All Things Kenyan

Kenya’s National Language

Swahili is the national language of Kenya. It is taught in schools all over the country. It is the second language for students – their first language is their tribal language.

The origins of the Swahili language are a bit unsure. Swahili is considered a Bantu language. Its grammatical structure is the same as other Bantu languages. The earliest known existence of Swahili is in the 2nd century AD. A document written at that time says that merchants from Southern Arabia visiting the coast used to speak with the natives in Swahili. Another possibility is the Swahili language originated from Arabs and Persians who moved to the coast – although it’s really only the vocabulary of Swahili that is Arabian and Persian – not the grammar.

The Swahili language remained spoken only on the coast until about 200 years ago when settlers began to make their way west into the interior of East Africa.

The Arabs and Persians had a huge influence on the Swahili language. In fact, almost every culture that has attempted to control East Africa made it’s own impact on the Swahili language. The Swahili language is a sort of melting pot of many languages. Here are some examples:

Words with Bantu origins:
moja = one
mbili = two
Words borrowed from Arabic:
sita = six
saba = seven
Words borrowed from Persian:
chai = tea
serikali = government
Words borrowed from Portuguese:
meza = table
pesa = money
Words borrowed from English:
penseli = pencil
baiskeli = bicycle
Words borrowed from German:
shule = school
hela = German coin

Swahili is spoken in many East African countries including Kenya, Tanzania, Zambia, Malawi, South Africa, and Uganda. In fact, Swahili is now the seventh most spoken language in the world.

Swahili is making it’s way into our popular culture. Lionel Richie had a hit some ‘All Night Long’ in 1983 which featured a Swahili word in the chorus:

We’re going to party
Karamu, fiesta, forever

Karamu means ‘party’ in Swahili.

Disney’s ‘The Lion King’ had many names taken from Swahili. Simba which means ‘lion’, Rafiki means ‘friend’, Pumba (pumbaa) means fool, and the song Hakuna Matata means ‘there are no worries’. At Disney World, there is a place called ‘Harambe Village’ taken from the Swahili word Harambee meaning ‘Let’s pull together’.

World radio stations like the BBC carry programming in Swahili. If you have a world band or shortwave radio this is a great way to listen and learn Swahili.

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