Since I’m leaving for Burundi in less than 48 hours (eek!) I decided to review my Kirundi by slapping together this English-Kirundi phrase “book” which is a work in progress as I try to dust off everything I once knew… the contributions of Jean-Marie, Jean-Marie, Thierry, Didier, Greg, Gérard, Diomède, Geneviève, Melchiade, Prudent, Marie, Médiatrice, Zacharie, Terence and Daniel, Mélance, Olivier, Floribert… along with other readers and other great people I met in Burundi, are much appreciated!
Note to Burundian friends: There is no guarantee of correct spelling. Specific corrections to spelling or meanings (in the comment field) would be much appreciated!!
If you are Burundi-bound… please mention vocabulary sets you would LIKE to see here, and I will ask the aforementioned, fantastic native speaker panel to help me prepare them!
a- always as in “father”
e- somewhere between “egg” and “café”, NEVER silent
i- always as in “sushi”
o – as in “oval” or “ocean” but a bit rounder and deeper
u – as “ou” in French “bouche”
Consonants are the same as in English except:
“g” and “w” are often confused or run together, “Rwanda” is pronounced “Rgwanda”
“c” always pronounced ch as in “which,” NEVER as in “cat” or “slice”
“z”- often “dz”
Except in loan words, the consonant pairs “nk” and “nt” are pronounced “nh”, “mp” is pronounced “mh.” Hum the first consonant and gasp the second.
Francophone Burundians (the educated “elite”) pride themselves on having little or no accent. And many don’t. But:
Some have the tendency to use the same sound, è or i, for the French sounds “eu” and “i”, creating a problem when you try to buy something, as 2 (deux) and 10 (dix) sound the same or close to it.
“R” and “L” are sometimes confused, as in Asian languages. I’ve seen signs that say “Areruya” and “Manicule et pedicule.”
Also as in Asian languages, there’s a tendency to add a random vowel after most hard consonents. The name “Gabriel,” consequently, becomes “Gaburiyèri.”
Hello (lit. peace): Amahoro
What’s up?: Bite? or: Gute?
Hey you!: Hewe!
“Hey you” is not impolite in Kirundi.
Hey you! (to a woman): Sista!
Hey you! (to an older man): Mutama!/Mzée!
Hey you! (to a white person): Muzungu!
Being called “muzungu” all the time can get pretty annoying, although it’s rarely if ever meant as an insult– more of an observation. If (when) you get sick of it, appropriate flippant responses would be:
“murundi!” (Hey, local!)
“Muzungu? Arihehe?” (A foreigner?! Where?)
“Si nitwa umuzungu. Nitwa —-” (That’s not my name. My name is —-“)
Who, me?: Jewe?
Welcome: Kaze/Karibu (see “Swahili” below)
Good morning: Mwaramutse
Good evening: Mwiriwe
Good night: Ijoro ryiza
Thank you (very much): Murakoze (cane)
You’re welcome: Murakoze gushima (lit. Thank you for saying thank you. Formal, not used in all instances. People will often say “Ego” or “Sawa” as an acknowledgement.)
No problem: Ntaco!/Nta kibazo!
Sorry (to apologize, to get by): Mbabarile
My name is —: Nitwa —
What’s your name?: Witwande?
What’s his/her name?: Yitwande?
His/her name is —: Yitwa —
I come from — : Mba muri —
I live in/ I’m staying at —: Mva muri —-
OK: Sawa (sha)
OK (agreement): Nivyo
Definitely! Ego sha !(fam) Ego cane! (form)
“Sha” adds both emphasis and familiarity. For use with friends, can be seen as condescending otherwise, especially in Rwanda. To add emphasis without adding familiarity, use “cane” (“a lot”) as a suffix.
Absolutely not! Eka (sha) !
Like French and most other European languages, Kirundi has a singular, informal “you” form, ura (to be used with kids, with friends of your own age and colleagues of your own rank) and a formal/plural “you” form, mura, used with work superiors, elderly people, strangers…and when talking to more than one person.
