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The Methods I Used to Learn Swahili

          As I explained in the previous article, Sébastien and I lived in Tanzania for six months. In April 2018, we received the confirmation that we would go to the town of Bagamoyo in Tanzania in the month of October of that same year. Hey! What an emotion! My first thought was: “Now, yes, I am going to learn more about the Tanzanian culture and I delve deeper into the Swahili language.”

           Quickly, I began looking into my notes to revise what I had learned in 2016. I had to practice all the loose words taught by the collaborators and students of Sébastien and by Laban Gervas, our tourist guide. The more I was looking at my notes, the more I felt the necessity to fine-tune the little I had learned. All those words that I thought I would never use again began to swirl in my mind. So, if I really wanted to communicate with Tanzanians, I had to properly learn Swahili. In my place, what would you have done?

           Before going to Tanzania, I spent a few months enjoying time with my family in Cuba. In my luggage, I had small cards with my notes and an external computer drive with various YouTube tutorials for Swahili beginners. In Cuba, I reserved three times a week, an average of three hours per day, to learn from these videos. I repeated those lessons so many times that I came to memorize by heart the vocabulary and the dialogues, to a point I was able to imitate the correct pronunciation of most words.

           I started watching the videos and repeating what people were saying. When there was a difficult word, I paused the video to see how it was written.

          To learn the vocabulary by myself, I wrote down in a notebook all I was seeing or hearing.

          I prepared small learning cards with loose words and a few complete sentences. One side in Swahili and the other side in Spanish.

          As I progressed, I was not looking at what people in the videos were saying or writing anymore, but I used it as a dictation exercise. Then, I checked back the video to see if all I had written was correct.

          I placed a pencil in my mouth and tried to say the words, sentences and dialogues. It is quite uncomfortable really, but that method always helps learning to get fluidity in words.

         Occasionally, my cousin, Rogert de la Cruz, would take my notebook and dictate to me, then, we  made the corrections.

         With my learning cards in his hands, he would tell me a word in Spanish and I had to say it in Swahili, or vice versa.

         For him, it was a joke and a way to check if I was really studying. For me, it was another way of learning. Have you ever done that with someone close?

I did the same to learn the numbers:

Moja= one, mbili= two, tatu= three, nne= four, tano= five…

          Once I had learned by heart the numbers from 1 to 10, the next step was to learn the tens, as the combination of both numbers lies in the addition of the word “na” (meaning “and” in English).

kumi         = ten                   kumi na moja                = eleven

ishirini      = twenty             ishirini na mbili              = twenty-two

thelathini   = thirty               thelathini na tatu            = thirty-three
arobaini    = forty                arobaini na nne             = forty-four

hansini     = fifty                hansini na tano              = fifty-five

          The rest is a matter of fine-tuning by ear and to practice what has been learned. I could not wait to get to Tanzania. I must say that if you ask the price of something in Swahili, some Tanzanian merchants have the patience to teach you how to pronounce the number correctly, especially the amount you have to pay.

          Ready!This time, I would not freeze in front of the immigration officer at the airport in Tanzania. Early October 2018, Sébastien and I arrived at the Dar-es-Salam city airport in Tanzania. Habari za usiku!(Good evening!), the rest of the immigration process was in English. After all the paperwork was done, I thanked in Swahili: Asante sana!

         The day following our arrival, we went to the Swiss embassy for the presentation of the documentary on Rudolf Geigy, founder of the Swiss Tropical and Public Health Institute of Basel in 1943. There, I met several Tanzanian public health officials, among whom the director of the Ifakara Health Institute (a Tanzanian health research institute); Sébastien introduced us. Extending my hand towards him, I said, “Jina lango Natividad, ninafuraha kukutana nawe(My name is Natividad, pleased to meet you)”.

“Wao, na wewe pia(Wao, me too)”.

          To my surprise, the gentleman asked in Spanish “¿Natividad, hablas español? ¿De dónde eres? (Natividad, do you speak Spanish? Where are you from?)”.

