Subscribe to Mambo Magazine
Top 10 scandalous Swahili slip-ups
"How do you say 'red' in Swahili?" my friend asked me the other day. We were trying to think of words to describe the nasty eye infection going around the island.
My friend, who manages a restaurant, wanted to tell her staff to be careful of this infection, and couldn't think of the word for red - nyekundu. Instead, she guessed kundu after which we chuckled, quickly reminding each other that it meant something completely different (anus). Oops, we thought. Didn’t want to get that word wrong!
This led to a really funny conversation on scandalous Swahili words that are just a little too similar in sound but vastly different in meaning for comfort. Just a quick slip of the tongue could lead you into some truly offensive language territory.
If you're new to Swahili, or not even that new but still a stranger to nuance, you could easily make a silly or even offensive mistake because there's just a letter of difference between correct and nasty. And in a world where politeness is a kind of cultural currency, where pure Swahili is held to the highest standard, it does not bode well to make these kinds of lingual errors.
I started thinking of a slew of words in Swahili that sound scandalously similar and therefore incredibly easy to trip over until you find yourself stuck in the linguistic mud. A quick Twitter post helped me gather the most common mistakes that foreign Swahili speakers might make unintentionally.
So, with fair warning to all the religious and modest folks out there - including Evangelicals and Imams, and definitely not excluding my esteemed Swahili professors, whose eyes might grow large with embarrassment when they read this, here is my personal list of the top ten most scandalous Swahili slips, at least according to those new or new-ish to the language. I know that these kinds of juicy vocabulary lists are intentionally left out of mainstream Swahili courses, and so I apologize in advance for any shock or shame this list might incite.
1. Welcome to your grave
karibu - welcome
kaburi - grave
Karibu is the most common word used to greet strangers and friends alike on the Swahili coast, one of the first words you’ll encounter, actually, in the language. It's common to say or hear "karibu sana" - meaning "you're very welcome". But if you're not careful, a jumble of just a few letters could take you to the grave.
2. Smelly greeting
jambo - literally means "thing" - but used to greet someone, "Jambo?"
jamba - slang for fart
All tourists are at some point assaulted by the Jambo! song sales pitch along Kenyatta Road in Shangani, Stone Town, so you might have that word emblazoned in your memory for eternity. However, the next time you're feeling confident about your street greetings, make sure you don't insult someone with jamba and risk dropping a smelly word bomb.
3. In the mouth or out the other end
kunywa - to drink
kunya - to defecate
This is one of the easiest mistakes to make because the words sound so much alike and it’s all about that jam between the y and the w that makes all the difference. The mistake is an embarrassing one, though: two strong desires, two basic needs, yet two very different bodily acts. You’d like to drink your Coca Cola, not to shit one, right?
4. Soggy underwear or bottle of water
chupa - bottle
chupi - underwear
Often at the shop you’ll ask for a chupa ya maji - meaning bottled water. Occasionally, the unsuspecting or exhausted Swahili novice speaker might ask for a chupi ya maji - which kind of means soggy underwear. Oops.
5. Penis bites
mbu - mosquito
mboo - penis
When I was first learning Swahili, I made this mistake a lot. I would say, "Ouch! I was just bitten by a penis!" or "Oh my god, there are so many penises out tonight". Of course, what I meant to say was mosquitoes, but there's only a slight accentual difference between the two. By the time I’d thought about it, it was already too late, much to everyone’s embarrassment and amusement. Watch out for this one, it's an easy mistake to make.
6. Ten of your mother's what
kumi - ten
kuma - slang for vagina
Okay, so one of the worst insults you can slur is "kuma ya mamyako". Fair enough, remember that one and stay away. It’s pretty much one of the worst things you could utter. But what if you're at the market and you just need ten tomatoes? Ten potatoes? Ten knives and a fork? You’ll need to say kumi, which means ten. When the “i” becomes an “a” you start your crazy talk - it might translate as “give me vagina tomato, vagina onion, and two carrots. It’s grossly insulting to the market men and anyone else who’s listening, but chances are, they’d never tell you, muffling their laughs instead. When you’re counting to ten, count slow, and count with confidence.
7. My favourite colour is anus
nyekundu - red
kundu - anus
Next time someone asks you what your favourite colour is, and it's red, stay away from answering kundu, which means anus. Might even be worth changing your favourite colour so that this never happens!
8. Madonna complex
malaika - angel
malaya - prostitute
Fair enough. For eons, the angel/prostitute complex has been spun on a spectrum all over the world. The two are inextricably linked; whole departments of women’s studies have been created to explore this gendered dilemma. However, if you're at a bar simply singing along to Mariam Makeba's classic hit song "Malaika", make sure you don't slip and start serenading the prositute, "malaya, nakupenda malaya!" - unless you mean to do that.
9. Vagabond of sorrow
huzuni - deep sorrow
uhuni - the act of wandering aimlessly, lawless, without purpose; troublemaker
I made this mistake just the other day while trying to console someone who told me they’d lost their family member to a sudden and tragic death. I meant to say huzuni - meaning "oh, that’s incredibly sad". Instead I uttered uhuni, which is a disdaining word condemning the act of roaming without purpose. Wahuni are vagabonds, hooligans, loiterers. I just hope they didn’t think I was inferring that the deceased was a ne’er-do-well.
10. The warning is in the hips
kionyo - small warning
kiuno - hips, usually referring to a woman’s hips
If you’d appreciate a small warning before taking any sort of risk, ask for a kionyo. If it’s hips you’re looking for, then fine, ask for kiuno.
I’m sure there are many other scandalous pairings like these found even deeper within the ever-changing world of Swahili and Swahili slang. These are just ten examples of those I’ve encountered in the two years I’ve spent trying to learn a language that continues to be incredibly elusive to me.
I like to imagine language itself as a grand house with many floors and rooms. I joke that I’ve been on the front porch (barazani) of Swahili for quite a while now. I’ve been let in a few times and I stand in the foyer of meaning. The closer I seem to inch toward the spiced and steamy kitchen in the back of the house, the more I feel I’m told to wait by the front door.
So there you have it - scandalous Swahili as perceived by the lonely one sitting on the baraza, waiting for those with the keys to let her in for a lesson on the upstairs verandah. Until then, nisamehe makosa ya Kiswahili yangu – please excuse my Swahili mistakes. I’ll try not to offend anyone, I promise.