How are you? (pl/form): Murakomeye (lit. Are you strong?)
How are you? (sing/fam): Urakomeye
I’m fine: Ndakomeye.
How are things? (lit. What is the news?): Amakuru?
Fine (lit. The news is good): Ni meza.
Is everything OK?: Ni sawa?
Yes, everything’s ok.: Ego ni sawa.
I’m busy/I’m working: Ndiko ndakora
I’m hungry: Ndashonje
Let’s go eat: Tugende gufungura/tugende kugya (both are used, but the second is considered slightly crude)
I’m going to go eat: Ndagiye gufungura/kugya
I’m sick.: Ndarwaye
I’m tired.: Ndarushe
I’m worried.: Ndafise ubwoba.
I’m busy: Ndiko ndakora.
What are you doing?: Uriko urakora iki?
I’m studying(Kirundi): Ndiko ndiga (ikirundi).
I’m reading: Ndiko ndasoma.
I’m writing: Ndiko ndandika.
I’m looking for…: Ndiko ndarondera…
I’m making something to eat: Ndiko ndakinjika.
Take care of yourself! Go easy!: Polepole! Pole sana!
Get some rest!: Ruhuka!
I’m going to sleep: Ndagiye kuryama
Sleep well!: Waraye neza.
See you!: Tuzosubira!
See you very soon!: Turasubira!
See you tomorrow!: Nahejo!
I’m going to (the store): Ndagiye muri (ibutike)
Where are you?: Urihehe?
Where is he/she?: Arihehe?
Where is it?: Irihehe?
Over there: Hariye
I’m at home: Ndi muhira.
I’m at work: Ndi ku kazi
I’m waiting: Ndiko ndirindiye
I’m on my way!: Ndaje!
In practice, “Ndaje” means, “I have the sincere intention of coming to meet you, and, barring any unforeseen circumstances, should get there within the hour, provided the bus comes and I don’t meet anyone I know along the way.”
Let’s go (to —- ): Tugende (muri —- )
Ndagiye: I’m going
Ndagaruka: I’m coming back (right now)
Nzogaruka: I’m coming back (at a time in the future)
Ndabizi: I know
Sinzi: I don’t know
Ndarondera — :I’m looking for —
A lot/very much: Cane
A little bit: Bukebuke
Enjoy your meal!: Akayabagu!
Good luck!: Komera! or Terimbere! (lit. courage!)
I have heard that “terimbere” is preferable to “komera” when wishing someone luck, as “komera” has become a sort of code word between members of the CNDD-FDD (political party in power). I do only have one source for this information though.
Have a good trip!: Urugendo ryiza!
Have a nice day!: Umusi mwiza!
Have a good evening!: Umurugoba mwiza!
Sleep well!: Waraye neza!
You too!: Nawe!
“Ejo” means both “yesterday” and “tomorrow.” You must rely on context to understand what time the speaker is referring to.
What? (to indicate incomprehension): Sabge? (Sa?)
What did you say?: Uvuze?
What? (as in ‘what is this’): Iki?
How much?: Ingahe?
Most “people words” follow a pattern: “mu” is the singular, “ba” is the plural and “ki” or “iki” is the language. The suffix “kazi” feminizes. Let’s see these patterns in action:
murundikazi: Burundian woman
kirundi: the language of Burundi
muzungu: foreigner (white person)
muzungukazi: foreign woman
kinyarwanda: the language of Rwanda
muchinois (pronounce as in French, mu-sheen-wa): Chinese person
bachinois: Chinese people
kichinois: the language of China
And speaking of which…
I speak a little Kirundi.: Ndavuga ikirundi bukebuke.
I’m learning Kirundi.: Ndiko ndiga ikirundi
Bit by bit.: buhoro-buhoro
I’d like to learn Kirundi very well: Nshaka kwiga neza ikirundi.
