Kenya

Niko Poa

I am realizing there is a problem with my Swahili: it’s too cool. Niko juu tu sana (literally: I’m just too high up). It’s probably something that most Kenyan youths experience when talking to parents, teachers, or other adults in their lives. When I was living in Tala my limited interactions with adults — like in the market — were usually conducted in English or Kikamba. Now that I’ve moved to Nairobi I am constantly around adults, and they know I understand Swahili so we use that to exchange friendly banter. Here are a list of phrases someone can inquire of you at various time of the day:

  • Umeamkaje? (how did you wake up?)
  • Habari yako? (how are you?)
  • Mambo vipi? (how are your issues?)
  • Niaje? (how is it?)
  • Niambie (tell me)
  • Sema (literally: “say” or “speak”)
  • Sasa? (literally: “now”)

I can respond poa (cool) to any of those and it is perfectly acceptable. I’m pretty sure it’s sanifu (pure) Swahili, but sometimes I still feel funny saying it to an adult. One mzee (respectful title for an older male) even admonished me for using it with him one time. I’ve since made up with him — we talked about the pros and cons of different kinds of legumes grown in Kenya. I’m only just becoming conscious of it, so I’ve had to start remembering other words in Swahili that are acceptable responses for those greetings. It’s an embarrassingly small list, but here you have it from the top of my head:

  • Salama (peaceful)
  • Mzuri (good)
  • Si mbaya (not bad)

There’s a sweet old lady at work who cleans up around the labs. In addition to cleaning she always offers to make me a cup of coffee in the kitchen. When she comes into my office in the morning she’ll ask how my morning is, and sometimes I’ll say, “Poa” without thinking. I know she understands, but she usually grins and laughs, so I always feel funny afterwards. Lately she’s taken to teaching me greetings in her mother tongue, Kikuyu.

Something I’ve noticed is that young people get excited when I speak Swahili or Sheng (street Swahili), but old people are tickled when I speak their vernacular (Kamba, Kikuyu, Luhya, Maasai, etc). I don’t know why but I have developed a good memory for strange words in random languages. I guess it’s because of the shock value attached to responding, “Ni kwega” to someone who asks, “Uhoro waku?” in Kikuyu, or telling someone, “Maabe!” (let’s go) in Maasai.

2 Comments

  1. Wairimu

    Poa is Kiswahili sanifu but not in the exact way it’s used. The proper response would be ‘nime poa’ but to someone telling you ‘pole’. That’s why the old guy was giving you shifty looks. Poa is pretty much sheng as a greeting and many older people (and stiklers like me) abhor that atrocious non-language that has severely corrupted our language and grammar.

  2. Ben

    Maze don’t let those old guys put you down, swa yako ni poa! Lol but it must be confusing for foreigners who learn proper swahili only to later realise its a whole other ball-game with urban youth. But enyewe props for shikaing the whole ‘language bit’ regarding Kenya. You should also check out if you can spot urban kids speaking engsh(its like reverse sheng, where the kids speak mainly english but mixed up with some swahili grammar/senetence strucures. Usually among the kids from lavington, kileleshwa runda…those kinda ‘upmarket’ places)

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