Things They Don’t Say in Kenya

When I was preparing to come to Kenya in 2007 I bought a pocket guide to learn Swahili. I wasn’t too serious about practicing, but I do remember sitting on the beach a few times reading that book (I even made flash cards). I’ve gotten pretty good at Swahili over the last few years so I guess it wasn’t a complete waste of time, but there are a lot of phrases you learn when you’re first exposed to Swahili that aren’t really used much by Kenyans themselves.

For instance, there’s a dude at ILRI who always greets me in the morning by saying “Jambo.” Jambo is a polite way to say hi to someone in the sanifu/pure Swahili, but you’ll NEVER hear a Kenyan say it to another Kenyan. My friends always tell me I’m not Kenyan so I should get used to it, but it still gets to me. I always respond, “Poa” (cool), but I guess I haven’t convinced him I actually am cool yet. It’s just that jambo makes me feel like a tourist, an issue I’ve struggled with since I got here.

Another thing you’ll never hear, unless someone is talking about the Lion King, is hakuna matata (no problems) — it’s much more common to hear “hakuna shida,” but it’s all the same I suppose.

12 Comments to “Things They Don’t Say in Kenya”

  1. Matthew Winans

    “My friends always tell me I’m not Kenyan so I should get used to it, but it still gets to me.”

    That would be annoying if someone kept actively pointing out that you’re an outsider, especially if they’re your friends. It seems separatist, dismissive, and belittling. I’d say get some new friends who would at least attempt to treat you as an equal. LOL

  2. Alexandra

    Its so true. I lived in Kenya for a year, but spent a total of 16 months there. I couldn’t STAND Jambo, and Jambo mzungu was even worse. I wanted to say…”Don’t talk to me like I just stepped off the plane. I’ve been here a year. I know Swahili!” I answered in Swahili, saying Mambo, poa, kilakitu freshi, etc., but of course, it doesn’t stop the next person from saying Jambo. Why do they have to have a different way to say “Hello” to white people? We don’t have a different way to say hello to Japanese tourists in our country. Something seems so separatist about it. Its hard to explain. Like they want to keep us apart, separated. Even though we are from a different place, but why can’t we assimilate? Like people can assimilate in our country? Its hard to explain exactly why its so annoying, but it is. Its weird. It probably sounds like such a petty, small problem, but it more or less ruined my experience there. If people would have just spoken to me in normal Swahili, even though I’m white, I can’t describe how happy that would have made me. A note to any Kenyans reading this: Please…don’t say Jambo to white people. Just say “Mambo vipi.” If they don’t understand, translate. No special tourist talk, please. We hate it.

    1. Alan Author

      I agree that it’s irritating… but I feel bad that it irritates me. Four years on and it still bugs me. On the plus side, people expect that I don’t understand Swahili… I shock and amaze people on a daily basis. HAHAH.

      1. Alexandra

        hahahah. Same here. They are always shocked when they hear a white person speak Swahili. I guess it must be sort of the same as our country, the way it used to be years ago when it was still mostly white. People would see a foreign looking person and start speaking English really loudly and slowly, and then the person would say, “Um, I was born here.” I know there are white people born in Kenya and Tanzania, and they no doubt still get “Jambo mzungu.” Maybe they are used to it, dealing with it every day their whole lives. It just really bugged me, but I felt bad too because it seems like such a stupid thing to get annoyed about. hahaaha.

        Anyways I really enjoy reading your blog btw. Very relatable, and very funny. :D

  3. Cool. I work with a Kenyan and he told us the same thing. We want to get to the origin of when and why they started saying Jambo to tourists? He thinks it started becoming popular in the 70s or 80s.

  4. Wanjiru

    I think one needs to go back in time alittle bit to understand this scenario.Kiswahili sanifu is barely spoken except its simplest forms to foreigners ,alot of whom know just the infamous “Jambo” and a few other basic words while others live in their small enclaves without as much as an interest in the local people!Before reading this,I never thought there are white brothers and sisters interested in integrating into the kenyan life to the level Alan has done,but hey,,i will log in here to learn swa and sheng from Alan and next time am in kenya,I will be in the lookout for people like Alan!

  5. Stephanie

    I’ve been living in Kenya for 2 years in a rural village in Coast Province. Everybody in my village, and the surrounding ones, greets each other with “Jambo” with a response of “Jambo, jambo”. You would sound really silly spitting out a “habari” over a “jambo” here. Then again, maybe it’s because I live in a rural village on the coast where KiSwahili is the main language. When I lived in Machakos I never once heard “jambo”. My point it, in some areas of Kenya, “jambo” is 100% the appropriate greeting and response for both locals and tourists.

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