This article will bring you through all you need to know about speaking Swahili on Kilimanjaro. It was written by Louise Lawrence, who’s a guide for Earth’s Edge and has lead several Kilimanjaro Expeditions. She’s also managed to find the translation for the Jambo song, which you’ll be singing for years after your Kili climb!
Tanzania is a multilingual country but no one language is spoken natively. Bauti Swahili and English serve as the working language with Swahili being the official national language.
The most important phrase
The first words you will hear in relation to Kilimanjaro are ‘pole pole’, directly translated to ‘slowly slowly’. It’s the speed of the mountain and the only speed you actually want to move at. Another Earth’s Edge guide Mike Jones wrote an amazing article about The Art of Walking Slowly which you should definitely read!
Climbing Kilimanjaro is an immense physical and mental challenge. When many of us think about this amazing mountain we think of a white-topped mountain surrounded by wonderful flora and fauna. We may even associate it with a Hemmingway style safari with floating fabrics and the big “5”.
Working as a team
The reality of climbing the mountain is understanding that it is a breathing, living, hive of local activity which helps make your dream a reality. You have a team of guides, porters and cooks who work incredibly hard and do it all with big smiles and good humour. To give you an example; an Earth’s Edge group size of 12 trekkers, 1 doctor and 1 Irish guide will have a local team of 6 guides, 2 cooks and 36 porters.
It’s a one way system of trails up the mountain which keeps everything a little less busy. However, no matter how brilliantly you think you are doing (and you are!), every morning all the porters overtake you. Obviously, it’s only polite that you move out of the way to let them pass. You step to the left or the right. ‘Kushoto’ is left and ‘Kulia’ is right.
During the climb, you are one team. You trek with the guides and porters throughout the day and see and live with them around camp in the evening and morning. As with any form of travel to another country, one of the greatest forms of respect is to have a few words in the local language. Even though our guides and a lot of our porters speak English, speaking a little Swahili on Kilimanjaro will be really appreciated!
The most important Swahili on Kilimanjaro
Pole pole – slowly slowly
Jambo – Hello/how are you?
Mambo – What’s up?
Poa – I’m O.K./cool
Pole – Sorry
Asante – Thank you
Asante sana – Thank you very much
Hakuna matata – No worries
Karibu – Welcome
Sawa – O.K.
One team, one dream!
Another way to really impress your team is to learn a song or two. During your climb, there may be singing and dancing before you leave camp in the morning. What a great way to join in, enjoy the atmosphere and motivate yourselves and others for the day ahead.
Sing your heart out!! One of the great songs that is regularly sung is the Jambo song and you can watch it in the video below so that you can learn the melody as well! Singing, dancing and clapping with your local team. Definitely smiles all round!
Jambo! Jambo bwana! Hello! Hello sir!
Habari gani? Mzuri sana! How are you? Very well!
Wageni, mwakaribishwa! Guests, you are welcome!
Kilimanjaro? Hakuna matata! Kilimanjaro? No trouble!
Tembea pole pole. Hakuna matata! Walk slowly, slowly. No trouble!
Utafika salama. Hakuna matata! You’ll get there safe. No trouble!
Kunywa maji mengi. Hakuna matata! Drink plenty of water. No trouble!
Kilimanjaro, Kilimanjaro, Kilimanjaro! Kilimanjaro!
Kilimanjaro, mlima mrefu sana. Kilimanjaro, such a high mountain.
Na Mawenzi, na Mawenzi, Also Mawenzi, also Mawenzi!
Na Mawenzi, mlima mrefu sana. Also Mawenzi such a high mountain.
Ewe nyoka, ewe nyoka! Like a snake, like a snake!
Ewe nyoka, mbona waninzunguka. Like a snake you wrap around me
Wanizunguka, wanizunguka You wrap around me, you wrap around me
Wanizunguka wataka kunila nyama Trying to eat me like a piece of meat
History of the Jambo song
The song was first recorded in 1982 by Them Mushrooms, a Kenyan ensemble formed in the early seventies who used to ply their trade at the luxury beach hotels in Mombasa. The song was written by the band’s leader, Teddy Kalanda, but he borrowed heavily from traditional folk tunes around at the time.
In the Mushrooms’ version, there was no mention of Kilimanjaro at all – instead, the original song welcomed people to Kenya yetu, or ‘our Kenya’. The song proved to be a big hit, selling over 200,000 copies and was subsequently covered by several other African bands including Mombasa Roots, Safari Sound Band, Khadja Nin and Adam Solomon.
Worldwide fame, however, arrived when the German-Caribbean disco outfit Boney M released their version, Jambo – Hakuna Matata. The lyrics were heavily doctored so only the first and last lines of the original survived.
Hopefully, these few phrases and songs will assist you on your journey and help you make the most of your adventure. You don’t have to speak Swahili on Kilimanjaro, but it will give you more interaction with our amazing guides and porters!