Swahili : Kenyan vs. Tanzanian speak – round 1: public transport

I cannot by any stretch of the imagination be considered an authority in Kiswahili. However, having lived on both sides of the 254/255* divide, I have been given to observe a couple of linguistic pearls here and there, which I am always happy to share. 
This series of posts is aimed at humorously outlining the differences between the way Kenyans and Tanzanians express themselves in Kiswahili.


Some time back, the idea dawned on me to draft a guidebook to public transport in East Africa but I somehow never got down to putting pen to paper. Instead, I have gathered a number of mental notes which I sometimes like to reveal if I feel the audience is receptive…and from the look of it, the differences in language use are hysterical to Kenyans and Tanzanians alike.

Perched birds

These guys have their own ride!

The first culture shock when moving to Kenya from Tanzania was the fact that the daladala was now called a matatu. Literally, matatu means ‘three things of the ji/ma noun class‘. Legend has it that the fare used to be 3 Shillings per person (mashilingi matatu) and that the vehicle itself thus eventually came to be known as matatu. Interestingly, the story behind the Tanzanian name for minibus also has to do with the fare…which used to be 5 Shillings or dala in local slang! The wapigadebe (sg. mpigadebe, conductor) would hang out the door announcing the fare ‘dala dala‘ which was later adopted as the colloquial name for a minibus!

Passed the first hurdle of knowing what to call the minibus, we move on to paying the nauli (fare): try to keep a straight face when asked by your random Kenyan makanga (conductor/tout) to hand him mbao. As far as I was concerned, mbao meant wood! Well not so in Nairobi, where everybody takes it for granted that mbao is 20 shillings!

Requesting for a stop is another point where the Tanzanian and the Kenyan versions of the language are at odds. In Tanzania, I have heard and used in various instances ‘shusha!’ (let me get down!) , ‘acha!‘ and ‘simama!’ (Stop!) being yelled from the back seat while Kenyans seem to prefer the – very creative – ‘shukisha!’ (same as shusha, but with an extra ki in the middle…) sometimes switched for  the more sober ‘toa!’ (take out!) or ‘weka!’ (Put down!).

If there is something I miss from Moshi daladalas, it is the stops being announced. Of course, quite a number of people need to get down to make way for just one person whishing to alight, which is an occasion like another to start some light chit-chat. It would go roughly like this:

Mpigadebe: >>> Name of the stop <<< , mpo? (Pause) Hamna?

Passenger(s): Naam, tupo!

(to another passenger) Tafadhali, nipishe.

Shusha >>>Name of the stop <<< !!

M : Sawa dada, njoo. Umeshapewa chenji au bado?

… na kuendelea.

But at the end of it all, it always comes down to the same daunting task: fitting as many people as is humanely possible in a 14-seater vehicle! This is where Kenyans and Tanzanians come together and make love triumph. If you are told ‘tupendane‘ (let’s love each other), you are not being hit on by a dodgy guy but simply asked to squeeze along to create space for that extra passenger who, of course, happens to be carrying a ton of bags…

Tired of mininuses? Try this out:

road sign: horse-drawn cart

Isn’t this just the thing? Just you, your horse and the screeching wheels on the path…


Admittedly, my perspective might be biased by the fact that I have only experienced life in the capital city of Kenya as opposed to Tanzania where I was staying in a small town. This said, I welcome your input and am more than willing to edit the content based on readers’ suggestions!

Kindly use the comments section below or e-mail it away to africanpoetry@gmail.com.

* Note: 254 and 255 are international calling codes for Kenya and Tanzania respectively.


11 thoughts on “Swahili : Kenyan vs. Tanzanian speak – round 1: public transport

  1. Thank you but the poem was not by me! All the credit goes to Mwangi wa Mwangi…

    I invite contributions by language enthusiasts who write in or about African languages. If you know anybody who would like to be featured here, please let me know!

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