Cultural Note: Addressing different people in Swahili

A little cultural tidbit to ensure you don’t go around Swahili speakers ruffling unnecessary feathers! When you are in a Swahili speaking place and you wish to ask your way around, strike up a conversation, etc you need to learn the right ways to address different people and avoid ruffling said feathers of course!

For younger women (or those of roughly the same age as oneself) you address them as dadaanti or shangazi (aunt-meaning ‘young lady’, not aunt in the literal sense). Young women can also be addressed as bi mdogo (young lady). Older people are the ones that would use this title not ones age mates.

For younger men (or those of roughly the same age as oneself ) you address them as kaka, anko or mjomba (uncle-same idea as anti). Young men can also be addressed as bwana mdogo (or bwa’ mdogo as we like to shorten it which means ‘young man’). This is normally used by older people not ones age mates.

Older ladies of  an older mother’s age (around 40 and above) are simply referred to as mama or bi mkubwa (meaning ‘older lady’). Older men of again around the same age of 40 and above are referred to as baba or more commonly, mzee (meaning an ‘older person’). Most sons also call their dads mzee which is considered quite formal (think calling your dad father as opposed to dad).

As for older people from around 65 and above (grandparents’ age) we call them bibi for women and babu for men (men can also be referred to as mzee as already explained above)

And as for kids, well not much is expected as they are just kids so you can call them pretty much whatever but for really young ones (say under 10 years) most people affectionately call them mtoto mzuri (loosely translates to ‘you sweet obedient child’). You bet they like that!

So, next time you are in a Swahili speaking place, particularly Tanzania, don’t forget your manners and address people properly. Also, don’t be surprised when people tend to not hold back and call you out on your way of addressing them, it’s like being in Japan and forgetting to bow-nobody takes it kindly!