June 13, 2022
There are many Swahili language words that are ubiquitous in the prevailing popular culture around the world. Some of them are so rampant that people know and even use them, sometimes without knowing that they are Swahili language words. This article will explore some of the Swahili you are likely to already know and hopefully inspire you to learn Swahili.
Hakuna and matata are by far the most famous Swahili language words. The two Swahili language words of course owe their popularity to the phrase they together form, Hakuna matata, which features heavily in the Kenyan band Them Mushroom’s 1982 song, “Jambo Bwana.” In turn, it is thanks to the band (Them Mushrooms) that the phrase, and hence its constituent Swahili language words, is so famous among East Africans.
Meaning “no worries,” these Swahili language words are easily applicable in people’s day-to-day activities including as a response to greetings and as assurance regarding issues in daily interactions among people of all walks of life. The phrase Hakuna matata is moreover famous around the globe thanks to its employment in Disney’s The Lion King. Because of the phrase’s heavy presence in popular culture, the two Swahili language words are known to many people who do not even speak Swahili, possibly including yourself.
Jambo and bwana, the two Swahili language words that entitle the band Them Mushrooms’ aforementioned 1982 song are also extremely popular and known to many people who do not necessarily speak Swahili. Jambo means “Hello” and bwana translates to “mister.” However, loose employment of bwana as “friend,” “mate,” or “guest” is common, allowing the phrase to be applicable to all people regardless of gender.
The greetings phrase, Jambo bwana, resulting from these two common words, is one of the most common/basic Swahili phrases among Kenyans and tourists in East Africa. Apart from the popularity that the phrase derives from the band’s song, the words are known to most, if not all visitors of Kenya, as the nation’s tourism industry uses these words to market itself as a warm welcoming tourist destination.
Pervasive in print and broadcast media as well as in people’s daily interactions in Kenya and Tanzania as well as the rest of East Africa, the Swahili language words jambo and bwana are known to many, including non-speakers of Swahili.
Simba and rafiki are two other Swahili language words that may be known to many people including non-speakers of Swahili. Simba, Swahili for “lion,” and rafiki, its counterpart for “friend,” feature as character names in Disney’s The Lion King. The film’s popularity has no doubt exposed audiences all over the world to the two Swahili language words.
Habari and gani, Swahili language words that form the greetings phrase – Habari gani? literally “What’s the news?” but applied to mean “How are you?” “How are things?” or “What’s the latest from you?” are also widely known Swahili language words.
Mzuri and sana, the two Swahili language words that make up the response to Habari gani? are ipso facto widely known too. Mzuri sana! means “very well.”
Kimathi got his education degree to teach Swahili at the University of Nairobi and taught Swahili language and literature at a high school there for three years before coming to the US for graduate studies. He has worked as a translator and editor for the last few years as well as teaching Swahili language and African cultural studies classes at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.