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What does "jambo" literally mean, and why do we use negative prefixes to ask how someone is?

I would think you would say "ninajambo" to say I am fine instead of "sijambo". What does jambo as a verb mean? Thanks!

July 6, 2017



Did a quick search (could probably go deeper) but it seems it means "problems". And the negative is because you say something like p: "no problems?" But most places is says it just means hello (for foreigner?) implies that you want to be spoken to in English. Also on campus it can mean name, adresss, etc I saw another place? Don't take any of my word for it googles just : "what does jambo literally mean"



MartinSand392255 is right. In Swahili you are asked "Hujambo?" meaning, "Do you not have any problems?" So to respond you must use the negative to say "I have no problems." If you would respond "Ninajambo" it would mean "Yes, I have problems" and people would think you are speaking incorrectly.

It is also noteworthy that here you are writing only "jambo" which I have heard is Kenyan Swahili and is considered improper. I have heard Tanzanians say this also, but it is far less common. Most Tanzanians say "Hujambo? Hamjambo? Hawajambo" etc.


Jambo is actually a noun, not a verb, and it means issue/affair/problem. The plural is "Mambo," and as you can see it belongs to the JI/MA noun class.

Hujambo? = You have no problems (you are fine?) Sijambo = I don't have any problems (yes, I am fine)

Jambo is used in place of Huambo/Hamjambo as a greeting with Wazungu/tourists because Kenyans assume (correctly, for the most part) that it is maybe the only Swahili word foreigners know.

Kenyans rarely use "Jambo" amongst themselves, it is really more towards tourists. So, if someone greets you with "Jambo," you can reply with "Sijambo, habari yako?" to let them know you have a knowledge of Swahili and would like to continue the conversation on Swahili.

(Note: I live in Kenya so I can only speak for Kenyan Swahili, not Tanzanian)


Interestingly, another (casual) greeting is "Mambo," which is the plural of "Jambo," and negatives are not really used with that greeting. Instead the standard reply to "Mambo" is "Poa"


At Nairobi airport the announcer (at least when I spent there 8 hours waiting for a connecting flight) started any announcement with "Jambo". So no surprise innocent tourists learn the wrong word....


If I use Swahili words in the ways that(I am told) they use in Kenya, then I usually get scolded and told that I am speaking poor Swahili like a Kenyan lol.


So, "Jambo" could be translated as: "Hello foreigner, may you enjoy your stay and not be bothered with negations, noun classes or other language details - unless you want to." ;o) Looking forward to learning how to say: "No, I don't want to cause you any problems!"


I'd second everything M_Dog66 said.

I've lived in various parts of TZ for almost 3 years and I've never heard "Jambo" (by itself) used on anyone not perceived to be a tourist.

Also worth mentioning. In Tanzania this greeting is mostly used when called by an elder and responded to by a younger person.

old: "hujambo"

young: "sijambo. Shikamoo."

old: "marahaba..."

Among peers it's more common to hear a "mambo" or "habari..." type greeting.


Jambo is a noun meaning "thing", "matter", "affair" (an abstract thing as opposed to a tangible thing, which is a kitu). I think these phrases are basically short for

Huna jambo?


Jambo literally means "matter", or "issue", or in another context, "thing". So using the negative "sijambo" is really close to saying that things are fine with you or others. Similarly to English when we say "nothing is the matter" when things are fine. I hope that helps.

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