17 June 2010

how to say "hi" in swahili

The most delightful aspect of Tanzanian culture that I have seen so far is the greetings. Whether you’re meeting someone for the first time, seeing your officemate in the morning, or approaching a stranger on the street for directions, it’s absolutely mandatory to exchange greetings, and failing to do so it the quickest way to distinguish yourself as an obnoxious foreigner. And while one greeting is a necessity, more greetings are better. While in Zanzibar, we traveled around the island with a government official who is a master of the craft. He can fire off a succession of greetings so quickly it practically gives the listener whiplash. This guy also appeared to know everyone on the island. No sooner would we stop at a police checkpoint on the road (the checkpoints are as ubiquitous as their purpose is inscrutable) than he would practically leap from the car and commence greeting, laughing, and backslapping with the cops.

A standard formula for greeting someone is habari _____? Habari means “news,” and the blank can be filled with lots of different things depending on the situation. Options include habari gani (how are things?), habari yako (how are you?), habari yenu (how are y’all?), habari za kazi (how’s work?), habari za nyumbani (how’s home?), habari za safari (how was your trip?), habari za leo (how’s your day?), habari za asubuhi (how’s your morning?)… you get the idea.

Though the possibilities for asking someone how they’re doing are nearly endless, the answer is always some variation of “good.” Acceptable replies include nzuri (good), njema (good), salama (peaceful—in other words, good) or safi (literally “clean,” but in this context, good). No matter how bad things are, things are good—“even if you are about to die,” according to my Swahili tutor. If your house just burned down or you lost your job, the time to bring that up is later in the conversation, not during the greetings. If things are really good, you can add the word sana to your reply, and if things are merely a little bit good, you can add the word tu. Another way to exchange greetings—actually, the first way most visitors learn—is for the first person to say hujambo? (literally, “you have no problem?”) and the other to reply sijambo (“I have no problem”).

Go ahead and laugh, but Americans basically do the same thing. Europeans enjoy mocking us for using “how are you?” as a substitute for “hello,” and most of the time we really only expect to hear some variant of good, well, or fine. I was once in a bookstore in the Philippines and found a guide to American culture written for prospective immigrants and visitors. Thumbing through this book was an immensely educational and eye-opening experience, and I recommend it if you can get your hands on such a book. The book cautioned would-be visitors to the U.S. not to interpret a casual “how are you?” as an invitation to discuss how their house burned down or they just lost their job.

A special, extra-respectful greeting reserved for one’s elders is shikamoo, to which the elder replies with a marahaba. Neither word has any other usage in Swahili, though I read that shikamoo is derived from “I hold your feet” (nimeshika miguu yako is my possibly erroneous translation). Some people claim that the terms originated as an exchange between slaves and masters, but their use today is widespread enough that no such associations remain. I have found that being greeted with a shikamoo by a foreigner is often a source of delight for the recipient. I share office space in Dar with a Tanzanian woman who is old enough to have teenage children, and I once asked her if shikamoo was appropriate or called for in professional settings. “Yes!” she replied with a laugh. “You should be greeting me with shikamoo every day!”

I have also waded, gingerly, into the world of slang. Someone near to my own age could be safely greeted with a mambo?, a vipi?, or a mambo vipi? I wouldn’t try any of these on somebody who is old enough for a shikamoo, since I imagine that would be like approaching an elder American and going “whasaaaap?” Slang replies include poa (roughly translated as “cool”) or, my favorite, freshi (from the English word "fresh"). I’m told that the better your slang greeting, the lower the fare you are quoted by a taxi driver is likely to be, so I have an economic as well as a cultural incentive to learn more.

I see two main virtues to the Swahili greeting system. Once is that the greetings, even if they’re formulaic, make every interaction a little friendlier. The other is that they put a little speed bump on the pace of interaction. With our frantic pace of life in the U.S., it’s easy to blow right past people with our heads completely wrapped up in our own business. If culture demands that you exchange a greeting, or preferably two or three, it’s that much harder to let those opportunities for connection go by.

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