It’s crucial to learn a few key phrases when traveling. This is a short and somewhat ridiculous guide to remember key Swahili words by using the method of loci.

For those of you who are linguistically challenged: Swahili is an East African language spoken mostly in Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, Mozambique and Congo. Approx. 100 million people speak it and it has crept into western pop culture most predominantly through instances within “Lion King”: i.e. Simba means lion, Rafiki means friend, and the infamous hakuna matata catch phrase translates to there is no problem’. Other examples include the game Jenga which is a kiswahili root word for ‘build’, and the popular African American holiday of Kwanzaa is taken from the phrase ‘matunda ya kwanza’ – meaning ‘the first fruits of the harvest’.

It’s a beautiful language and its unique sounds apply well to the method of loci, something I started actively doing after reading “Moonwalking with Einstein” by Joshua Foer. Essentially, this method of memorization employs our brain’s evolved spatial memory by using physical visualization to organize and recall information. I highly suggest reading the book for more info!

Below is a guide to my ‘memory palace’, perhaps it will help you with yours:

  • karibu – welcome/you’re welcome
    I always thought a caribou was an African animal (kind of like an Ox) and envisioned one standing on the plains of Africa welcoming us to the continent. I was wrong – this animal lives in northern climates and is essentially a reindeer. SO a caribou welcomes christmas and brings you presents with Santa – for which you are welcome. Still works.
  • Asante (sana) – Thank you (very much)
    In french, “enchanté” means “pleased to meet you” or “my pleasure”. It is said between strangers when they meet for the first time, and really sounds like ‘asante‘. Thank you leads to my pleasure. Asante – enchanté. If you don’t speak french… just think of Ja Rule and Ashanti – and thank god they stopped making music! Thank you Ashanti! If you need a jingle to remember this one, Rafiki in Lion King sings “Asante Sana, Squash Banana” to Simba. Nothing better than a rhyme to get your memory going.
  • Samahani – excuse me/sorry
    When a young man walks down the street in the summer and sees a beautiful girl – he might say “excuse me, summer hunny” to get her attention. (i.e. to call someone a “hun” or honey, as in sweet.) Young sly people mutter fast these days: excuse me, samahani.
  • jambo – hello*
    When I first heard the word jambo, the Dixie Cup’s song “iko iko” came to mind because I thought it said “jambo” in it. I was wrong – it’s actually something closer to “jack-a-mo” and comes from phrases chanted by Mardi Gras Indians in New Orleans. My version still works great for Swahili purposes though:  hey now hey now – jambo jambo-a-ne. *This is said to tourists mostly, locals would probably prefer the below. (Sasa/Mambo is also tourist slang for hello.)
  • Shikamoo – a proper form of greeting hello, especially your elders.
    I loved Ace Ventura as a kid and the word Shikaka has stuck. (Shikaka: The great white bat which you must bow to whenever its name is said.) Proper, elder, and of great importance – Shikaka. Shikamoo. Close enough
  • Hapana – no
    *You will need to get very familiar with “NO, thank you” when traveling in countries where street haggling is appropriate. Learn to say it firmly in the local language and people will leave you alone. Thus I changed all my African no’s to ‘hope not’. As in: I hope not to go there. I hope not to be bothered. I hope not to eat that. Hope nothapana (asante)
  • chakula – food
    I speak Russian, so I think of chuckling sharks eating food. Shark in Russian is ‘akula’. But food, in any culture, makes everyone happy and thus we chuckle when eating – chakula.
  • Ni bei gani – how much is it
    This is my favourite one! In the USA, any given person will one day ask the price of the following common “needs”:  Knee surgery, Bay docking (for yachts, i.e. the 1%), Guns, and ecstasy. How much is it? Knee – Bay – Gun – E. Ni bei gani. I’ll probably remember this one forever!
  • Choo – toilet.
    You need to poo? Go to the choo. People also sometimes go to the toilet when they sneeze?  a-choo.
  • Nimepotea / Nimepoteza – I’m lost/I lost…
    Nimo (the fish) got lost and this might have happened after spoking pot. Nimo-pot. Nimepotea. (i.e. Nimo the pothead drinking a tea to relax after getting lost.) Sure it’s a little creative and wacky, but this is the type of stuff you don’t forget!
  • Tafadhali – please
    Arabic in nature, this was a difficult one for me as it doesn’t quite sound like anything ‘please’ related. I simply avoided being polite. For the sake of this exercise however, I would lean towards an image of a ‘muslim cathedral made of toffee’ for the arabic T, D and L sounds. Bare with me… A toffeedral? Religion aims to be polite. You need to please your god. Toffeedral. Tafadhali. It’s not very memorable… I’ll keep working on this one.
  • Ndiyo – yes
    When a friend asks to hang out, assuming you have work or school, it’s a yes “but only at the eND of the DAY YO.” Yes? Ndiyo.

Animal Tour Specific:

  • safari – walkabout, travel, journey
    The western world has been misusing safari for years, as it means any journey in general. But as languages borrow and evolve from one another – Africans now generally also understand this word as the “animal sightseeing” we are all accustomed to. It is so  deeply engraved in western culture you probably already know this one.
  • Twiga – Giraffe
    If you want to impress your ‘safari’ operator, giraffes are the twigs of the animal kingdom. Very easy: The walking twiga.
  • Duma – Cheetah
    Cheetahs are similar cats to pumas, but a different colour. Different puma: duma.
  • Ingonyama – lion (in zulu!)
    *Fun fact to finish this off, the Lion King’s Circle of Life song is not swahili – it is another similar language called Zulu. (Simba is lion in swahili) The song goes “Nants ingonyama bagithi Baba. [Here comes a lion, Father] Sithi uhm ingonyama. [Oh yes, it’s a lion]”. To help you sing and remember, should you be in a position to break in song, think of what one might say to a friend if a lion started to approach: “I’m gone, ya man” Ingonyama.

 The last few might have been a stretch.

Hope that helps!

Star Trek’s Lieutenant Uhura takes her name from the Swahili word uhuru which means “freedom.” Uhuru is also the tallest point on Kilimanjaro. Read about my climb and tips on surviving Kilimajaro here.
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