Swahili: Kenyan vs. Tanzanian speak – round 3: Polite expressions

This is the third post of a series aiming at humorously outlining the differences between the way Kenyans and Tanzanians express themselves in Swahili.

The first two posts of this series can be found here:

Round 1 – Public Transport

Round 2 – Greetings


In Tanzania, there is this whole conception of Kenyans being impolite, arrogant and generally uncivilized while Kenyans usually perceive their southern neighbors as pleasantly warm but waaaay too slow. After hearing this litany for several months from quite a number of people on both sides of the border, I set out to find out what really lied behind these ideas. Below are my thoughts on this…

  •  Use of kinship terms

One endearing feature of Tanzanian (and, as far as I’ve seen, coastal) Kiswahili is the use of kinship terms. A waitress will be ‘dada‘ (sister), a taxi driver ‘Mjomba‘ (uncle) or ‘Baba‘ (Dad) if he is older or ‘kaka‘ (brother) if he is in the same age group as you are. An older person would address me as ‘mwanangu‘ (my child) etc.

As I was pointing out in an earlier post, establishing a connection with one’s interlocutor is one of the unspoken objectives of conversation and as such, it goes well beyond the content that one is to communicate. Being a ‘mama‘ (mother) or a ‘bwana‘ (Sir)* situates one’s position in society – with all the dignity attached to it – but also relatively to the interlocutor who directly acknowledges the bond as well as the boundaries by using appropriate kinship terms.

In Nairobi, Swahili kinship terms are rarely used other than with a humorous tone. Bwana has actually passed into Sheng’ (Baana) as a sort of interjection! However, Kenyans do use English-language kinship terms. A well-behaved child will call a woman ‘auntie’ and a man ‘uncle’ even when they are not related in any way. Especially upcountry, a lady in her 20s can easily be addressed as ‘Sister’ or ‘Mum’ which would be the equivalent of ‘Dada‘ or ‘Mama‘ (it is often assumed that, passed a certain age, one must have at least one child!)

Going back to the initial argument, seen with Tanzanian eyes, Kenyans may seem cold and distant in the way they express themselves in Kiswahili. Similarly, Kenyans will consider the ‘formal familiarity’ peppering Tanzanian Kiswahili to be a tad overbearing and odd if not altogether a waste of time.

  •  Attenuating orders

Let me just say this about Nairobians; they do not burden themselves with cumbersome courtesies and expressions that go along with them. Saying ‘Tafadhali‘ (Please) is already going out of one’s way to request for something. As far as orders are concerned, pretty much anything goes: on the more polite end, we would have ‘niletee‘ (Bring me…), ‘nipe’ (Give me…), ‘nisaidie na‘ (Assist me with…) all the way down to ‘leta kachumbari‘ (Bring salad! – quite rude).

The reason why Tanzanians may appear to border on the obsequious is that they take politeness very seriously. The sesame to asking for anything is ‘naomba‘ (literally, I beg or I pray) associated with the subjunctive tense: a huge contrast to Kenya, where this phrase is taken to mean that one wishes to get something for free! So if we take the previous example, after the mandatory greetings, you would go ‘naomba kachumbari‘ or ‘naomba uniletee kachumbari‘ (literally: I beg you to bring me salad). If you just walked into a restaurant bluntly ordering ‘leta…‘ you would most certainly be met with dumb-founded stares and a pout on the waiter’s mouth.

I have to say that the first time someone in Kenya asked me to come over by saying ‘Kuja‘, I was stuck between showing them my back and putting them in their place with an eloquent 5-minute speech. In the end, I did neither…See, I had learnt that the proper way to call somebody was ‘Njoo‘ while ‘Kuja‘ was quite rude and should be confined to calling your dog for instance. Apparently, not many Kenyans are aware of the nuance so I had to adjust but I have never come around to letting go of ‘njoo‘ myself.

From my observation, all these verbal niceties, essential to maintain smooth relations in Tanzania, tend to irritate Kenyans. Cultural mishaps, they said?

*It is to be noted that ‘Bwana’ or ‘Bwana mkubwa’ has colonial undertones as this is what white settlers used to be addressed as.


8 thoughts on “Swahili: Kenyan vs. Tanzanian speak – round 3: Polite expressions

  1. you wrote: “on the more polite end, we would have ‘niletee‘ (Would you bring me…), ‘nipe’ (Would you give me…), ‘nisaidie na‘ (Would you assist me with…) all the way down to ‘leta kachumbari‘ (Bring salad!).”

    I’d disagree with you on your translation of those words: As I learnt them (in Tanzania), they do not at all include “Would you”. They way you translate them, it sounds relatively “polite” and is even a question. However, I believe they are simply “Commands”, which is why they sound so impolite! “nipe” simply means “Give me” and not “would you give me”. Huge difference.

    • Point taken! It is true that translating by ‘Would you …’ sounds too polite in this particular case. I was trying to show the nuance between ‘leta!’ which is plain rude and ‘niletee’ which is a bit more acceptable but not yet polite by Tanzanian standards.

  2. Ninafurahia kusoma posts yako. I am an American who has been learning Kiswahili. I have not been to Africa. But, in the states I interact with people from Kenya, Congo and Tanzania. I have noticed the various differences with greetings and language usage. Your post are helpful in explaining the differences. Recently, I heard a Kenyan woman tell someone kuja! Kuja! I thought it should be njoo. Glad to know njoo is correct. Also, I greeted a man from Tanzania then after the greeting he asked me who was helping me learn Swahili. I told him a friend from Kenya. He taught me a different greeting and joking told me to use his greeting and not speak Kenyan. I did not understand but now I do after reading your post. Uendelee kuandika post yako kwa sababu nitaendelea kuisoma post yako. Unafanya kazi nzuri.

    • Thank you for your comment, June! I understand how it might be confusing for you to learn from people of different backgrounds, especially without much context. Umejitahidi lakini!

    • Vizuri. Hongera sana. I have seen videos of Americans talking fluent kiswahili on youtube. I am Kenyan, we Kenyans can also speak fluent kiswahili because in class we are taught fluent Kiswahili but in the streets Kenyans speak “Sheng” which is like a version of “Pidgin Kiswahili”. Our lovely neighbours the Tanzanians have specialized and owned the Swahili language something I would compare to how England has specialized in English which is a very good thing. I love listening to Tanzanians speak Kiswahili because of how fluent it sounds when they talk and am sure am not the only Kenyan who admires them.

  3. Huyo June, mbishi wa kweli. Kwa mtu ambaye anajifunza huko Uzunguni – halafu aandikie maelezo kama hayo, amejitahidi! Lakini pia naweza kusema ya kwamba ndugu umeandika kadiri ipasavyo! Hongera!

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