Many volunteers are driven to take their service work abroad to offer unique skills , to engage with an entirely new culture, to adapt to a new way of living and, of course, to make friends. Your adventures abroad are certainly sweetened by the friendships made along the way, and there’s no better way to establish mutual respect and camaraderie than by speaking to a person in their own language.
Working alongside East Africans affords volunteers the unique opportunity to learn one of the oldest, coolest, and most-easy-to-pronounce languages in the world. Before “Hakuna Matata” gets stuck in your head, read on for insight on the lingua franca of East Africa, Swahili, and whether it will serve you while volunteering in Africa.
The Swahili language
The Swahili language, known locally as Kiswahili, is widely spoken across East Africa. The language has been highly influenced by the coast’s colonial past, and borrows extensively from Arabic and other languages. Despite its varied vocabulary, its structure and grammar patterns are connected to the local Bantu language family.
Many, but not all, East Africans can speak English well enough to use in their daily interactions. As a traveller, you should be able to get by without learning a lick of Kiswahili (beyond what you picked up while watching The Lion King).
Who speaks Swahili?
Swahili is the most widely spoken language in sub-Saharan Africa. While it is often learned as a second language, it is considered the mother tongue of the local Swahili people (yes, the term “Swahili” can refer to a people group, a unique culture and a language). Estimates for the number of Swahili speakers range from 70 million to 140 million people, but only between one and five million people consider it their mother tongue.
Swahili is identified as an official language in Kenya and Tanzania, but will also be useful to volunteers in Rwanda, Burundi, Zambia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Somalia, and Mozambique. Ugandans will know a few phrases, but it might be a bit of a struggle to communicate with Swahili outside of the capital, Kampala.
Why should I learn Swahili?
Learning basic Swahili is important trip prep. While you don’t need to be fluent or have perfect pronunciation, learning a few key phrases will make a great impression and make your overall travels much smoother.
It will strengthen your relationships. Non-verbal communication can be effective, but if you wish to have more meaningful interactions with the populations you are working with, you’ll want to share not only smiles, but stories too. Develop friendships and memories rooted in words, rather than imagery. Speaking Swahili will allow you to develop connections with the people around you that would not be possible without a shared language.
You will be more responsible and self-reliant. Instead of chalking up every hiccup in your trip to “what’s lost in translation” or defaulting to help from your program’s local support network, you will be able to troubleshoot and fix problems independently.
You will also better represent North Americans. We are notorious for having an “it’s all about me” ethnocentric attitude. By learning Swahili, you'll be doing your part to embody sensitivity towards the other languages and cultures of our planet. You’ll be able to ask more thoughtful questions—and understand the answers—that come up in your conversations with Tanzanians, Rwandans, Ugandans, Kenyans, and other African countries with Swahili speakers.
You will have more insight into the local culture. Languages are the window into the psyche of a culture, into the way they think, observe and process the world. Not only will you be memorizing words and phrases, you’ll be exposed to the unique culture of this African corner. Understanding the language will better equip you to see and experience your volunteer project more fully.
Helpful Swahili phrases for volunteers in East Africa
A quick Google search should put you in the right direction for helpful travel-related words in Swahili. Below you will also find a short list of a few phrases that I found beneficial while volunteering for three months in Uganda, Rwanda, and Tanzania.
“Haraka haraka haina baraka.”
“Hurry, hurry, has no blessings.” There is no point in rushing. Take the time finish a project properly rather than with haste.
“Mtu ni watu.”
“A person is people.” Every person on the planet needs the company and help of others—we are all in this together.
“Baba, ni kubwa.”
“Father, you are big.” Any and all occurrences come from the hand of the God.
“Slowly, slowly.” This is a common conversation filler that encourages others to take it easy, to live life gently and slowly. (Spoiler: just about everything is “pole pole” in East Africa).
“You are welcome again.” A step further from the oft-used “karibu,” adding the “-tena” suffix indicates an invitation to return.
“My heart is full of joy.” This is a more creative response than the more commonly used “nzuri,” “safi,” or “freshi” when greeted.
“Journey well.” A beautiful sentiment to share with your new “rafikis” (friends) instead of goodbye.Add this article to your reading list