Ramani ya Tanzania (Map of Tanzania)

                                                                                UTANGULIZI                                                                                                                                       (Introduction)

Kiswahili is a lingua franca in East and Central Africa.  A lingua franca is a language that people from different cultures use when neither conversant knows the language of the other.

Its origins cannot be traced to any specific traditional culture or kingdom.  It developed as a trade language among Bantu/Abantu cultures.  To western linguists the term Bantu identifies a grammatical approach to language that is shared by Abantu peoples.  In the various Abantu languages, this word means people.

Today it is the hope and dream and challenge of many to make Kiswahili a continental language that will be spoken from the Indian Ocean to the Atlantic Ocean, from the Mediterranean Sea to the Cape of Good Hope.

This hope is in concert with the humanistic goal of eradicating “race” from the social tools that bring us together and delineate us; the human family.  Today Kiswahili is studied at major universities all over the world.  It is one of the official languages of the African Union.  It is offered by Google as an internet language.  Language is communication, and communication is a tool that has the potential to minimize the importance of physical differences and emphasize cultural similarities and the appreciation of cultural uniqueness.  There are Abantu cultures all over the African continent.

The history of Kiswahili is unique.  There are many theories on its origins.  Of  interest to the goals of MSIMAMO is the fact that it has always been a language that has brought people together from many diverse cultures.

The prime example of this coming together is the national unity

found in the United Republic of Tanzania.  The catalyst of this unity

was the leadership of Tanzania’s first president, Marehemu, Mheshimiwa, Baba wa Taifa, Julius Kambarage Nyerere

(The late, respected, father of the nation).  Kiswahili was not his mother-tongue, yet he mastered it and established a standard for the education of Tanzanians by translating two of the works of William Shakespeare to Kiswahili.   Today in Tanzania, Kiswahili is the language of Parliament (Bunge).  Along with English, it is the language of instruction from primary to graduate studies.

It is the language of popular music which has embraced conscious rap and hip hop.  Kiswahili is spoken throughout East Africa and the eastern part of the Kongo.  Tanzanian musicians are known throughout this area as well as in Europe and Asia.  Their command of the language has given them a competitive edge over musicians from neighboring countries.

Linguistic unity can facilitate cultural and political unity.  There is and has been a school of thought that has advocated emulating the political model of the United States:  To bring about a continental government, one central government for the whole of Africa!

This section of MSIMAMO has two goals:  To teach Kiswahili and to share some of my personal experiences in learning the language in story and poetic form.

I have had the pleasure of visiting Kenya and Tanzania approximately twenty five or more times over a span of forty years beginning in 1973.  These stories and poems will highlight some of the experiences that I had in those journeys.

Karibuni nyote!   Tujifunze kusema Kiswahili!

(Welcome to all!  Let’s learn to speak Kiswahili!)

                                      SARUFI  (GRAMMAR)



There are twenty four letters in the Kiswahili alphabet, Q and X being absent.  There are twenty six consonants and five vowels.  Consonant

clusters are also common.  (See exercise two)

One of the easiest aspects of Kiswahili is that each letter of the alphabet always represents the same sound.  The exception is consonant clusters.

However these clusters are always pronounced the same way.

The vowels are the most important sounds to pronounce correctly, since mis-pronunciation of these can confuse the listener and result in miss-communication.

The five vowel sounds in Kiswahili are:

                             A   E   I   O   U

They sound like the vowels in the Romance languages:  Spanish, Italian, Portuguese

has the sound of “Aaah”.

E  has the sound of “A” as in “Hay”or “Hey”.

I   has the sound of “E” as in “See” or “Key”.

O is the same as in English:  “Oh!”  or “So”.  This is the most commonly mispronounced of the Kiswahili vowels.  It must never be pronounced long as in “Go” or “Do”

U  has the sound of “Do” or “Uuu!” or “Flew”.

                                                        MORPHOLOGY OF KISWAHILI

Kiswahili like other Abantu languages uses a morphological system of prefixes, infixes, and suffixes.  A phoneme can have more than one morphological function based on its position in a verb conjugation.  A verb conjugation can be a clause, phrase, or a sentence in Kiswahili.  A verb conjugation is morphologically determined to include a subject marker, tense marker, and verb stem.

                                                       ZOEZI LA KWANZA  (First Exercise)

Pronunciation:  Zo-e-zii la Kwan-za  Stress always occurs on the penultimate (second to last) syllable of a word.


Consonants never vary in sound.  The following is the list of consonants and examples of their phonics in Kiswahili.

B as in “bad”   e.g.    [baba]        “father”

C is only clustered with H as CH and is pronounced as in “each”

                          e.g.    [chache]     “few”

D as in “do”     e.g.    [dada]        “sister”

F as in “far”     e.g.    [fahamu]    “understand”

G as in “gone”e.g.    [gani?]        “which?”

H  as in “hat”   e.g.    [hali]          “condition” “state of being”

J as in “John”   e.g.    [jambo]      “problem” “subject of discussion”

K as in “kid”    e.g.    [kaka]        “brother”

L  as in “log”    e.g.    [-lala]         “sleep”

M as in “man”e.g.    [mama]      “mother”

N as in “nut”    e.g.    [nani?]        “who?”

P  as in “pot”     e.g.  [pamoja]    “together”

R as in “run”   e.g.    [roho]         “soul”

S as in “soap”  e.g.    [sisi]           “we” “us”

T as in “tiny”   e.g.    [tatu]          “three”

V as in “very”  e.g.    [-vaa]        “to put on clothes”

W as in “wide”          e.g.    [watu]        “people”

Y as in “you”   e.g.    [-yumba]    “sway back and forth”

Z as in “zoo”    e.g.    [-zinguka]  “go around in a circle”


Here are two examples.  The first is of a word, a vocabulary item.  [sasa] means “now” in English.  It is used as an adverb.  In English it can also be expressed as a verb in the command form:  “NOW!”  Meaning “Do it at this moment!”

