Planning an East African safari?  you may need to learn a phrase or two in Swahili – one of the most widely spoken languages across the African continent. Here are some interesting facts about the Swahili language and culture …

Swahili is the official language in Tanzania and Kenya and is also widely spoken in Uganda, the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Comoros Islands. It’s also spoken by smaller numbers in Somalia, Burundi, Rwanda, Northern Zambia, Malawi and Mozambique.

Interesting facts about the swahili language and culture_infographicImage Source

Even though less than five million people consider Swahili to be their mother tongue, Swahili is one of the most widely spoken languages across the African continent with more than 140 million speakers – 2nd most widespread language after Arabic.

Interesting facts about the swahili language and culture_peoplePhotos of Swahili people

Surprisingly colonialism aided the spread of Swahili. Rather than suppressing the use of Swahili, European colonialists chose to adopt the language, continuing its use as a common tool of communication. German colonial powers were especially zealous in their adoption of the Swahili language (apparently the German language was too ‘precious’  to be taught to ‘natives’), making extensive use of Swahili as the administrative language of Tanganyika (present-day Tanzania). This policy was later adapted by the British who took over Tanganyika after the first world war and would extend the same to neighboring Kenya.

Interesting facts about the swahili language and culture_colonial educationColonial Education Tanganyika. Image Source

Swahili is said to be an easy African language for an English speaker to learn. It’s one of the few sub-Saharan African languages that have no lexical tone, just like in English. It’s also much easier to read as you read out Swahili words just the way they are written.

Interesting facts about the swahili language and culture_words


The Arabic language has had a significant influence on Swahili – a significant proportion of the Swahili vocabulary comes from Arabic. This stems from the centuries of contact between inhabitants of the eastern coast of Africa and Arabic traders. Swahili is a member of the Bantu group, despite its heavy Arabic influence. Swahili’ was the word used by Arab visitors to East Africa to describe ‘the coast’ The first Arab visitors to East Africa used the word “Swahili” to describe the coastal region in general, and it gradually came to apply to the distinctive East African culture in that area.

Here are some words.

Swahili Arabic Meaning
hatari خطر Danger. Also the  title of a 1962 movie starring John Wayne, set in Africa.
Safari سفر Travel. Also: trip
mahali محل Place
vitabu كتاب Book
msumari مسمار Nail
kata قطع Cut, chop
habari خبر news
huru حر free
dhamiri ضمير conscience
kamusi قاموس dictionary
baridi بارد cold
samahani سامحني forgive me, excuse me
rafiki رفيق companion, friend
tafadhali تفضل please
furahi فرح happy


The Arabic and Persian influence is very much present in the Swahili cuisine. Most of the cooking is rich in spices – the use of coconut, cardamom, garlic, saffron, turmeric, and pilau masala – a unique mix of black pepper, ginger, cinnamon, cardamom, cloves and cumin used in many rice and stew recipes. Popular Swahili dishes include biriani, mseto, vitumbua, haluwa, kaimati, mshikaki, mahamri, pilau, boko boko

Interesting facts about the swahili language and culture_cuisine


Swahili time starts at 6 a.m. Like many African cultures, Swahili culture dictates that the telling of time begins at 6 a.m. So double check if you’re told to arrive somewhere at a specific time, as you may need to tack on six hours.

Interesting facts about the swahili language and culture_timeImage Source


‘Methali’ wise sayings or a form of wordplay, puns, and lyrical rhyming, is a defining feature of the Swahili language and culture. Taking the form of parables, proverbs, and, more recently, rap music, methali is extremely prevalent in Swahili-speaking regions.

Poetic and musical expression is an important feature of the Swahili culture. Swahili music, Taarab, is poetically very rich. The traditional Taarab rhythm is a slow beat that borrows heavily from Indian and Arabic melody

Taarab melody

The ‘kanga’ is a popular swahili garment. The KANGA is a rectangle of pure cotton cloth with a border all around it, printed in bold designs and bright colours and a Swahili saying or slogan inscribed at the bottom. . The kanga is the ultimate public billboard for personal feelings. This phrase, called the jina, can be a useful communication tool. For example a woman who’s upset with a friend might give or wear a kanga with a phrase like “njia ya mwongo ni fupi,” which means “the days of a liar are numbered.”

