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A few months ago, I visited Tanzania to interview Heifer dairy farmers for the Holiday 2015 issue of the World Ark. I’m used to traveling in Latin America, and my Spanish is pretty decent, so it’s usually easy to engage in a little conversation with farmers before we jump into an interview.

In Tanzania, I initially felt much more detached. Swahili and English are the country’s official languages, but English speakers are few and far between outside of large cities. Most Tanzanians grow up speaking an indigenous language as well as Swahili, the lingua franca of East Africa.

Luckily, Rachael Singo, the communications officer for Heifer Tanzania, swooped in with some emergency Swahili lessons to help me out. Even though my vocabulary was extremely limited, just being able to properly greet the families I met helped us build a stronger connection from the start. 

Below are the most helpful words I learned in Swahili. Pronunciation is easier than you think—emphasis always comes on the second-to-last syllable, which I have capitalized in the pronunciation guide to help you out. Word definitions might not be exact, but they will give you a good sense of how they are used. I also paired greetings with their appropriate responses.

  • Habari (ha-BAR-ee) = How are you?
  • Nzuri (n-ZUR-ee) = Good
  • Mambo (MAM-bo) = How are you? (less formal)
  • Poa (PO-ah) = Good (literally means cool)
  • Shikamoo (she-KAH-mow) = Formal greeting of respect (to elders)
  • Marahaba (mar-ah-HAB-ah) = Response (I’m not sure if there’s an exact English equivalent)
  • Karibu (car-EE-boo) = You are welcome
  • Asante or asante sana (ah-SAN-te SAH-na) = Thank you/thank you very much

Karibu is without a doubt the word I heard the most in Tanzania. It doesn’t mean “you’re welcome” as a response to “thank you,” like here in the U.S. When people in Tanzania say “karibu,” it means that you are welcome in their home, you are welcome to share their food or you are welcome to join the conversation. I was humbled by all the karibu’s in Tanzania and spend a lot of time asante-ing.


Try these Swahili words, which were some of my favorites of the trip.

  • Kuku (COO-coo) = chicken
  • Ugali (oo-GAL-ee) = a ubiquitous porridge-like maize dish
  • Kinengunengu (keh-nen-goo-NEN-goo) = a type of brooder for chickens
  • Wafugaji Wadogo Halmashauri Njombe (wa-foo-GAH-gee wah-DOE-go hal-ma-sha-OO-ree n-JOM-bae)= Smallholder Farmers of Njombe District Council, or Wawahanjo (wah-wah-HAN-joe) for short


Jason Woods

Jason Woods is from Stillwater, Oklahoma, and has worked for the Americas Area Program of Heifer International since 2010. He has a master’s in cultural geography and a bachelor’s in news-editorial journalism. His passion for Heifer’s work started as a teenager, when he spent a weekend at Heifer Ranch’s Global Village in Perryville, Arkansas.