Swahili: When life is always good

Tanzania Soccer GameSo I have been blogging for a couple of weeks and figured now was as good a time as any to explain the photo in my masthead.

The photo was taken in the spring of 2007 in northern Tanzania near the Kenyan border in the Maasai community of Mondulli Juu. I was with a small group that spent a couple of days living within this community thanks to the hard work of Kesuma Kasi Kasi, a Maasai leader who was a co-founder of the Kitumusote organization.

I met Kesuma through a month-long volunteer program that I was participating in near Arusha, Tanzania in a small village called Tengeru. My day-to-day job was to teach grade six and seven students at Akeri Primary School.

As part of our volunteer training we attended Swahili classes taught by a very animated man named Kisanji. Thanks to his wonderful teaching, I became able to communicate in basic Swahili, a skill which the locals truly appreciated.

One of my fondest memories of my month in Tanzania was how happy and outgoing most of the people were whom I met. I’m no social scientist, but I believe that this outlook has something to do with the Swahili language.


You see, in Swahili there is no true word for saying that something is bad.

When someone asks you how you are doing (“Habari!”) you respond with “Nzuri” which means good. If you are doing really well you would respond with “Nzuri Sana”. However, if things were not good or you had a problem, you would respond with “Nzuri Kidogo”. That translates to ‘a little good’.

It took me about a week to finally extract the details of nzuri kidogo out of someone, but once I did, it made me think about how great a language Swahili was to force people to only have positive responses. Imagine going through a day and the worst you could possibly be is ‘a little good’. Not bad. But a little good. So no matter what, you would always be good, even if you were only 1% good.

So the photo in my masthead reminds me that even when things are bad or are not going my way, if I flip the coin around, things are really a little bit good.

Now if you have better knowledge of this region of the world than I, you may be saying, “Wait a minute, the Maasai don’t speak Swahili as their native language.”

This is true.

The traditional language of the Maasai is Maa. So your greeting would be “Sopai” and your respond would be “Ipa”.

However, Kesuma, who is second to my left in the photo, has taught himself both Swahili and English so that is enough of a reminder as to why one should draw from this example of the Swahili language for a little positive motivation once in a while.

I will share one final lesson. You don’t even need language to reinforce the positive. For most of the Maasaii we visited, this was one of the few times they had foreigners spend the night with them in their boma and despite the language barrier a smile and a few simple gestures was all that was needed to display friendship.

My time in Tanzania was a true exchange. I left with a small understanding of how language can influence happiness. The students at the school have a reminder from my home in the form of a CFL football to kick and throw around – although, based on our initial session with the football, I’m sure they have abandoned it for the other ‘football’.

Lessons Learned:

  • No matter how bad you think you have it, life can always be good
  • A smile goes a long way
  • Travel – it is the best education

About Jaime Stein

Jaime is the Senior Manager, Social Media at Hootsuite. He is a digital marketer with expertise in social media and content marketing. His experience stems from leading the social media strategy for two national brands. Jaime holds an MBA with a focus in Marketing and Strategy from the Rotman School of Management where he was selected valedictorian by the students of the Morning MBA Class of 2011. He is the former radio voice of the Toronto Argonauts and currently lives in Vancouver with his wife and two sons.
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