Communicating in Tanzania

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May 30th 2012
Published: May 30th 2012
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It's two weeks before I return to Tanzania and friends and former projects. I am reminded of the journal I kept in 1991-1993 long before the word blog was known and years before Tanzania had internet. I think it will be interesting to revisit my entries and look with fresh eyes at those cultural clashes that are inevitable.

As I attempt to remember my Swahili, I remember some of the learnings of my first experiences with the language and the speakers:

Communicating in Tanzania

Tanzania has 127 living languages and at least half a dozen dialects in each one. No, don’t despair. Thanks to Mwalimu Nyerere, President of Tanzania 1964-1985 who had a collectivist philosophy known as “ujaama”, Tanzanians all share one common language-Kiswahili or Swahili. Educated urban Tanzanians learn English in secondary school, a vestige of the old colonial system; however, you should know that less than 14%!o(MISSING)f the population enroll in secondary school. It’s a rather gloomy picture and adult education is not high on the political agenda. About 5%!o(MISSING)f the population feel comfortable conversing in English

The reality is that it is impossible to hold a conversation with the majority of people you will meet. So, what do you do?

If you are observant, you will soon learn to interpret Tanzanian body language. Note the long greetings. Smile. Tanzanians are genuinely friendly and appreciate your attempts to speak their language. They will often do everything possible to find someone who might understand you.

Refrain from a few customary habits from your own culture.

The Come hither index finger motion. You were probably not enslaved by German or British colonialists so will not have a visceral response to the pointed index finger. Tanzanians do. Use it only for dogs.

If you pick up languages readily, you will learn some essentials. Swahili is phonetic and as long as you remember to stress the second last syllable usually marked by a vowel, you’ll be well on your way to picking up some basics. Your guidebook undoubtedly has a list of essential vocabulary.

Try these:

Vipi Mambo?

How’s it going?

Safi sana.



Shikamoo Mama


I kiss your feet



Fine with me

For the real keeners, taking an introductory course in Swahili can be useful. In a Beginners course you will will learn such basics as:

Mdudu yule ni kipepeo, si nyaki.

(That insect is a butterfly not a bee)


Mbwa yule mdogo anachukia paka huyu mweusi

. (That small dog likes this black cat)


Wakubwa wote si wabaya, na watu wadogo wote si wazuri

. All the bigshots aren’t so bad and the ordinary folks aren’t all great.

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