Kangas are extremely popular throughout East Africa not only for clothing but for their multiple uses. Husbands  give kangas to wives. children to their mothers, a woman may split a pair to give half to her best friend, babies are virtually born into them, and are usually carried in a soft sling of kanga cloth.

Interesting facts about the swahili language and culture_the kangaThe Kanga. Image source

Interesting facts about the swahili language and culture_traditional kangaWomen dressed in Kangas

Interesting facts about the swahili language and culture_adaptations of the kangaSaying it with the kanga, celebrities such as Rihanna and US first lady Michele Obama wearing stylish garments made from the kanga cloth.

Swahili’s international appeal has also been helped by the use of its phrases in a number of popular films like the Lion King, and Out of Africa. Renowned musicians like Michael Jackson, Lionel Ritchie, Miriam Makeba and others have used Swahili in some of their compositions. In Michael Jackson’s song ‘Liberian girl’ the African lyrics in the intro aren’t Liberian, they’re Swahili.

The popular word  safari means journey in Swahili. In English it means an expedition to observe, hunt animals in their natural habitats e.g. National Parks in Africa or even Australia.

‘ Hakuna matata’ is the most popular quote and means no worries. The phrase gained international recognition after it was used in the animated movie The Lion King. The names of the main characters Simba, Sarabi, Rafiki, and Pumbaa are also swahili words. They mean lion, mirage, friend, and foolish.

Interesting facts about the swahili language and culture_lion kingImage source

The African-American holiday ‘Kwanzaa’ is named after the Swahili word meaning ‘to begin’. Kwanzaa is a seven-day a cultural celebration of African-American culture and heritage. Kwanzaa” is derived from Swahili phrase matunda ya kwanza, which means “fresh fruits” or “first fruits,” and is used in relation to the first harvest of the year.

The seven principles of Kwanzaa, called ‘Nguzo Saba’ are also called by Swahili names i.e. Umoja (Unity), Kujichagulia (Self-Determination), Ujima (Collective Work and Responsibility), Ujamaa (Cooperative Economics), Nia (Purpose), Kuumba (Creativity), and Imani (Faith).

The choice of Swahili, an East African language, reflects its status as a symbol of Pan-Africanism, especially in the 1960s, since East African nations were not involved in the Atlantic slave trade that brought African people to America.

Interesting facts about the swahili language and culture_kwanzaaAfrican Americans celebrating Kwanzaa. Image source

The broadcast media have also contributed immensely to the spread and popularization of Swahili. It is probably the most widely used African language in radio broadcasts in the world. You can tune in to Swahili programs in major broadcasting houses like VOA (America), BBC (England), and Deutsche Welle (Germany). It is also heard in broadcasts in India, Japan, and China

Interesting facts about the swahili language and culture_bbc swahili


Interested in learning Swahili? you can get that at a learning institution near you. Swahili is taught in many leading academic institutions in Africa, Europe, America and Asia. It is offered as a subject of study in prestigious universities like Harvard, Yale, Stanford, Princeton, the University of Pennsylvania and many others. It is estimated that close to a hundred institutions teach Swahili in the U.S. alone. Swahili has been taught in S.O.A.S. at the University of London since the 1930s. It is also taught in Canada, Germany, Poland, Mexico, Russia, Japan, India, and many other countries.

Interesting facts about the swahili language and culture_studentsAmerican collage students in Zanzibar. Image source.

Finally what better way to conclude with some chart topping swahili hits.




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  1. Hakquim
    May 24, 2015 at 12:06 am — Reply

    Asanteni kwa kutupatia historia ya kiswahili. Hii ni dhihirisho ya kwamba kiswahili ni lugha inayokua kila uchau. Inafaa kila binadamu hasa wa bara la Afrika kuipenda lugha hii.

    Na iwe bora zaidi kueneza habari hii njema kwenye tovuti ya “Facebook”, na kwingineko kwote!

