A primer on Swahili names

Swahili, or Kiswahili, is a Bantu language and lingua franca in eastern and southeastern Africa. The Swahili, or Waswahili, people primarily live in Kenya, Mozambique, Congo, and Tanzania (esp. Zanzibar). Other nation-states where Swahili is spoken include Zambia, Rwanda, Burundi, Uganda, Sudan, and Malawi. Outside of Africa, significant groups also live in Oman, Madagascar, Mayotte, and Comoros.

The first recorded documents in Swahili are from 1711, at the time written in Arabic script. In June 1928, an inter-territorial conference chose the Zanzibar dialect of Kiunguja as the basis for standard Swahili. Today, the language is written in Roman script, minus Q and X.

In addition to the familiar CH, SH, TH, and KH, other compound letters are DH, GH, MB, MV, ND, NG, NJ, NY, and NZ.

My unplanned secondary character Marjani Washington, her older sister Subira, and their little brother Zuberi were given Swahili names when they were born in the 1950s. Their parents wanted to give them names more in line with their ethnic heritage instead of blending into mainstream American culture. They also eat a lot of traditional African foods, use the relatively new word “Black” instead of “Negro,” and celebrate Kwanzaa. The women in the family wear their hair in cornrows, in an era when many African–American women straightened their hair.

A sampling of Swahili names:

Unisex:

Chuki (Born during a time of hatred)
Enzi (Powerful)
Hekima (Wisdom)
Imani (Faith)
Kaombwe
Makini (Strength of character)
Nyoka (Snake; much more common as a surname)
Shida (Suffering)
Tatu (Three; traditionally used for a third-born child)
Tisa (Nine; traditionally used for a ninth-born child)

Female:

Adhra (Apology)
Adia (Valuable gift)
Amondi (Wishes)
Anza
Asatira (Legend, history)
Asha, Eshe (Life)
Atiena (Guardian of the night)

Chaniya (Wealthy)
Chausiku (Born at night)
Dalili (Omen)
Fahari (Splendour)
Furaha (Happiness, joy)

Jana (Yesterday)
Jasiri (Courageous, bold)
Kadesha
Kamaria (Moon)
Kiah (Dawn)
Kibibi (Little lady)
Kiojah (Miracle)

Maisha (Life)
Mariamu (Miriam)
Marjani (Coral)
Mchumba (Sweetheart)
Mwanajuma (Born on Friday)

Naki (Traditionally used for the firstborn girl in a family)
Nashipie (Joy)
Nathari (Prose)
Nayfa (Benefit)
Nelah (Gift with purpose)
Nia, Nyah (Purpose)
Niara (Of high purpose)
Nuru (Light)

Paskalia
Sanaa (Artwork)
Sarabi (Mirage)
Sarafina (Bright star; completely unrelated to the Hebrew name Serafina)
Sauda (Dark complexion)
Shani (Wonder)
Skolastika (Orator, rhetorician)
Subira (Patience)

Tambika (Offering)
Tatanisha
Tuere (Sacred)
Wambui
Zawadi
Zuri (Beautiful)

Male:

Amri (Authority, power, command)
Athumani (Third one)
Dai (Demand)
Dunia (Earth, world)
Faraji (Consolation)

Hadithi
Harambee (Let’s pull together)
Imamu (Spiritual leader)
Isaya (Isaiah)
Jelani (Mighty)
Jengo (Building)
Jumaane (Born on Tuesday)

Khamisi (Born on Thursday)
Kibwe (Blessed)
Kijani (Warrior)
Kovu (Scar)
Mosi (First child)
Mulele (Man who runs quickly)
Mwenye (Lord, owner)

Nwabudike (The strength of a father comes from his son)
Sadaka (Religious offering)
Sadiki (Believe)
Sefu (Sword)
Simba (Lion)

Tendaji (Make things happen)
Tukufu (Exalted)
Yakobo (Jakob)
Yohana (John)
Zahur (Flower)
Zuberi (Strong)

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