Going on safari? Guide to the basics in local African languages

A giraffe, also known as “thutlwa” in Setswana, or “twiga” in Swahili!

If you are planning a safari and you’re interested in learning some African languages, then you’ll be pleased to know that you’ve already made a start, as the word ‘safari’ is Swahili for ‘journey’!

And what a journey it will be. Africa is a diverse continent of arid deserts, lush forests, and ancient cultures. It covers over 20% of the world’s total land mass and is the second most populous continent on Earth.

Many of the ethnic groups are nomadic, and the mix of languages crosses national borders. UNESCO has estimated that there are more than 2,000 languages spoken in Africa.

Most people are unlikely to have the time to learn all of the languages or to cover all of Africa in one trip, so if you know where you’re going, here are the languages to help you on your way:

Southern Africa

For South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, and Namibia, consider learning a few polite words of Setswana.

Setswana is a Bantu language, spoken by around four million people. There are hundreds of Bantu languages in sub-Saharan Africa.

What can make Bantu languages tricky to learn is that the beginnings (not the endings) of verbs and other words change depending on tense and context.

Eastern Africa

If you are travelling in and around the Democratic Republic of Congo, Kenya, and Tanzania, you will find eleven million speakers of Swahili (otherwise known as Kiswahili, literally ‘language of the Swahili people’), which is the most widely spoken Bantu language.

Here’s a taste of Swahili, with some clues about what you might see on your safari:

English to Swahili



Thank you (very much)-Asante (sana)






The official language of Ethiopia is Amharic, which is the second most widely spoken semitic language in the world. It is both an administrative and a sacred language.

Amharic gave us the word ‘Rastafarian’, which comes from the Amharic word ‘Ras’, meaning ‘head’, and ‘Tafari’, being the given name of the Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie.

Knowing a little Amharic could help you win friends as far away as Jamaica.

North Africa and the Middle East

If you’re travelling in countries such as Egypt, Jordan, and Morocco, then some knowledge of Arabic will get you a long way. It is the most widely spoken semitic language in the world.

Arabic is an ancient spoken and written language, and is the language of the Qur’an and of many scholarly works. Many Arabic words have been imported into European languages.


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