April 14, 2022
“Hakuna Matata” said Joey, my outspoken newfound friend from Ohio. I was new in the United States and fortunately, it had been really easy to get along with Joey thanks to his outgoing nature and warmth towards total strangers. But here was another reason. He was speaking Swahili!
“Eti?” I asked turning to face him.
“What?” He asked looking puzzled.
“What did you just say?”
“Yes! I did not know you speak Swahili.”
“Oh, no,” he said laughing. “Wait, that’s Swahili?”
“You didn’t know?”
“Not at all! I just know the phrase from The Lion King.”
“Oh, I see!” I said comprehension dawning on me.
“It means “no worries”?”
“Yes. It is one of the most common Swahili phrases there is.” I said realizing that thanks to popular culture, some common Swahili phrases are much more popular than I had imagined. Hakuna Matata was particularly popularized in East Africa by the Kenyan band, Them Mushrooms, through their timeless 1982 song “Jambo Bwana,” before Disney appropriated it in The Lion King catapulting its popularity and making it arguably the most common Swahili words and phrases in the world.
Jambo and Jambo bwana run a close second in the list of the most common basic Swahili language phrases. Jambo means “Hello” and bwana translates to “mister.” But loose employment of bwana as “friend,” “mate,” or “guest” is common, allowing the phrase to be applicable to all people regardless of gender.
The title of Them Mushrooms’ aforementioned song, Jambo bwana is one of the most common Swahili phrases among Kenyans and tourists in East Africa. Apart from the popularity that the phrase derives from the song, Kenya uses it in marketing itself as a warm welcoming tourist destination. These two factors explain why the phrase finds itself in the company of the most common Swahili phrases.
Habari gani? literally “What’s the news?” but applied to mean “How are you?” “How are things?” or “What’s the latest from you?” is another common Swahili phrase.
Also a lyric from the song, this popular phrase is also a common greeting among Swahili speakers hence its place in the list of common Swahili phrases.
Mzuri sana! “Very well,” a response to the Habari gani? greeting, is ipso facto, one of the most common Swahili phrases. The phrase is also a lyric in the Them Mushrooms’ song but besides that, it is on the lips of most if not all Swahili speakers as they exchange greetings.
Other common Swahili phrases include Mambo vipi? “How is everything?,” and Poa sana! “Excellent!” These variations of Habari gani? and Mzuri sana! are common Swahili phrases among younger people who tend to lean towards speaking in Sheng, a Kenyan language variety based on Swahili.
Poa is sheng for “great,” “wonderful,” or “excellent.” Though it is Sheng, the phrase earns its place in the list of most common Swahili phrases because along with several other Sheng words and phrases, most Swahili speakers happen to prefer it over its standard Swahili counterpart.
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.