The Africa Classroom Package:
Swahili Swirl

Activity #1: Choosing a Name

      In Children of East Africa, you learned how people from the Luo African tradition name their children. Well, remember, there are many different ethnic groups, traditions and languages in Africa - and while the different cultures have some things in common, there are also differences between them. You'll see this as we look at Swahili naming traditions. But, first, let's take a quick look at how the Swahili language came to be....

      The Swahili language is African - but like most languages, its current form is the result of interaction between different cultures. Swahili originated on the East Coast of Africa, along the Indian Ocean. Over the years, African people called Bantus migrated and settled there. They spoke a Bantu language. Over time, as water is often the road to cultural connections, Arabic speaking people came from across the Indian Ocean to trade with the Bantu speaking people. As they traded more and more, the Arabic and Bantu speakers had to figure out a way to communicate with each other more effectively - and so, over the course of many more years, they created Swahili - a mixture of Arabic and Bantu words and grammar. 

         Because Swahili was a trading language and because it was similar in many ways to their mother tongues, many people learned it. So, much later, when Kenya became a nation and its leaders had to choose a national language from the forty-two different languages spoken within its borders, they chose Swahili.

Now, Swahili is the most widely spoken language in all of East Africa. Yet, because of the interaction between people of different cultures, the Swahili and Hebrew languages, for example, are related (since Hebrew is related to Arabic). You can see this relationship in the Swahili word 'saba' which means 'seven,' and the Hebrew word 'sabbat' (Sabbath) which means 'the seventh day of the week - a day of rest.'

So, now that you know how Swahili came to be, let's look at how Swahili people name their children. In some cases, as in Luo tradition, parents might name children according to when they were born. For example:

If you were born:          You could be named: (*boy only; **girl only; boy/girl)

At night                                     **Chausiku
In daylight                                Nuru/Nuru
On Tuesday                             *Jumaane
On Thursday                     Khamisi/Mwanakhamisi
On Friday                            Juma/Mwajuma
First in your family                   Mosi/Mosi
Second "                                   Pili/Pili
Third "                                     Tatu/Tatu
During the rainy season           **Masika
At the beginning of the farming season   Mwaka/Mwaka
On Mohammed's birthday    Maulidi/Maulidi
During a wedding                    Arusi/Harusi
During the month of pilgrimage to Mecca     Haji

Parents might also name their children according to their financial or physical condition at the time of the child's birth, or according to how they felt about the birth - or they might name the child after something great or beautiful. For example:

*Boy's name; **Girl's name; all others may be for boy or girl.

*Salim - peace
**Salama - peace
*Faraji - consolation
**Saada - help
*Simba - lion
**Zawadi - gift
Maskini - poor
Panya - mouse
Kifimbo - stick
Sanura - cat
Mashavu - cheeks
*Bwana Mkubwa - great man
**BiMkubwa - great woman
*Sultan - ruler
**Siti - lady
*Mwinyi - king
**Zahra - flower
*Sadi - luck
**Bahati - luck
**Rafiki - friend
**Amani - peace
**Kamaria - like a moon
**Lulu - pearl
**Marjani - coral
**Jamila - beautiful

      So, now that you've got a list of names, just for fun, choose one for yourself - that's right, you're own Swahili name! Maybe you can do a little research before you choose your name. Find out, for example, if you were born at night or in the day, when it was raining, during a wedding, etc. If possible, find out your parents' financial, physical and/or emotional condition when you were born and choose accordingly - or just choose one you like. Once you've got a Swahili name, you'll be ready for our first speaking exercise. Well, almost.....

      Before that, you need to learn a few Swahili pronunciation rules so you can pronounce your name, and the other words you're about to learn, correctly. The most important thing you need to know is how to pronounce Swahili vowels. They're easy - much easier than English vowels - because there are only five, and because each one is the same every single time. If you happen to know or be learning Spanish, they're even easier, since they're basically the same as the Spanish vowel sounds: a = ah (as in 'saw'), e = ay (as in 'day'), i = ee (as in 'free'), o = oh (as in 'snow'), and u = ooh (as in 'you').

      A good way to get these down pat is to repeat the sounds "ah-ay-ee-oh-ooh" maybe ten or twenty times a day. Once you've got your tongue accustomed to the sounds, make sure you are associating them with the correct vowel. To do this, repeat the sounds while reading this list: a-e-i-o-u. (Remember, 'ay' = e and 'ee' = i in Swahili, while 'ah' = a.) To see if you've mastered them, mix up your list of vowels (i-o-a-e-u-a-o-e-e-a-u-i-i-a-o-u) and see if you can match them with the correct Swahili sound. This may seem very difficult at first because your mind may be used to associating different sounds with each vowel, but, if you take it little by little, you'll find it much easier. There is a Swahili proverb that states this very principle: 'Haba na haba hujaza kibaba.' The translation is: 'Little by little fills the measure.' (Can you pronounce it?)

      A few more things about Swahili pronunciation (you'll learn others during future activities) and you'll be ready to say your first Swahili phrases. (Note: If the pronunciation is a major roadblock for you, don't worry about it. As long as you're close with the vowels, you'll do fine for our purposes - to have fun making our way to the 'million sentences' goal!)  First, in Swahili, the second to last syllable of a word is always stressed. Second, if a word has a double vowel, make the vowel sound twice, as two syllables. Finally, the letter 'r' has two sounds, both of which do not exist in English (though, again, they are the same as in Spanish). We'll learn one for now. The 'r' in the Swahili name, Sanura, for example, is pronounced like a very soft English 'd,' sort of half way between an English 'r' and an English 'd.' It is made by the tongue lightly tapping behind and above the top front teeth. 

(If you would like in-depth information about Swahili pronunciation, click here to go to Yale University's 'Swahili Pronunciation Guide:' From this page, you will also find a link to the Kamusi Project's home page which is the introduction to its 'Internet Living Swahili Dictionary.')

      OK, we're ready for the exercise. You'll need to use the following additional Swahili words:

jambo = hello
bwana = boy, man, Mr., dude
bibi = girl, woman, Miss, Ms., Mrs., dudette
jina langu ni = my name is (though the order of the words
    is not the same as in English: jina = name, langu = my, ni = is)
na wewe = and you
asante = thanks 
karibu = (you're) welcome
kwaheri = good-bye

      Once you've got these words memorized, each student in your class should make a nametag displaying his or her Swahili name. Next, students should go around to each other, saying 'hello,' introducing themselves, saying 'thank you,' then saying 'good-bye' IN SWAHILI.
        A sample conversation would go like this:

Student #1: Jambo bwana.
Student #2: Jambo bibi. Jina langu ni Salim. Na wewe?
Student #1: Jina langu ni Jamila. 
Student #2: Asante sana, bibi Jamila.
Student #1: Karibu, bwana Salim. Kwaheri. 
Student #2: Kwaheri.

        Congratulations! You've completed Activity #1 and you're well on your way to speaking ONE MILLION Swahili sentences. You still don't believe it? Well, it even gets easier after this....

Swahili Swirl: Activity 2         Swahili Swirl Index



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