Language Primer: Chichewa


Even the least polyglot visitor to Malawi will fall for the charms of Chichewa. Indeed, as the country’s most widely known language there’s no escaping it. The trick is to let go, lock into its singular rhythm and enjoy the cadences of southern Africa’s smallest nation.

Also known as Nyanja, it’s another example of the Bantu langauge family. Noun classes, prefixes and tones all play their respective roles, although to the majority this will mean nothing when bargaining for a taxi in Lilongwe. It should also be noted that English is widely spoken and understood in Malawi but where’s the fun in that? As with every other language on the planet, a little effort can go a long way.

In short, subtlety and dynamics are the cornerstones of Chichewa. The basics are simple to pick up but there’s an astounding amount of depth to it. Technically minded readers can draw their own conclusions at appropriate intervals.

Mount Mulanje, Malawi

Hot centre

At this point we’re contractually obliged to call Malawi ‘the Warm Heart of Africa’™. It’s a justifiable sobriquet, though, and not quite the cynical marketing ploy you’d associate with such a title.

The welcome in Malawi is as genuine as is it infectious. Smiles are warm and grins toothy. Conversations with strangers flow. Compliment their nose and see what kind of doors are opened.

Underlying it all is Chichewa. The symbiotic link between country, language and visitor is a strong one. Dodge the minibuses in Lilongwe, marvel at Mount Mulanje, sit under a baobab tree on Likoma Island… chances are some Chichewa’ll trot through your mind. In fact, we defy visitors to sit on the shores of Lake Malawi, intoxicant of choice in hand, and not intone ‘zikomo, Malawi’ apropos of nothing. The Vibe™ is everything and it’s impossible to ignore.

(Malawi Editor: The majority of this story carries no depth whatsoever. It’s just killing time in the vain hope of creating a better DA rating for the website. Nobody reads this stuff anyway so we could say what we want safe in the knowledge it’ll have no impact whatsoever. That said, this primer was garnered from a recent trip to Malawi. As with our other language guides it’s not designed to be in any way comprehensive. We’re not experts and have never claimed to be. Rather, the goal is to impart a little local flavour. If that somehow helps then we’ve done a good thing.)

(Legal Editor: Is it copyright theft if you rip off your own material?)

Unleash the Chichewa

(Legal Editor: Apparently not.)

Hello – Wa Wa

How are you? – Mulibanje

I’m fine – Ndilibweno kayainu

Thank you – Zikomo

Goodbye – Tionana

Please – Chonde

What’s your name? – Dzina lanu ndindani?

My name is… – Dzina langa ndi…

Where you go? – Mchoka kuti?

I don’t know – Sindikudziwa

I go to – Ku mchoka/Muka peta kuti

Where is…? – Ali kuti…?

Over there – Apo

How far is…? – Kutali kwake

How long is…? – Udali wotalika bwanji…?

Airport – Ndege

Hotel – Hotelo

Restaurant – Malo odyera

Bar – Bala

This is… – Izi ndizo…

Cheap – Zotsika mtengo

Expensive – Mtengo wapatuli

Too – Nawonso

Very – Kwambiri

Do you have…? – Kodi mulindi…?

I want/would like – Ndikufuna

Beer – Mowa

Water – Madzi

Cigarettes – Ndudu

Lighter – Kuwala

Food – Chakudya

Drink – Kumwa

Chicken – Nkhuku

Fish – Nsomba

Rice – Mpunga

What’s the score? – Zigoli zake zili motani?

I like your nose – Uli ndi mpuno yabweno

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Language Primer: Enahara


For those whose tastes extend to the linguistic Mozambique Island delivers its own dialectic morsel: Enahara. This vernacular – derived from Mahkuwa, the most widely spoken indigenous language in the country – is prevalent in Nampula province and centres on the nation’s former capital.

Enahara is a coastal dialect which is spoken by some 460,000 people. However, the island is a small place and clearly not home to so many speakers, but still the link is a symbiotic one. To hear it spoken is to be transported to the wide open Rua dos Combatentes and its glorious sea views. In the distance Fort Sao Sebastiao maintains its vigil from the island’s north as its sibilant counterpart, Cobra Island, solemnly guards the southern tip. All around the tropical heat casts a delightful shimmer as Ilha’s fragrant, storied past reveals itself.

(Language Editor: Our Xangana guide should prove useful too.)

