There are more than 60 languages spoken in Kenya, including the official Swahili and English. Spend some time in the streets of Nairobi and you’ll likely hear traditional languages like Kikuyu and Luo as well as Somali, French, and, increasingly, Chinese spoken by the city’s growing immigrant population. You’ll also hear Sheng—the lingua franca of Nairobi youth—which is constantly evolving as it draws on Swahili, English, and tribal languages.
Kenyans are deft with their words. Humor sits at the top of most tongues—some sharper than others—and there’s often more meaning hiding under the surface of seemingly innocuous words. For those visiting Nairobi, it’s as fun to learn new words as it is to rediscover the ones you thought you already knew.
habari (ha-BA-ree): “Hello, how are you.” Not to be confused with jambo, which is now a little dated—you aren’t likely to hear many locals say it. Habari is the “Hi” to jambo’s “How do you do?”
niaje (NEE-ya-jay): “Hello” in Sheng. Sheng varies from neighborhood to neighborhood and has a high turnover rate—words falling in and out of the lexicon on a regular basis. Niaje in place of habari will give you some street cred.
poa (POE-ah): “All good.” This is the most common response to niaje, but you can also use it as a response to questions about your work, your family, and so on. People often pair mambo (How are you?) and poa too.
bora uhai (bo-RA oo-HIGH): Sheng for “Nothing matters as long as you are alive.” The phrase became popular a few months ago, after a spate of political scandals, including the theft of $98 million from the National Youth Service, left many Kenyans feeling resigned. It’s often uttered with a sigh, like “Anyways, life goes on.”
tafadhali (ta-fah-DA-lee): “Please.” Because you can never be too polite.
asante (ah-SAN-tay): “Thank you.” See above.
ati (ah-TEE): At face value this versatile word means “what?” But it can also be used at the start of a sentence in place of allegedly, as in, “Ati, he is *insert allegation here*,” or, “She said, Ati *insert gossip here.*”
Mzungu (mu-ZUN-gu): Typically used to describe a white person, the word literally means “someone who wanders around aimlessly.” If you’re a white tourist exploring Nairobi, that might be you!
Woiyee (WOI-yay): This expression of sympathy is often used when someone tells you they have experienced something unfortunate. It’s the compassionate way to respond.
Me, I … : The way people often start a declarative sentence. This phrase is a great way to understand how Kenyans operate: Rather than being shamed or pressured into the Western way of starting such a sentence, Me, I … is a classic example of how Kenyans have turned local expressions into a point of pride.
ma-hustla (mah-HUS-lah): “Hustler.” Surviving, making the best of a bad situation, creativity, and the deep-seated belief that you can change your circumstances are hallmarks of Kenyan character. Also in this vein are the words sonko, meaning “rich man,” and sufferer, meaning “poor man.”
Surely! (as in English): This is one of those untranslatable words that capture so much of the Nairobi spirit. It invokes amusement, shock, and resignation, and it’s a sentence unto itself. You might say it if someone is acting out or asking for something ridiculous or unreasonable. The best way I can think of to describe it is momlike exasperation.
twende (twen-DAY): “Let’s go.” Nairobians are always on the move.
bwana (bwa-NA): Originally used to refer to your employer, this is our version of “dude,” “man” or “guy.” People also say jo or boss sometimes.