Tag Archives: kiswahili

Mzee MacDonald

Mzee Macdonald ana shamba

ii ai ii ai oo

Na katika shamba yake ana ng’ombe

ii ai ii ai oo

Na muu muu hapa, na muu muu hapo

Hapa muu, hapo muu, kila mali muu muu

Mzee Macdonald ana shamba

ii ai ii ai oo

Brief post today, tell me what it is and test your Kiswahili!


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Kiswahili, A Language of Action

I love language.  I love language because I love thinking, and language is our vain attempt to express our thoughts to others, the primary means of collaboration and arguably one of our species’ greatest strengths.  Joining the Peace Corps I was very excited at the prospect of getting to live in another language, immerse myself in how different people attempt to express their thoughts: hunger, anger, ambition, love; for though we may all share similar thoughts across this small world of ours, our needs essentially being the same, how we prioritize our needs and subsequently our thoughts is still one of the primary means we use to differentiate cultures from one another.  After a year and a half of living within the land of the Swahili, I have begun to notice some interesting aspects about the Kiswahili language.

Kiswahili has a ridiculous number of words that stem from verbs.  It seems that almost every word that comes out of ones mouth is derived from a verb.  Whole sentences can be constructed upon the prefixing, suffixing and infixing of verbs.  Subjects, objects, tenses, continuations, subjunctive states, all of these things and more can be expressed with one verb, properly fixed.  With Kiswahili, it’s as if the entire language is derived from action in all forms and how that action impacts the surrounding.

With English there seems to be moreetymology of words, and therefore a deeper understanding of their origins.  However, it’s harder to see such blatant connections between thought process as in Kiswahili. As is my understanding of Kiswahili, though it is a mixture of several languages, many of those languages are much more pure than English is comparatively, which gives me confidence that such derivations are more intentional to the original Kiswahili thought process, and less a coincidence.  In other words, because a verb seems to derive from a verb, it is in fact originally derived from that verb.  In English, though you can trace a history, it’s harder to trace original intent.

Let’s dive into the fun.  In their infinitive form a Kiswahili verb consists of an infinitive prefix, ku, followed by the verb radical or root.  For example, kupoa means, “to cool down,” or, “to become cold,” where ku is the infinitive prefix, and poa the root word for cooling down.  Kuzunugu is the infinitive meaning “to wander,” with zungu being the root, wander.

From these roots, the language flourishes.  For example, those that perform the actions, the nouns, are derived from the verb roots.  In its most literal sense, the word mzungu, which I so loathe, means, “the guy wandering around.”  Kulima is the verb “to cultivate or farm” and an mkulima is a farmer. So on and so forth.  The term ushahidi, which translates as “testimonial,” derives from the verb kushahidi, “to testify.”

As with all languages these literal meanings get lost, their derivations become culturally obfuscated.  A perfect example is mzungu.  Nowadays, when somebody says mzungu, they most like mean a foreigner (the guys who originally came here wandering around…), but not just any foreigner, most likely a Caucasian.  Black foreigners are oftentimes considered to be Africans and East Asians are called, mchini which means a person from China.  Some mzungu get even more frustrated with the generalization and sarcastically think the word means money, or walking money tree, because that is how some mzungu are treated here in Kenya.

Poa is another word that has taken on a different meaning.  It just means, “cool.”  Not cool as in temperature, but cool in a way an American might say, “The movie was cool.”  I don’t know when this word assumed its current form, but it is one of the few slang words that seems to translate almost literally between American slang and Kenyan slang.

I want to go so far and hazard a guess that the most common, culturally accepted pleasantry, the translation for “thank you,” also derives from a verb.  Based on the derivation rules of the Kiswahili language, I want to suggest that the verb kuasanta may be a synonym for the verb kushukuru, which means “to thank.”  However, over time, kuasanta has assumed the spoken form of asante, which would suggest that it is a polite, weak, imperative, but is simply used as, “thanks.”  However, none of the online dictionaries seem to contain the verb in its root.  Many of these dictionaries contain only modern usage of words, of which asante is the only acceptable form, so I might have to dig up an old Zanzibar dialect dictionary, from which modern Kiswahili originates.

