Welcome to Susannah’s crash course in Nyanja! If you’ve always dreamed of learning just enough of Lusaka’s primary language to garner plenty of confused looks and/or chuckles when greeting others, you’ve come to the right place.

Okay, let’s get started! Nyanja is one of 500 Bantu languages that make up the Bantoid language branch of the Niger-Congo language family. Nyanja is thought to have originated in Nigeria and Cameroon, migrated through the DRC, and ended up in its present location: Malawi and the Eastern and Central provinces of Zambia. Though not as widespread as Bemba, Nyanja is spoken by over a tenth of Zambia’s population and is frequently used to communicate across provinces as a common language among the 72 tribes that still exist in the nation.

I suppose some of you are wondering why a question mark remains in the title of this post. Susannah must speak this language pretty poorly if she doesn’t even know its proper name, you might be thinking. Indeed, you are quite correct. To my knowledge, the language is called Nyanja, BUT “chi” is a prefix that indicates a language, so it is sometimes referred to as Chinyanja. NOT ONLY THAT, but the language has a second name: Chewa. Add the “chi” dilemma to that and you have four name options. I have yet to figure out when to use which name, so, for the time being, I grant you all permission to use whichever you prefer until I am better informed.

On to greetings!

If you would like to greet any person at any time of the day, the go-to phrase is, “Muli bwanji?,” which means, “How are you?” Now, I’m sure some of you might find this surprising, but the correct response to this question is not, in fact, to repeat that exact phrase back to the initial greeter! After about a week of confidently responding to the question, “How are you?” with a broad grin and the same question of, “How are you?,” I realized that the correct response is actually a statement explaining your wellbeing, such as, “Ndili bwino,” (I am well), or “Sindili Bwino” (I am not well). If you’re feeling ambitious and want to throw the time of day in there too, you can greet someone with “Mwauka bwanji” (How are you this morning?), or “Mwachoma bwanji” (How are you this afternoon/evening?).

I’m slowly getting the hang of the muli’s and mwauka’s and bwino’s and bwanji’s, but my favorite/most used word is “Zikomo.” Someone helps you set up your wifi dongle? Zikomo. Someone fixes your water so you can take a hot shower after a week of cold bucket baths? Zikomo! Someone brings you a live chicken (or three)? Zikomo kwambiri (thank you very much)! Someone helps you rinse nshima off your hands after a meal? Zikomo! Need to stop someone to ask directions to your church? Zikomo. Need to nudge past someone in the crowd outside Manda Hill shopping center? Zikomo. If you haven’t gathered the meaning from context clues, Zikomo is used to say “thank you,” and also “excuse me.” It has also become my reflex word, so on the rare occasion that a Zambian attempts to say something to me other than the precise greeting that I know, my response is usually “Zikomo.” I say this is a rare occasion because most Zambians in Lusaka, polyglots that they are, take one look at me and immediately switch to English.

Another one of my favorite words is used to announce one’s presence at the entrance to a room. Many houses or huts in Zambia don’t have a door in every doorway, so instead of knocking, you call out, “Odi!” This simply means “knock knock” and asks permission to enter. With it being the simple, 3-letter, 2 syllable word that it is with no required follow-up question/response/exchange of more Nyanja words, I’ve taken it to heart and now use it at most doorways I come to, even if there is a door.

The third and fourth weeks of our orientation in Zambia are being spent at the FENZA Faith and Encounter Centre in Lusaka. Here we are taking classes in the morning on Zambian culture, history, politics, religion, economics and many other topics. Our afternoons are then spent learning the Nyanja language. We have a wonderful teacher, who we know as ‘Abambo,’ and who, like other Zambians, chuckles at our mistakes/accents?, but then encourages us to keep trying. He assures us multiple times a day that “Nyanja is very easy!”

14374556_10211123634271763_1337381486_o(How the YAVs feel when we’re told of the simplicity of Nyanja.)

He has yet to convince me of this, but it’s still nice to pretend that I’ll pick it up in a month or two. I’d like to share with you a short list of my favorite new (and apparently very easy) vocabulary words from the first few days of class.

Mtengo                Tree

Cingwe                 String

Khasu                    Hoe (n.)

Lima                       Hoe (v.)

Uta                         Bow (as in one with arrows)

Mpeni                   Knife

Dengu/Thadza/Mtanga/Basiketi     Basket (I’m very happy that 4 of the 30 words I know are  for “basket”)

Fodya                    Tobacco

Nkhokwe            Bin/Granary

Nyumba               House/Hut

Pepani                  Sorry

Feluka                   Fail

Gonzera               Scut/Get a ride hanging on the back of a car

Dula                       Cut

Cotsa                     Take off, remove

Ona                        See, look

Iai                          No

Amai                     Mother, Ms. (with respect)

Abambo               Father, Mr. (with respect)


Please feel free to call me on Whatsapp at any time to practice asking if I can “cut the string,” “drop the knife in the basket,” or to inform me that, if I cannot work, I should “leave the hoe in the house.”

A fun Nyanja fact we’ve come to realize in the last few days is that R’s and L’s are interchangeable! Even in our textbook! This translates to Zambian English as well, so, as Sherri informed us, it’s always fun to hear Subway’s ad on the radio: “Subway. Eat flesh.”

And with that, I shall leave you all with one final tidbit of Nyanja wisdom: “Panga panga sapangika,” or: “Mr. ‘Do Do’ (pronounced “Doo Doo”) does not get things done.” If anyone has a hunch about the meaning of this proverb, please share your ideas! (I do actually know what it means—my Nyanja book helped me out—but I’m very curious about other people’s initial impressions!)

Tiza onana futi!

(We will see each other again!)


3 thoughts on “(Chi?)Nyanja 101

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