However in Kiswahili it is not expressed as a command.

The second example is of a verb stem.  Verb stems are always written with a dash [-] at the beginning of the word.  The purpose is to emphasize the grammatical nature of the word and to remind the student other syllables might be missing that are needed to convey a complete  thought.

  1. [Sasa]  pronounced sa-sa stressing the first syllable, in this word also the second to the last.
  2. [-ambatana] pronounced amba-ta-na stressing the third syllable in this verb stem, the second to the last.

English translation:  to accompany each other.

Example of a complete phrase in Kiswahili:  Nsha itaambatana na barua pepe.

     The essay will be attached to the e-mail.

Literal translation:  Essay it will accompany with letter blown.

Breakdown of vocabulary items and syllables in Kiswahili:

Nsha    i-    -ta- -ambatana    na    barua    pepe.

(1)    (2)     (3)       (4)          (5)      (6)        (7)

  1. Noun  (subject)
  2. Pronoun prefix agreeing with subject noun.  Meaning in English: “it”
  3. Tense marker, future tense
  4. Verb stem in the reciprocal form.  Meaning in English:  to accompany each other.
  5. Adjective.  This is a newly coined word used specifically with [barua] to express “email”.  My translation is a rough approximation of the origin,
  6. [-pepea] meaning “blow”.

Another goal of using dashes is to draw the student’s attention to the placement of the grammatical marker in the verb phrase.  Syllables are used as grammatical markers.  If the dash follows the syllable, the syllable is a subject marker.  If dashes are on both sides, the syllable is a tense marker, a relative marker, or an object marker.  If the dash precedes the syllable cluster, that cluster is the verb stem.  It the dash precedes the syllable [-ni] it identifies a plural marker which is always placed at the end of a verb stem, making it a suffix.  Grammatical markers in Kiswahili are either consonant/vowel clusters or single vowels.


The rhythm and pronunciation of the first consonant is the same for all double consonants.   The M- is a nasal.  The second consonant is accented and pronounced as in English.  Do not insert a vowel between the consonants.  Native English speakers       are instinctively drawn into inserting a vowel between two consonants because the English language does not have double consonants.  Another instinctive incorrect alternative is to ignore the first consonant and begin the pronunciation with the second.

MB- is a bilabial implosive nasal compound.

                          e.g.    [mbuzi]      “goat”

MCH- is a nasal/bilabial explosive/postalveolar

                          e.g     [mchungwa]  “orange tree”

MD- is a nasal/bilabial, implosive/dental.

                          e.g.    [mdomo]    “mouth”

 MF- is a nasal/bilabial, fricative/labiodental.

                          e.g.    [mfano]      “example”

MG- is a nasal/bilabial, implosive/velar.

e.g.    [mgomo]    “labor strike”

MH- is a nasal/bilabial

                          e.g.    [mhariri]    “editor”

MJ- is a nasal/bilabial, implosive /velar.

e.g.    [mji]           “town”

ML- is a nasal/bilabial.

e.g.    {mlango]    “door”

MP- is a nasal/explosive bilabial compound.

                          e.g.    [mpingo]    “ebony wood”

MR- is a nasal/bilabial, liquid /alveolar

                          e.g.    [mradi]      “project”

MS- is a nasal/bilabial, fricative/alveolar.

e.g.    [msanaa]    “artist”

MT- is a nasal/bilabial, explosive/alveolar

e.g.    [mtihani]   “examination”

MV- is a nasal bilabial, fricative/labiodental.

                          e.g.    [mvulana]  “male youth”

ND- is an alveolar nasal compound.

                          e.g.    [ndugu]      “family relation”

 NG- is a velar nasal compound.  Without the apostrophe, each consonant is given its almost normal pronunciation, as in “sunglory.”

                          e.g.    [ngano]      “wheat”

NG’- is a nasal velar.  Where the apostrophe occurs, a specialized sound is made such as in the word “singer”.                                                                         It is rather difficult to produce this sound separately.

                          e.g.    [ng’ombe] “cow”

NY is a nasal palatal.

                          e.g.    [nyanya]    “tomato” “grandmother”

SH- is a fricative postalveolar.

e.g.    [-shinda]    “defeat”

TH- is a fricative dental.

e.g.    [thamani]   “value”

                      CONSONANT CLUSTERS

CH is an explosive postalveolar.  It is pronounced as in “each”.

                          e.g.    [chache]     “few”

DH is a fricative dental pronounced as the “th-] in “that”, never as in “thin.”

                          e.g.    [fedha]       “silver” “currency”

GH- is a fricative velar not usually found in English.  It is also called a voiced guttural sound.

e.g.    [ghali]        “expensive”

KH- is a fricative velar.  It is found in Arabic words only, and is a voiceless guttural sound.  It is similar to the Scottish CH as in [loch]

e.g.    [kheri]        “luck”

MW- is a nasal liquid bilabial compound.  It is always followed by a vowel.

                          e.g.    [mwalimu]          “teacher”.

MWA- is pronounced as it is in French.


3 thoughts on “LET’S LEARN SWAHILI!

  1. benefit

    Howdy! I know this is kinda off topic nevertheless
    I’d figured I’d ask. Would you be interested in exchanging links or maybe
    guest authoring a blog article or vice-versa?
    My blog addresses a lot of the same topics as yours and I feel we could greatly benefit from each other.
    If you are interested feel free to shoot me an email.
    I look forward to hearing from you! Terrific blog by the way!


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