    • June 18, 2015 at 1:19 pm — Reply

      I was going to reply in Swahili but I gave up.I have not written a paragrph in Swahili sanifu since my days of writing inshas in highschool.

  2. Salim Manase
    May 24, 2015 at 10:40 am — Reply

    Nilidhani mtaandika makala haya kwa kiswahili, lakini nafurahi kuona habari za kiswahili – Hii ni dhihirisho tosha ya kwamba lugha hii inakua na ni ya kimataifa.

  3. May 24, 2015 at 10:00 pm — Reply

    Wonderful read and as per usual amazing read. It is funny as my niece was at a book fair recently, and saw a book on Swahili language. She bought it for me because she knew that I would appreciate it.

  4. May 25, 2015 at 12:22 am — Reply

    This is so fascinating and interesting. I’ll definitely have to remember to add on 6 hours for Swahili time. Some of the food seems similar to what I had in Malaysia, probably because there is a lot of Muslim influence there and it’s along a seafaring trade route, too. It’s good to know that Hakuna Matata really does mean “no worries” as the song says.

  5. May 25, 2015 at 4:24 am — Reply

    LOVE this post! I’ve learned so much. I especially find it interesting that colonialism didn’t discourage Swahili. I’d love to learn Swahili someday. My niece and nephew (twins) actually have Swahili names.

    • May 27, 2015 at 10:28 am — Reply

      I may be biased but I think Swahili is very simple to learn so you just go ahead and get started. If you don’t ind me asking what are their (your niece and nephew) names?

      • June 2, 2015 at 7:40 am — Reply

        Jamelah and Kamani. I believe Kamani is traditionally a girl’s name, but my nephew is named Kamani. My brother read in a book that it means “sailor”. Not sure if that’s correct though.

  6. May 25, 2015 at 10:34 am — Reply

    Rachael, Fascinating facts! I love learning languages, and would love to learn some conversational Swahili!

    Yay Team #wkendtravelinspiration!

  7. May 25, 2015 at 2:21 pm — Reply

    So loaded with interesting information, and a page I will book mark as I really hope to get to East Africa someday. I love the colorful photos. BTW – I had no idea Hakuna matata was actually a real expression.

  8. May 25, 2015 at 2:46 pm — Reply

    Wow! This is such a great post. I had no idea that Swahili was the official language of Kenya! I thought it was English, with that as a second official language. We call the cloth Ankara in Nigeria. The food looks mouth watering, and is making me very hungry, thank God l am about to eat. Great pictures as usual.

    • May 27, 2015 at 10:36 am — Reply

      Swahili food is the best, they’ve mastered the use of spices so you can never have a bad (genuine) Swahili meal. Everything is so flavourful and delicious. I can’t take credit for the pictures this time, thanks Google!

  9. Kenimoja
    May 25, 2015 at 8:00 pm — Reply

    Ati, Germans thought their language was too good for the natives, no wonder wa Tz are so good in swa. Plus twerking in that Diamond video …. wacha tu!

    • May 27, 2015 at 10:21 am — Reply

      Yes the twerking! I wish I had half the skills they do.

  10. Manesha
    May 27, 2015 at 10:45 am — Reply

    I was going to attempt to write in Kiswahili until I read the first two posts. they put my thoughts to shame. Kiswahili Kitukuzwe!!

    • June 2, 2015 at 7:03 pm — Reply

      LOL. I know the feeling, I attempted to reply to the comments but I kept second guessing myself.

  11. May 29, 2015 at 7:16 am — Reply

    This was such an interesting read and I learned so much. All these years I didn’t know I knew a few words in Swahili thanks to the Lion King. Beautiful photos here too.

  12. December 16, 2015 at 5:07 pm — Reply

    Very interesting post about our language ‘Swahili’. My best part of the article was the top charts….its like you read my mind. Those are my best Swahili Songs…well and recently Cheketua by Ali Kiba.

    • February 2, 2016 at 11:53 am — Reply

      Ali Kiba is a master lyricist. I love ‘Mapenzi yana run dunia’

  13. […] Swahili women donning traditional leso outfits. Source. […]

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