Language is fun.  Just as I love learning about English derivations and word histories, I also love putting together word histories for Kiswahili.  The one caveat is that old form Kiswahili literacy is losing ground because not as many people were educated in Kiswahili as a literate art back when people were still using old form.  In its modern incarnation Kiswahili has assumed a much more functional base upon which modern day literary artists are building a new language, a blend of Kiswahili and English called sheng.  Because more people are educated within this new linguistic ecosystem, the old form will die away.  Neither good nor bad, it’s just the natural progression of language, though it’s sad to see any language die. I jut fear the day that in losing a language, we may lose the only way we know to express our innermost thoughts.


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Kiswahili-isms: Famous Quotes

For giggles I thought I would go ahead and try my hand at translating some quotes in English into Kiswahili. Enjoy!

“Sema kwa upole na beba fimbo kubwa.”
“Speak softly and carry a big stick.” -Teddy Roosevelt
“Kuwa ugeuzi unayotaka kuona duniani.”
“Be the change you want to see in the world.” -Mahatma Ghandi
“Nawaza kwahivyo nawa.”
“I think therefore I am.” -Renee Descartes
“Siku ishika.”
“Seize the day.” -Horace
“Hakuna mahali kama nyumbani.”
“There’s no place like home.” -Dorothy

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Free Form Swahili Poetry

I am sitting here waiting for the NYS bore-hole pump to turn on so I can fill my personal tank so that I can do my laundry and I thought I would write up some poetry in kiswahili. Mind you, I have never taken a poetry class, or even read much about what type of art form kiswahili poetry is supposed to be, so I am still at a stage of trying to do a nice-sounding translate-from-english poem. It’s free form. Whatever. No translation though, sorry 😉

Kukia darajani usiku
Nyota juu, taa zimewashwa
Mtazamo yake iliinasa yangu
Moyo yangu, nafsi yangu
zilipunga kabisa
Sura kama malaika
Je, penzi ni uwaga huu?

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I Told You They Were Magical

Walking around the Christmas market right next to our hostel in Zurich today, my brother and I come upon a booth selling African-style curios: wooden animal figures, necklaces, bracelets and the like. “Reminds me of home,” I say, at which the shop owner gives me a bit of an incredulous look and asks where I come from, to which my response of late has been, “Kenya.” Next thing I hear is, “Karibu chai,” and I am immediately thrust back into my life in Kenya while a cup of hot chai is thrust into my hand. Here I am, standing in freezing temperatures in Zurich, Switzerland, and I am having a conversation with a Kenyan in Kiswahili.

Lydia’s been living here for 18 years now, but her family comes from Nakuru and she is a Kikuyu. She seemed to get a kick out of the white boy in Zurich speaking Kiswahili with her, but it was a nice time. Actually, she even gave Chris a discount on what he was buying, which was really nice of her. The chai was delicious, spiced with cinnamon. We wished each other a merry Christmas and went our separate ways, myself still move convinced of our shrinking world (hurry, contact the geologists!), as well as the generally magical nature of Christmas markets.


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Ndege Kubwa

Ok folks, this is it, I am off on a flight in about three or four hours (do planes operate on, “Kenya Time?”), and may be silent for a bit while I figure out the Internet situation during my European adventures. I am still debating what the focus of my writing will be, whether purely whimsical, focused more on development-related activities, or descriptive of my adventures with my brother Chris as we tear up Prague, Zurich and Turino. Who knows?

Though I will be taking a bit of a holiday from regular blogging (for which you have been prepped for a few weeks now), I will most certainly continue in the New Year when I return home to Mtongwe and continue with my work as Peace Corps volunteer. Because I know you were all worried I would shut up. People, not even the gods can shut me up 😉

Until then, I wish all of my readers a Happy Holiday Season, whatever that may mean for you! I know for me it means time spent with family, enjoying hot chocolate by the fire with the dogs and enjoying the snow, and while I may not have all of these things this year, sometimes all it takes is a memory 🙂

P.S. Don’t worry about the title. It was a brief Kiswahili-related thought I had. Free association, ya know?

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Quick Kiswahili-isms

Kiswahili is a language in which related words often tend to sound the same. Also, there are several instances where verbs are turned directly into nouns and vice versa. As a result of all of this, there are a few curious structures within the language that I thought I would mention. Sorry to keep the entry brief, but I don’t have much time to write at the moment, and I am hoping to get to sleep soon. Here’s a far-from-exhaustive list for you:

  • The noun for food is chakula. To eat is the verb kula, and the verb to take is kuchakua. This means that you are able to, kula chakula or kuchakua chakula. Hear the similarity?
  • In Kiswahili a man may marry, kuoa, but a woman may only be married, kuolewa.
  • The verb to organize or arrange is kupanga. The noun panga is the word for a common, machete-like device used as both a tool and a weapon.
  • The verb to hear is kusikia, and the word for the noun ear is sikio.
  • The noun for country is nchi, while the word for citizen is wananchi.

