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  • Writer's pictureInge BB

Swahili: not just a language

Nestled in the beautiful waters of the Indian Ocean, Zanzibar is much more than a tropical paradise. It is a place where history, culture and language blend together. It is where Swahili is not just a means of communication. Join us on a language journey through Zanzibar.


Jambo, jambo Bwana

Habari gani (How are you?)

Nzuri sana (Very fine)

Wageni, mwakaribishwa (Guests, you're welcome)

Tanzania yetu (Our Tanzania) - original : Kilimanjaro yetu

Hakuna matata (No worries)


"Jambo Bwana": From Kenyan Roots to Disney's "Hakuna Matata" This song is very well know all over the world.
"Jambo Bwana," a Swahili greeting meaning "Hello, sir," initially found its rhythm in the Kenyan music scene thanks to the band Them Mushrooms. Composed by Teddy Kalanda Harrison in the 1980s, it was a homage to Mount Kilimanjaro. These days this joyful song welcomes hotel guests all over Tansania and celebrates Tansanias landscapes and the welcoming spirit of its people.
The tune's fame soared when Disney featured it in "The Lion King" as "Hakuna Matata." This adaptation by Timon and Pumbaa added a carefree vibe to the movie, making "Jambo Bwana" a global symbol of African warmth and hospitality. Some of the Matlai team members are singing here for you:


The power of unity through language
Zanzibar's linguistic history is closely linked to its past. Tribal conflicts threatened harmony. It was Julius Nyerere, former president of Tanzania, who then recognized the importance of language in promoting unity and preventing conflict. His vision of a unified language led to the widespread use of Swahili. This decision bridged communication gaps, and created a strong sense of community among the diverse tribes that lived on mainland Tanzania and on the islands.


Varied dialects
Although Swahili is the lingua franca of Zanzibar, it is worth noting that the language varies in different regions. There are different dialects of Swahili in Zanzibar, giving each village its own charm. Even on the mainland, Swahili can have a wide variety of dialects that show the adaptability of the language.

Words with influences from other languages
The charm of Swahili extends to its vocabulary, where you will find words borrowed from different languages. For example, "daktari" for doctor, "shule" for school (from the German "Schule"), and "kilomita" for kilometer represent the rich linguistic diversity of Swahili, in which foreign influences combine seamlessly with native words.


Helpful words for your stay
1. karibu - welcome
2. ndiyo - yes
3. hapana - no
4. pole - sorry
5. tafadhali - please
6. asante - thank you
7. sawa - ok
8. chakula - food
9. maji - water
10.Kwaheri - goodbye
11. haraka - hurry
12. chap chap - hurry, hurry, faster, faster (slang)

Very important is also the phrase "Pole, Pole", which translated into English means something like "slowly, slowly". This usage can have different meanings.
1. relaxation: people in Zanzibar tend to lead a relaxed life and not to be stressed too much by time pressure. "Pole, Pole" encourages people to take things easy. 2. respect: when locals use this phrase, it can also serve as an expression of respect to others, emphasizing patience and consideration.
3. tourism: in the tourism sector, "Pole, Pole" is often used towards tourists to show them that they should take their time to enjoy the island instead of being stressed by a hectic schedule.

Overall, "Pole, Pole" represents the laid-back lifestyle and warm hospitality that Zanzibar is known for. It's a reminder of the importance of enjoying the moments and leaving the stress of everyday life behind.

Greetings that go beyond a simple "hello".
In Zanzibar, greetings are very important. They reflect the warmth and respect in the local culture. It's not just a matter of saying "hello." There are many ways to greet someone.
Hello: "Hujambo" - I'm fine: "Sijambo"
How are you?: "Habari Gani?" - Good: "nzuri" or Very good: "nzuri sana"
How are you doing: "Mambo vipi?" - "Fresh" (answer in english)
To old people: "Shikamoo" - "Marahaba" (literal translation: "hold on" - "congratulations")
It is also important to note that greetings often go beyond the person. People often inquire about families, loved ones, and other aspects as well.

Respectful salutations
Respect is deeply rooted in Zanzibar's culture and is reflected in how people address each other. For example:
Respectfully for younger women: "mama" (mother)
For older woman: "bibi" (lady)
Younger man: "baba" (father)
Older men: "babu" (grandfather)
Women of the same age: "dada" (sister)
Men of the same age: "kaka" (brother)
These forms of address emphasize the importance of age and experience. They strengthen bonds within families and communities.

Hakuna Matata - No Problem!
You have probably heard the well-known expression "hakuna matata" before. In Swahili it means "no problem". This saying, made famous by Disney's "The Lion King," embodies the relaxed and carefree nature of the people of Zanzibar. It is a reminder that even in the face of challenges, a positive outlook prevails.
Say yes instead of saying no
In Zanzibar, the word "no" or "I don't know" is often avoided. Instead, people tend to answer positively, even when they don't have a definitive answer. This reflects a desire to maintain harmony and preserve a sense of hospitality. The goal is to ensure that everyone feels welcome and comfortable.

In summary, Zanzibar is a place where language, culture and community come together in a network of diversity and unity. Swahili, with its rich history and dialects, is a testament to the vibrant spirit of this enchanting island. When visiting Zanzibar, remember to embrace the language, the culture and the people, and you will experience the true essence of this fascinating paradise. Hakuna matata!

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