What if I told you there is no exact translation for “hello” in Swahili, and yet there are dozens of ways to greet people?
When you’re learning a new language, one of the first things you’ll want to know is how to say “hello.” Salutations are an essential part of the Swahili language and culture, and Swahili is so rich in different types of hellos that conversations of greetings can continue for minutes.
Whether you are planning a trip to Tanzania or Kenya or just want to impress a friend, here are some of the most common “hello” phrases to help you sound like a native Swahili speaker!
Swahili values friendliness. It’s important to learn the most common colloquial phrases to avoid sounding stiff.
Nearly all of the colloquial greetings are actually questions that require a certain response from the listener.
I will give you the most standard response for each set of questions, but also provide a section on words that can be flexibly applied as responses to any of the questions.
Habari literally means “news”.
Habari can be used in many different sentences, such as Habari za asubuhi/mchana/jioni? (literally “[What is] the news of the morning/afternoon/evening?”). This expresses how English speakers would say “good morning/afternoon/evening.”
You can add virtually any noun after za, such as kazi (“work”) to ask “How’s work?” or familia (“family”) or kwako (“your place”) to ask “How’s your family?”
You will also hear ya instead of za (ex. Habari ya asubuhi?) with no change in meaning. Similarly Habari yako/zako? (“[What is] your news?”) as well. If you are asking two or more people, you would say Habari yenu/zenu? instead.
Habari will sometimes be used alone (as just Habari?) or may be removed when a phrase trails after it, creating questions like Za kwako? and Za jioni?
Standard response: Nzuri
Literally meaning “things” or “affairs,” mambo is the plural form of jambo. It’s one of the most commonly used greetings in casual Swahili speech.
A quick note: many foreigners will be told to greet people with jambo, which was popularized by the hit song “Jambo Bwana.” However, you will almost never hear a native Swahili-speaking adult greeting other native speakers with jambo. It’s mostly used just for tourists!
To sound like a local, use mambo instead.
Standard response: Mazuri or poa (“cool”)
Vipi literally means “how?” and can be used alone or in combination with another word or phrase. For example, you can pair it with mambo to become Mambo vipi? It’s as casual as “How’s it going?”
There is no particular standard reply, so you can respond with whatever you like from the section “Beyond the Standard Responses” below.
“You are [here]?” This is a contextual phrase that’s hard to translate literally and threw me off the first time I came across it. “Of course I’m here. You see me right here,” I thought.
However, I quickly realized this is another common greeting to ask how you are. It’s now one of my favorites for its simplicity and shortness!
It may also be used if the speaker hasn’t seen the listener for a bit.
If you are greeting two or more people, you will say Mpo? instead. You may also hear -ko replacing -po (resulting in Uko?, etc.), although this is less common.
Standard response: Nipo (“I am” – for one person) or tupo (“we are” – for two or more people)
Niambie! (“Tell me!”) This enthusiastic greeting is usually short for sentences like niambie habari yako (“tell me your news”). It’s not a question, but it’s still inquiring about how you are, usually between people who are already on friendly terms with each other.
You may also hear sema (“say”) used in the same way as niambie in this case.
There is no exact standard response, so you can say whatever you feel, such as mzuri (“good”), niko poa (“I’m cool”), or sina jipya (“I don’t have anything new”).
“How is it?” This is just about the same phrase as used in certain dialects of English.
Standard response: Nzuri
Unaendeleaje? translates to “How have you been progressing?” It’s similar to the English “How have things been going?”
Although it is still fairly casual, it shows that you’re interested in the listener and their affairs on a deeper level than the greetings above. For this reason, you shouldn’t throw this phrase around quite as lightly to people you don’t know or are meeting for the first time.
You may also hear this as Unaendelea vipi? with vipi replacing the je. This can also be applied to all of the phrases below ending in je with no change in meaning. If you are speaking to multiple people, say Mnaendeleaje?
Standard response: Ninaendelea vizuri or simply vizuri
This is a common way to greet someone you care about in the morning. Whereas English speakers ask, “How did you sleep?” Swahili speakers most commonly ask the question Umeamkaje? (“How did you wake up?”)
However, it is also possible to ask Umelalaje (“How did you sleep?”), although it is not used as frequently.
When greeting two or more people, use Mmeamkaje? instead.
Standard response: Nimeamka vizuri, vizuri, or salama (“peaceful”)
This phrase is pretty cool: “How have you won?” It’s similar to asking, “How was your day?”
Like the other phrases above, it is used to dig a little deeper. It is often used between friends, family, and community members. When asking this to multiple people, say Mmeshindaje?
Standard response: Nimeshinda vizuri or simply vizuri
You may have noticed that there is a vast array of different standard responses.
Swahili has over a dozen different noun classes (somewhat comparable to genders in many European languages), and most nouns, verbs, and adjectives must match according to their class.
This is often thought to be the most difficult aspect of Swahili to get the hang of. This may seem daunting, but don’t worry: Here is a shortcut to have you mastering greetings in no time. There are a handful of responses that can be used for all of these greetings above that can be used regardless of noun class. They include (in descending order of slanginess):
- Salama (“peaceful”)
- Safi (“clean”)
- Poa (“cool”)
- Freshi (“fresh”)
- Shwari (“calm”)
Therefore, when someone asks you, Habari za asubuhi? you can respond, poa. When someone asks you, Mambo? you can respond, poa. When someone asks you, Upo? you can respond, nipo poa. And so on and so forth, with your choice of word from the list above, depending on how hip you want to seem.
