Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Learning Swahili from Two Year Olds

At the orphanage I am called either mama or dada. I was wondering if the kids were a little confused when it dawned on me that maybe dada means something other than father. And it just so happens that dada means sister is Swahili.

I thought it would be wise to learn a couple key Igbo phrases before I left for Nigeria. However, I got on a plane to Kenya without knowing a single Swahili word. So I feel like I have been playing catchup trying to learn Swahili. The other volunteers taught me a couple phrases and the nuns let me borrow a couple phrase books. But most of my vocabulary comes from the orphans, the two and three year olds who can actually talk. All day long I parrot the things Matty and the other children say. Sometimes I repeat the things Mama Nene (who also works in the baby wing) says to the children. In this manner, slowly but surely I am learning Swahili.

One of the first words I learned was shika. My first day at the orphanage Hilary starts pulling hairs out of my head and handing it to the other children, each time saying shika which means to hold or take. I have learned other words at work like kuja which means come here, lala which means to sleep, hakuna which means there is no more/its all gone, kumatema which means eat, and hapana which means no. Learning another language from two and three year olds is not easy. It is hard enough to understand little kids on a good day when we speak the same language. So I am always thrilled when I tell the kids to come here or go to sleep and they actually listen.


  1. It's amazing how quickly they learn things,you might find this free site helpful.It's got free videos too.

  2. katie,it sounds fantastic,where exactly are you based,as iam also doing similar work in zambia

  3. So we are practically neighbors. I live in Malava which is in Western Kenya. Where in Zambia are you and what type of work are you doing?

  4. Hi Katie, thanks for sharing

    i will feature you on Learn Swahili in the following week

    best regards

  5. I am 16 and going to Tanzania in one week to help orphaned and abandoned aids babies. I am currently learning Swahili and I just wanted to say thank you as I could not find any other useful phrases to say to small children except yours! Thank you,

  6. Brilliant job Bonnie