Vhahangwele Nemakonde
Digital Journalist
4 minute read
25 May 2016
1:21 pm

Africa Day: A beginner’s guide to African languages

Vhahangwele Nemakonde

In celebration of Africa Day, we showcase a few foreign African languages commonly heard in Joburg.

PICTURE: Wikimediacommons

Although it is the South African national anthem, Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika (translated as Ishe Komborera Africa in Shona and God bless Africa in English), written by Methodist school teacher Enoch Sontonga, has Africa at its heart. The anthem, written in 1897, asks God to bless our continent and end the wars and strife that have unfortunately been rife.

In his 1996 speech at the adoption of the Republic of SA Constitution Bill in Cape Town, former president Thabo Mbeki said:

“Whatever the setbacks of the moment, nothing can stop us now!
“Whatever the difficulties, Africa shall be at peace!
“However improbable it may sound to the sceptics, Africa will prosper!”

However, there is more to the African continent than wars, poverty and diseases. One of the many things that make Africa special is the number of languages it boasts, with 11 official languages in South Africa alone.

According to Wikipedia, there are 1 250 to 2 100 and by some counts more than 3 000 languages spoken in Africa, in several major language families, namely:

  • Afroasiatic languages, spread throughout the Middle East, North Africa, the Horn of Africa, and parts of the Sahel
  • Nilo-Saharan languages, concentrated in Sudan and Chad (disputed validity)
  • Niger–Congo (Bantu and non-Bantu) covers West, Central, Southeast and Southern Africa
  • Khoe languages, concentrated in the deserts of Namibia and Botswana
  • Austronesian languages, spoken in Madagascar
  • Indo-European languages, spoken on the southern tip of the continent (Afrikaans), as well as in the enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla (Spanish) in the north.

There are several other small families and language isolates, as well as languages that have yet to be classified. In addition, Africa has a wide variety of sign languages, many of which are language isolates.

Apart from their name, a person’s language says more about them than where they come form. In it is the history and pride that they carry around with them no matter how far they are from home.

I walked along the streets of Johannesburg this week asking our African brothers and sisters to translate a few words in their language. Apart from the “will you pay me?” questions I got from a few, my request put a smile on their faces. This reminded me that it was more than their language I was asking for; it reminded them of where they came from and all the lovely memories it evoked.

For a moment, the fast Joburg life stopped, and it was all about getting those words right, which for some came with a bit of frustration when I got the spelling or pronunciation wrong. However, all of that faded when I finally got it right.

Today is Africa Day, a day that commemorates the founding of the Organisation of African Unity (now known as the African Union) on May 25, 1963. It aims to celebrate African unity. This year’s celebration is under the theme “African Year of Human Rights”, with a specific focus on the rights of African women.

To celebrate this day, The Citizen has compiled a list of important words to say to your African brother or sister, in their language. These are not the only foreign languages you will hear in South Africa, but they are the most common, especially in the Joburg CBD. Go on, test your knowledge and make someone smile today:

Language: Twi

Spoken: Ghana

Hello: Eti sen

Thank you: Nyame nshirawu

Good bye:  Medawasi


Language: Heuse

Spoken: Ghana, Nigeria, Togo, Cote d’Ivoire and Burkina Faso

Hello: Qualafia (in the morning), sau da ranah (good afternoon)

Good bye: Sau da yini

Thank you: Nagede


Language: Igbo

Spoken: Nigeria (East)

Hello: Kedu

Thank you: Imelar

I’m sorry: Ndoo

Good bye: Kemesia


Language: Hausa

Spoken: Nigeria (Northern)

Hello: Yaya dei

Thank you: Nagude

I’m sorry: Hakwuli

Good bye: Sa ajuma


Language: Lingala

Spoken: Congo Brazzaville and DRC

Hello: Mbote

Thank you: Matondo

I’m sorry: Limbisa

Good bye: Kende malamu


Language: French

Spoken: Cameroon

Hello: Bonjour

Thank you: Merci

I’m sorry: Je suis désolé

Good bye: Aurevoir


Language: Tigrigna

Spoken: Eritrea

Hello: Kemey

Thank you: Yekenyeley

I’m sorry: Ykreta

Good bye: Chiau


Language: Portuguese

Spoken: Mozambique, Angola

Hello: Hallo

Thank you: Muito obrigado

I’m sorry: Desculpa

Good bye: Adeus


Language: Chichewa

Spoken: Malawi

Hello: Mulibwanji

Thank you: Zikomo

I’m sorry: Pepani

Good bye: Ndapita


Language: Yoruba

Spoken: Nigeria

Good morning: Ekaro

Good afternoon: Ekasan

Good evening:  Ekurole

I’m sorry: Ma binu

Sorry: Peel

Thank you: Eshe


Language: Swahili

Hello: Habari

I’m sorry: Pole (or Samahani)

Thank you: Asante

Good bye: Kwaheri


Language: Shona

Spoken: Zimbabwe

Hello: Makadini (or Ndeip – slang)

I’m sorry: Ndine urombo (or Ndine ruregerero)

Thank you: Waita basa (or Maita basa – if they are many)

Good bye: Musare mushe