Swahili: Kenyan vs. Tanzanian speak – round 2: Greetings

This series is aimed at humorously outlining the differences between the way Kenyans and Tanzanians express themselves in Kiswahili.

The first post of this series can be found here:

Round 1 – Public Transport

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  • Background

With little credit left on your phone and an emergency situation on your hands, you would try and make the conversation as brief and to the point as possible, right? Wrong! Prior exchange of greetings is essential to any kind of human dealing and, in Tanzania at least, you cannot by any means skip this step.

A few months ago, I was on safari in Selous Game Reserve in southern Tanzania. The Italian camp manager was sharing stories with us over dinner and she good-humouredly pointed out how there does not seem to be any occasion that would require Tanzanians to cut their greetings short! I could not agree more…and this starkly contrasts with the utter lack of small talk involved in daily encounters with Nairobians.

In my view, Tanzanians have elevated greetings into an art which they practice with much pomp and splendor. An average of 2 to 3 question/answer iterations is quite normal between strangers and the ballet can even last longer if your interlocutor is an acquaintance of some sort. I interpret this as the need for a relationship to be established before any business may be conducted.

Nairobi City Centre

  • Casual  vs. formal greetings

First of all, I’d like to say that practically all Kiswahili books I’ve come across teach you greetings I have never heard anywhere so if you’re learning Kiswahili you may as well skip that first chapter. ‘Jambo! Jambo.’, I soon discovered, is only ever used to placate tourists and using this greeting inevitably marks you as one.

In Tanzania, a casual greeting such as ‘Niaje’ or ‘Vipi?’ calls for an equally casual answer. In this domain, there is a huge variety of words to choose from and new ones are being invented every day! Here is a sample : safi (clean), freshi (from the English ‘fresh), mzuka(extremely casual and playful, I don’t know what it actually means), hamna shida/hamna noma  (There’s no problem)…

Add ‘kabisa’ to any of these for emphasis and you’re ready to hit the streets of Arusha or Tanga!

It would hardly be an exaggeration to say that in Nairobi, greetings are almost always of the casual kind, the very distinctive ‘Sasa?’ (Now?) being the most popular by my observation. Another peculiarity of Nairobian speech is that practically every greeting can be answered by ‘poa!’ or ‘poa sana!’ (cool/very cool) which is much less ubiquitous in Tanzania, as we will see in a bit. Another common answer is ‘fiti’, obviously borrowed from the English ‘fit’ whose meaning has shifted.

The respectful ‘Shikamoo? Marahaba’ normally used by Swahili speakers to address an older person, is almost unheard of in Nairobi/Central Kenya. For me, it was unsettling to say the least that people there either did not recognize this greeting or felt slightly offended I would think them old enough to be worthy of such deference!

  • Situational Greetings

To Tanzanians, replying to ‘Habari yako?’ (Literally: news of you?) by ‘Poa’ is just nonsensical because to them there is not only an appropriate greeting for each situation but also a set of possible answers to each question…In this case, a correct answer would be ‘njema‘ or ‘nzuri‘.

A typical early morning greeting could be ‘Umeamkaje?’ (how did you wake up?) whose answer is ‘Salama!’ or ‘Vyema!’. When entering an office or a shop, it is almost mandatory to ask how people are getting on with their work or their day : e.g.  ‘(Habari) za kazi?’ and follow up with a couple of other questions for good measure.

Besides, where Tanzanians would differentiate between the various times of the day (asubuhi, mchana, jioni, saa hizi), Nairobians tend to prefer the more general ‘Habari yako?’ throughout the day.

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Care to share some current examples of Kiswahili greetings? Please use the comments section or e-mail us…

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3 thoughts on “Swahili: Kenyan vs. Tanzanian speak – round 2: Greetings

  1. Real nice. I feel like there’s an infinite number of greetings and it’s kind of scary. I will be moving to Tanzania for a little while soon and I plan on learning the language but.. where to start? Hehe. How long has it taken you to get a certain “fluency”?

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