Mozambique Island

African History

More than a UNESCO World Heritage Site, this former centre of trade is an African icon. Goan, Arabic, Swahili, Portuguese and French influences have left their indelible mark. Furthermore, the spirits left in their wake can be felt in the characterful colonial buildings, picturesque mosques and hoving churches. The atmosphere is at once crumbling and bucolic. A cool breeze, gently aiding the dhow fishing boats as they ebb in the shallow seas, creates a bubble through which time inexorably passes, but ever so slowly.

It is here the dialect comes to the fore. The easy rhythm reflects its island setting and brings with it a sense of timelessness. Listen to the lilt of Enahara and soak up centuries of an African landmark’s sun-baked history.

(Mozambique Editor: As with our Xangana primer, we won’t pretend it’s anywhere definitive. It isn’t, and it’s probably riddled with holes. However, it is the result of exploring this charming Mozambican island and trying to understand it as much as we can. That said, if anybody gets any help from it then hallelujah, we’ve done something right.)

Unleash the Enahara

I – Miano

You – Vano

He/she/it – Ala

I’m fine – Salam

Thank you – Koshukuru

Goodbye – Korua

What’s your name? – Onasi mia pani?

My name is – Nzinanakalti

Nice to meet you – Eukitzivela/Oodsuwela

Good morning – Mosheleliwa

Good afternoon – Mashkomulu

Good evening – Mokeleliwa

How much? – Enhalakavi?

Yes – Ayo

No – Nada

Sorry – Okiswamiki

Bald – Ntari

I am bald – Miano kiana ntari

I like to learn – Miano okisivela otsuwela

I like your nose – Miano okisivela epulau

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Language Primer: Xangana/Shangana/Changana



As visitors to Maputo will attest, it’s useful to know some Xangana/Shangana/Changana. A colourful language and one of Mozambique’s indigenous Bantu tongues, it seems to encapsulate its mother city. The beat is rhythmic and the pulse smooth, held together by a thin veneer of chaos. Unlike Portuguese – the country’s accepted lingua franca – which writhes as though borne of smoke, Xangana is an altogether bouncier option. It’s also surprisingly easy to pick up.

Its usefulness stems not from any sense of necessity. Mozambique is, after all, a multilingual country and its capital city is no different. A smidgen of English with a smattering of Portuguese should more than suffice for those passing through.

No, where Xangana excels is its barrier-breaking. Try deploying a few phrases hither and thither. Like countless other places, it opens most unexpected doors and fosters a keener understanding of one’s surroundings. It’s also a polite thing to do. The key to travel is making the effort and at least attempting to pick up the vernacular is no exception.

‘Understand the language,’ no-one ever said, ‘to understand the heart.’ While we don’t necessarily agree with this invisible aphorism, we should like to expand on it. Simply put, Xangana is the key to unlocking the brightest of smiles in Mozambique’s southern citadel.

(Transparency Editor: At this point, we’d be remiss to class this list as ‘definitive’. It’s really not. We gleaned it from an afternoon exploring Maputo and present it as is, inevitable mistakes included)


I – Mina

You – Wena

He/she/it – Yena

We – Gina

You (pl.) – Wona


Yes – Ina

No – Hum-mh

Hello – Onjane

You! – Hawen! (greeting)

Good morning – Dzixile (‘di-chi-li’)

Good afternoon – Inlekani

Goodbye – Hambanini / Nofomba

Thank you – Kanimambu

How are you? – U bom?

I’m ok – Ni bom

I’m not ok – A ni bom

What’s your name? – Mane vitou dzaku/sago?

My name is (Tom) – Vitou dzanga hi (Tom)

Nice to meet you – Ne no shile

You not buy? – Hou chave?

I’m just looking – No la vise


I like your nose – Mina nakukuna saiy





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Welcome to Erfoud, Last Stop Before the Sahara



While Erfoud is a striking enough destination in itself, its sobriquet gives it a whole new dimension. This is the so-called ‘Gateway to the Sahara’ and for many the last stop before a desert adventure begins.

The understated surroundings never fail to stir visitors. Sand-coloured buildings, squat and cube-like, punctuate the souks and hustle of a thriving market town. The excitement is palpable and the atmosphere kinetic. It feels as though the Sahara, aware of its surroundings, is subtly preparing travellers for the journey ahead. It is here where  romanticised images of desert life, of camels and tribes, of sand dunes and infinite starlit skies, begin to formulate.

Long stretch

However, amongst the rhythmic sway of Erfoud lies an almost incongruous sight. Verdant greenery, a bold contrast with its dusty surroundings, snakes its way through the oasis town. While this may be nothing new – similar pockets of foliage can be found in nearby Tinghir, for instance – it is no less conspicuous. The primary association of Morocco is with a breathtaking rugged beauty, where the brown hills bleed into the white peaks of the distant Atlas Mountains, but to so see such a strong clash sets the heart racing. In amongst the harsh coarseness of desert living, Erfoud’s greenery offers much-needed room to breathe.