“Sí, hablo español. Soy cubana (Yes, I speak Spanish. I am Cuban)”.

          He congratulated me for my presentation in his language. During a few minutes, we had a nice chat in Spanish. He told me that my six-month stay in Bagamoyo would be a great opportunity to learn Swahili properly.

         On the third day, we finally arrived at the Frazma II residence in Bagamoyo. One of the features of this compound are the many sungura(rabbits) roaming freely in the garden. Sahle, the administrator welcomed us and gave us a few instructions for the apartment. A few days later, Sahle presented us his wife, Neema. She was working for other people in town.

         As soon as I saw Neema, I had the impression we would be very good friends, and so it was.

         Neema is very kind and she always has a smile on her lips; I rarely saw her angry. She is slender, has intense brown and very vivid eyes, and her hair is short and dark, although the day we met she had it covered with a colorful kilemba(handkerchief) and she wore a long dress matching the kilemba.

          From the beginning, I commented to Neema my interest in learning the Swahili language. She was surprised and asked me, “Why?” I replied that it was to allow me to better communicate with the Tanzanians.

          With time, I helped Neema to become empowered. I provided her with the required tools to achieve her goals as a businesswoman. Now, Neema is the owner of the first stand selling fresh fruit juices in Bagamoyo. The clients can drink it on site or take it with them, she named her business: NatiNee Fresh Matunda Juice.

          Neema and I went to the Institute of Cultural Arts in Bagamoyo, Taasisi ya sanaa na utamaduni (TaSUBa), because I was planning to sign up to learn how to play the saxophone and take classes in photography. While registering, I was told I could not take any of those classes because my immigration status did not allow me to do so. Despite this refusal, my visit helped me find a private Swahili teacher to learn more of the language.

The activities I did to improve my Tanzanian were:

  • I asked Neema to talk to me in Swahili as much as possible.
  • When I could, I took notes and translated into Spanish the words or sentences I was hearing from other people.
  • I read signs and flyers I saw in the street and I asked Neema for their meaning.
  • I wrote cards with the new vocabulary; Swahili on one side, Spanish on the other one.
  • I practiced difficult words with a pencil in my mouth.
  • I tried to speak with the workers in their spare time; they were laughing seeing my face when I did not understand.
  • I stuck pieces of paper on every object in the house with its function. Door = mlango(open or close the door), I also placed pieces of paper on glasses, the cutlery, the bed, the chairs, the table, etc... I went to the fish auction to learn the numbers. They were saying the numbers so fast I could not learn most of them. I befriended with a fish retailer and got to chat with him on a regular basis. On one occasion, he told Neema “The karibiani(Caribbean) learns quickly”.


Good afternoon                                                     Habari za mchana?

Very good, and you?                                            Safi sana! na wewe?

Good, thank you!                                                 Safi, asante!

I want to buy fish                                                 Nataka kununua samaki

How much does fish cost today?                           Je, samaki ni bei gani leo?

The price is very high today!                                Leo (ni) ghali sana!

Please, reduce the price                                      Naomba upunguze bei.


As I already mentioned in the previous article, I continued learning Swahili with my Kenyan friend Lucy Oyubo.


Tell me something:

Do you learn languages easily?

If you were going to live six months in a country where you do not master the language, would you try to learn it?

If you have any comment or question, please don’t hesitate to let me know.

Thank you very much = Asante sana.


Natividad Gagneux



Swahili courses for beginners

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5ya2ip1-mfc https://






Ifarara Health Institut in Tanzania




Institute of Cultural Arts in Bagamoyo, Taasisi ya sanaa na utamaduni (TaSUBa)




Lucy Oyubo, Swahili teacher in Basel, Switzerland



 NatiNee Fresh Matunda Juice

QX Corner in Pwani Region, Bagamoyo District, Tanzania


Rodolf Geigy



Natividad Gagneux                                                  Basilea, Suiza
Fundadora                                                               © NatiNee Bags 2020

Comentarios (1 Respuesta)

22 June, 2020


Interesting article. Glad you were able to have fun while learning.

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