Hope you enjoyed your brief and simple Kiswahili lesson for the day.

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Uporudi Chini

I thought I would go ahead for practice and translate one of my favorite songs into Kiswahili. For one, the translation does not sound nearly as nice as the original, and the translation is a tad more literal than a more emotionally meaningful translation might be, and finally the verb tenses and grammatical structures are far from perfect, but hey, gotta start somewhere, right? I hope you enjoy. Click through for the English translation.

“Uporudi Chini”
kwa Hori ya Nickeli

Uhitaji kuniodoka sasa, uhitaji kufanya peke yangu
Uhitaji kusaka ndoto, kimoja ambayo ni yangu tuu
Kabla ya imeponyoka
Uporuka kirefu, beba moyo yangu
Nitakuwa umoja pamoja ya mwimbo yote peke
Ambayo ujifunze kucheza

Uporuka angani
Nitakuwa ardhi yangu
Chakue kila hatari ambayo ungejasiri
Nitaka hapo badoo
Uporudi chini
Uporudi chini

Naendelea kuangalia juu, kungoja kurudi kwako
Hofu kuu yangu itakuwa kwamba ungepania na choma
Na sitasikia moto yako
Nitakuwa mkono mwingine ambao ikishike kamba milele
Kuleta moyo tamu yako na yangu pomoja
Mraibu ya ashiki yako

Na nitakuwa mwishoni mingine, kukusikia wakati ungeita
Malaika, ulizaliwa kuruka, ungekwenda juu pia
Upoanguka nitakukamata
Upoanguka nitakukamata

Fahamu yako ni jua ambayo kila siku mpya ileta
Najua kwamba anga inaita
Malaika, ningekusaidia na mbawa zako

Uporuka angani
Nitakuwa ardhi yangu
Chakue kila hatari ambayo ungejasiri

Nitakuwa hapo badoo
Uporudi chini
Chakue kila hatari ambayo ungejasiri
Nitakuwa hapo badoo
Uporudi chini
Uporudi chini
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Kiswahili: Lacking in Articles

I am on a constant struggle to increase my blog’s readership.  Why? Because this is all I do, and I feel that if the very least I am doing is fulfilling the third goal of Peace Corps (“Helping promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans,”) then I had better do a darn good job of it.  As a result, I have really been trying to write an entry a day during the week, because I am lucky enough to have a constant Internet connection.  I know the past few posts have been longer, and I know tomorrow’s will be long as well (because I wrote it before this one…), so I will keep this short. Continue reading

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Some quick thoughts before heading off to bed

1) There was a leopard in my front yard today. Apparently this is unusual. I did not see it because, well, leopards are good at hiding, but I was assured it was there. Mama’s don’t lie (often) in Kenya, and the Mama’s next door seemed awfully concerned about the leopard.

2) Have I mentioned that I have monkeys running around the NYS compound? There are as prolific as grey squirrels are back home. They are also grey. One of them left me a present my first morning in Mutungwe: a rotting banana on my front step.

3) Mr. Dai Kato, my Japanese neighbor is a really cool guy. He led me around Mombasa today, and then made me dinner and we talked about life in Kenya. It’s reassuring to know that volunteer perceptions of kenya can stay the same no matter what nationality you are, what program you are with or what language you speak.

4) After today Mombasa has gotten my thumbs up approval as my home town for the next two years. It has character, amenities, culture and language enough to keep me busy.

5) Getting lost in Mombasa’s Old Town is an interesting experience. As much as it’s a “Tourist Desitnation,” there are no tourists, and being the muzungu with the backpack and sunglasses certainly makes you stick out amongst a bunch of traditionally-garbed Muslim men and women

6) Going to the barbershop and getting your haircut by a local is the first sign that you have moved into a new town and mean to stay (at least that was it for me).

7) Kiswahili words that have integrated themselves into my everyday speech, replacing their english equivalents: sawa (ok), pole (sorry), assante sana (thank you very much), habari yako (how are you; lit: your news), kwa nini (why), lakini (but) na na (and).

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