The best part? Let me tell you.
Perhaps due to their near universal applicability, these are some of the most common responses you’ll hear in colloquial Swahili. They’re even more common than some of the standard responses.
Note that the older the other person is, the more likely they will stick to a phrase toward the top of the list, such as salama or the standard response.
Also, this list is not exhaustive. The responses include a vast array of street slang that is ever evolving. While I was living in Tanzania, it seemed every month I learned a new slang response, like mzuka or bie.These vary depending on what part of the Swahili-speaking world you are in or where the person you are talking to is from.
You can also strengthen any of the responses with sana (“very”), kabisa (“totally”), or tu (“just”). You can respond to greetings with phrases such as nzuri sana, nipo kabisa, or salama tu.
Keep in mind that even if you’re not doing well or feeling fine, you should generally still respond in a positive manner to Swahili greetings. Usually, people don’t say, “Bad” when asked, “How are you?”
If you are close with the other person and prefer to be honest on a rough day, you can express this with siyo poa sana (“I’m not very good”) or hivyo hivyo tu (“Just okay”).
Learning polite and formal Swahili is equally important as learning the colloquialisms.
There will be times when you want to be perceived as proper and showing respect, and here are the best ways to do so. Luckily in these cases, the standard responses are the only responses possible.
This greeting has roots in the word jambo introduced above and is a mildly formal way to greet someone. It’s more similar to “hello” than the colloquial “hi” in English.
The equivalent when speaking to multiple people is Hamjambo? This is often used when talking to strangers you don’t want to sound too casual with, when giving a speech, or when an older person greets a younger person.
Standard response: Sijambo (for one person) or hatujambo (for two or more people)
Swahili culture holds age and status in high regard. When you greet someone significantly older or with more authority than you, you are expected to show respect by using shikamoo.
A child may use this toward an adult, a student toward a teacher, a young adult to an elderly neighbor, a citizen to an elected official, an employee to a boss, etc.
If you are greeting a group of people you want to show respect to, you can make this word plural by saying shikamooni.
Standard response: Marahaba
The Swahili-speaking world is religiously diverse, and especially if you are in a predominantly Muslim area such as Zanzibar you will not want to miss using Salaam Alaikum.
Literally meaning “Peace be upon you,” this is a common greeting across the Islamic world, and you may find it spelled a few different ways in Swahili (such as salam aleikum or a-salamu alaykum).
Even if you are in a predominantly Christian area, if you know the listener is Muslim, feel free to use this phrase.
Standard response: Walaikum assalam
We’ve covered the most universally applicable phrases, but there are still a handful of greetings for specific situations we haven’t gotten to yet.
Check them out below!
Use hodi when you are entering someone’s home or room. It’s the English equivalent of saying, “knock knock,” or “Hello, anyone home?” You can also repeat the word twice with no change in meaning, so you can also say hodi hodi.
If you are the listener, respond with “welcome”: karibu (to one person) or karibuni (to two or more people).
Habari za Siku Nyingi? is a Swahili version of “long time, no see,” and literally means, “What’s the news of many days?” The response would be the same as the other habari expressions in the first part of this article.
You may also be greeted with siku nyingi sijakuona, (“Many days I have not seen you.”). If you’re very close with the other person, you can almost jokingly accuse them with Mbona huonekani? (“Why don’t you appear?”).
There’s no standard response, and you can just greet the person back however you like.
Pole is a quintessential Swahili word. It can mean anything from “sorry” to “slow,” and as we saw above, kazi means “work.”
This expression can be used when greeting someone who has been exerting effort at work or who has returned from their workplace, for example. It shows you appreciate that someone has worked hard–almost identical to otsukaresama in Japanese.
If you want to show your appreciation to the listener that they have also been working hard, you can respond with pole na wewe (“You too”) or otherwise simply asante (“Thank you”).
As I mentioned at the beginning, greetings in Swahili are so important that they can go on for several lines of dialogue. It’s actually quite rude to jump straight to the point without asking someone how they (and possibly their entire family) are doing first!
Here are two examples of dialogues showing how people may actually greet each other in Swahili (and in fact, may go on for much longer!)
Note that the second person uses a different greeting from the first.
B: Nipo. Mambo poa?
A: Mambo poa kabisa. Habari za familia?
B: Nzuri sana. Za kwako?
A: Salama tu.
B: Marahaba. Hujambo?
A: Sijambo, asante. Habari za mchana?
B: Safi sana. Habari za kazi?
A: Habari za kazi nzuri.
There you have it! 15 greetings to use in Swahili.
Don’t worry if you can’t remember all of these phrases right now. If you are just starting out on your Swahili language journey, I recommend you choose just a couple of phrases. Use them until you get the hang of them.
If you are more experienced, try testing out a new greeting every now and then.
Tanzanians, Kenyans, and others from the Swahili-speaking world are incredibly welcoming people and will happily greet you in their language, so you’ll become a greeting master in no time!
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