcome." You'll hear it when you enter a shop, as encouragement to enter a shop or hop in a taxi, when you say, "asante," when the food is ready, when people ask you where you from and want to welcome you to comes up a lot.

Pole: This means, "sorry," sort of. Like "karibu," this word is heard a lot. I was told that the sentiment behind it is, "I feel for you." People will say it when you get back from a trip, if you trip when you're walking, or even if you're just walking. This one really threw me when I first arrived because it seemed to come up in almost every exchange I had. Walking through me neighborhood I would exchange a few greetings with someone and it frequently ended with, "pole." Looking back, they probably said it because either they said something in Swahili that I didn't understand, or maybe because I was walking it is is hot out. Still not totally clear. But usually if you hear, "pole" the appropriate response is, "asante."

Chakula: Food. Straightforward, and I found it useful to know.

Hamna shida: No problem. This comes up a lot. I mean a lot. I have found many Tanzanians don't answer your question directly. Instead they try to target the emotion behind the question: worry. How far away is it? Hamna shida. What are we supposed to be doing? Hamna shida. Will you explain how we build a keyhole garden? Hamna shida. Or my favorite recent example: we stopped by a local restaurant, except we weren't sure if it was a restaurant or a bar. Bars don't serve chakula, and we wanted chakula. So we asked if they served food. "Hamna shida, rafiki. Karibu. Come inside." No, wait. Do you serve food? "Hamna shida." They did serve food, which we discovered after we went inside.

So there you go. Now you are ready for a trip to Tanzania. You will still be a bumbling American, but at least you will be a bumbling American with a few stock Swahili words to get you by.