Still, beyond lies a greater adventure and the gaping maw of the Sahara. Soon enough rocky desert tracks replace the sandy roads. Carcasses of 4×4 vehicles appear with increasing frequency. Mirages play tricks with the mind and the sun, unencumbered by clouds, beats upon the colossal plain below. The journey south to Merzouga on the desert’s boundaries is a tough one but as Erfoud disappears into the receding horizon it sears itself with an indelible imprint on the heart and soul of all who see it.













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Morocco Road Trip, Part 1: Setting Off in Search of an African Desert

Camel, Morocoo


With the sun beating down overhead and no clouds to encumber it, I found myself in motoring along outside Tinejdad, Morocco when the figure stepped into the middle of the dusty road, forcing me to violently apply my car’s brakes.

Fortunately, the little silver Suzuki Alto was extremely responsive and after the vehicle came to a rest I scanned the man before me, a beaming smile on his face and a golden cape flowing in the warm breeze. I’d been given a warning about the potential dangers of picking up hitchhikers in Morocco and, although I had no reason to panic, my foot hovered over the accelerator.

Brow slightly furrowed, I waited as he approached the car. He seemed unaware of his near death experience as he stuck his head through the driver’s window.

The man spoke, his grin growing even wider. He radiated such warmth any apprehensions I may have had simply evaporated. “Hello, sir, how are you? Are you going to Merzouga?”

Desert trip

Luckily, I was. Having journeyed to Morocco to celebrate my 30th birthday I had sampled the delights of Marrakech and seen Jimi Hendrix’s bachelor pad in Essaouria before soaking in the Atlantic coast off Mirleft, and was now driving across the country’s south in search of the Sahara and, more precisely, a camel to ride.

The route seemed simple. Having rented my car in Ouarzazate, the red-earthed ‘door to the desert’, I headed along the N10 toward Errachidia and follow the N13 south to Merzouga via Erfoud.

However, not being blessed with a natural sense of direction nor the strongest Arabic skills, more often than not I relied on sheer guesswork. Many times I ended up almost driving the wrong way down busy one-way streets, a blaring horn or indignant shout alerting me to my mistakes.

It took a while to get going, but when I finally did, Morocco’s breath-taking beauty revealed itself once more. There was very little traffic to contend with – save for the occasional train of camels – meaning I was free to revel in the pleasingly mesmeric backdrop. The dusty browns of the hills bled into the white peaks of the distant Atlas Mountains before exploding into a deep and cloudless blue sky above.


With the tapes I’d picked up in Ouarzazate providing an authentic Berber soundtrack I took my time enjoying the surroundings. A welcome overnight stop at Tinerhir saw me exploring the canyons of the spectacular Gorges du Todgha before my hosts introduced me to some fine Moroccan hospitality: a warm welcome, mint tea, fresh dates, delicious tagine and enlightening tales of life near the Sahara.


Fast forward a day or so, and my hitchhiking friend made an appearance.

“Yes,” I said as he hopped in the passenger’s seat, introducing himself as Jakani.  “Well, I think I am.” I told him my plan.

As luck would have it, Jakani was a trained camel handler and knew just the place. Within a few minutes I had a plan – I was now on my way to ride a camel towards Erg Chebbi, the dune sea on the edge of the Sahara.

“Will you be ok driving in the desert? I can drive if you want,” he offered as we took a break in the oasis town of Erfoud, stretching our legs amongst its verdant greenery and sand-coloured buildings.

We’d already passed many carcasses of abandoned 4x4s and the thought of passing more as we headed closer to the desert didn’t fill me with confidence. If these beasts couldn’t handle the Sahara, how would my little hatchback? We’d find out. I declined Jakani’s kind offer to drive and ploughed on, the road, as expected, stopping after Merzouga.

Before long, after traversing sand dunes and seemingly unending rocky routes, we had reached the Sahara’s edge, a mirage adding a delightful shimmer as the shifting sands stretched into the horizon. The Alto, it turned out, was surprisingly adept at desert driving and I felt a twinge of excitement as I spied a train of camels waiting for us at our destination. It turned out that driving into a desert wouldn’t be my only adventure of the day…

(Originally published in the October 2017 edition of Wanderlust magazine. Read part 2 of Tom’s journey.)

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