Friday, 31 October 2008

Jambo, jambo Bwana ...

Jambo, Bwana
Habari gani?
Mzuri sana.

So goes the song you will hear, sung by kids as soon as they see a white skin. The other word all kids will use when seeing a Caucasian is "mzungu" (plural, wazungu), meaning white person. It is not offensive, it is a statement of fact. As a general rule, kids love white people. They can usually get sweets from wazungu. But I digress.

The song in English:

Hello, Sir
How are things?
Very Fine


It means Hello. Everyone says it, tourists particularly. It is often the only Swahili word they know - it isn't, but they don't know that they know others:

Safari - swahili for journey
Simba (as in the Lion King) means lion
Hakuna matata, (also in the the Lion King) means No problems
Daktari - Doctor (those of you of a certain age will remember a TV series of the same name, with Clarence the cross-eyed lion)

But I digress (again).

To gain a bit of street cred in Kenya, (or Uganda, Tanzania), rather than the usual Jambo, you can try Mambo, to which the usual reply is "Poa" (cool), or "Safi" (clean/fresh)

OK, so 'Mambo' is sheng, street language, slang. So if you want to be a bit more "grown-up", try

Habari? - How are things?
Habari gani? - What's new? How are you doing?

To which you reply Mzuri (sana) - Fine (very fine)

Hujambo - a variant of Jambo, also meaning How are you? Answer: Sijambo - I'm fine

Other useful words are:

Asante - thank you
Karibu - welcome (or you are welcome)
Kwa heri - goodbye
Baadaye - Catch you later

I find that although my Swahili is very limited, sprinkling a conversation with a few words is very welcome, and in bartering, lends credibility to your claim that you are not a tourist!


I was shopping in the Nakumatt in Kisii (a chain of supermarkets). They were running a prize draw where, if you spent more than 2,000/- (about £15), you were entered into a draw, the prize being a weekend at a Maasai Mara lodge, with safaris thrown in - nice!

As I was getting stuff for a party for the orphange kids, I spent well over the 2,000/- at which point, I was pounced upon by the floor manager (Remember, I was the only white skin in Kisii), who very enthusiastically explained the draw, the prizes and how to enter in very fine detail.

Now, I had several bags of food shopping, four hula hoops, footballs, and other unwieldy objects, and a 4 year-old who was standing cross-legged, wanting to go to the loo, and I was a little flustered.

I said the most stupid thing to this poor manager. "Do I look like a tourist?"

Let me point out that I was wearing khakis, desert boots and a wide-brimmed hat, and as I had only been in Kenya a few days, I daresay my skin was more than a little pink in places. A more touristy tourist you couldn't hope to see - and of course, I am usually the only mzungu in town.

The poor man didn't know what to say. If he said that I did look like a tourist, I may have been insulted - but I did look like a tourist.

I pointed the little boy to the toilet and then tried to make amends to the manager, who eventually claimed that he could see the funny side of the situation. Whether he did or not, I don't know, but he personally helped me to the car park with all the shopping (and child), asking me where my car was. I didn't have one, I was catching the matatu.

Then, he finally believed that I wasn't a tourist.

All was well, the little boy didn't have an accident in his pants, I got all my shopping to the matatu stand, and the manager went back into his store, feeling that he had done the right thing.

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