I speak English/French/Swahili/Spanish.: Ndavuga icongereza/igifaransa/igiswahili/igiespanyol
Sorry, I don’t speak English/French/Swahili: Mbabarile, simvuga icongereza/igifaransa/igiswahili
Do you speak English/French/Swahili?: Muravuga /Uravuga icongereza/igifaransa/igiswahili?
I understand.: Ndavyumva
I don’t understand.: Sindavyumva.
Sorry? (to get someone to repeat themselves): Sabge?
What did you say?: Uvuze? (i) Muvuze? (f)
How do you say (teacher) in (Kirundi)?: Bavuga gute “teacher” mu (kirundi)?
What’s _____ ?: _____ n’ibiki?
In case of difficulty:
Do you mind helping me?: Turashobora mfasha?
Stop thief!!!- Umusuma!!!
Go away!!!- Genda!!!
Other useful phrases:
I like —. : Ndashaka —-
I don’t like —. : Sishaka —-
I can: Nshobora
I can’t: Sinshobora
It’s hard: Ntivyoroshe!
It’s easy: Vyoroshe!
Bless you! (when someone sneezes): Kira!
I hope so!: Ndavyibaza!
I try my best!: Ndagerageza!
That’s good!: Nivyiza!
That’s not good.: sivyiza
That’s sad.: Birabaje
All right: Nivyo
Isn’t it?: Sivyo?
That’s it!: Nico!
Yes, that’s true: Ego nukuri.
Very nice!: Neza cane!
No worries.: Ntangorane or Ntaco
No problem!: Nta kibazo.
That’s expensive: Ni menshi cane.
Next time/another time: Hanyuma
How old are you?: Ufise imyaka ingahe?
Come here!: Ingo!
It’s been so long!: Iminsi myinshi!
Merry Christmas!: Noheli nziza!
Happy New Year!: Umwaka mwiza!
Happy Easter!: Pasika nziza!
Happy Birthday: Isabukuru nziza!
Congratulations (to new parents): Muribaruka!
Safe journey!: Urugendo rwiza!
I miss you (We miss you): Ndagukumbuye! (Turagukumbuye)
I miss ______ : Ndakumbuye _____.
I love ______ : Ndakunda _______.
I love you: Ndagukunda
(If this sounds like a mouthful, don’t panic; French and Swahili numbers are widely understood, and as a last resort, there’s always fingers!)
A few places, things and adjectives:
Tea: icayi (the same word means breakfast)
Soda: Fanta (brand name; you can order a Fanta Cola [Coke], Fanta Orange or Fanta Citron [Lemon soda]. Fanta Tonic [Schweppes tonic water] is available here and there as well. Forget about other types of soda, including diet.)
Beer: inzoga (this usually refers to banana beer; commercial beer is called by its brand name. The biggest local brands are Amstel and Primus.)
Money: Amahera, amafaranga
Teacher: Umwigisha (or mwalimu, see section on Swahili loan words below)
Foreigner (irrespective of race): umunyamahanga
Parents, relatives: Abavyeyi
Neighbour, neghbours: Umubanyi, ababanyi
(the most popular form of media in Burundi. If you are there for any length of time, you will hear of at least three: RTNB (er-té-en-bé), the state broadcaster, RPA (er-pé-ah), African Public Radio (actually an independent station) and Isanganiro (Radio Crossroads), another long-established independent station. Only RTNB has regular English content, but all stations broadcast in French. For more information on media that will be available to you in Burundi, go here
any four-wheeled motor vehicle (car, van or bus): imodoka
motorcycle, moto-taxi: imoto
money: Amafaranga or Amahera
book: igitabo (see Greg’s very interesting section on Swahili/Arabic loanwords in the comments below. He also knows more grammar than I do 😉 )
Pens or pencils – amakaramu
samboussa: samosa (triangle of fried dough stuffed with meat)
capati: flat pita-like bread often sold on its own, on the street. Of all Burundian street food, this is the most reliable and often the tastiest. “Samboussa” and “capati” are definitely loan words from an Indian language.
mine: wanje (my book = igitabo wanje)
yours: wawe (your father = papa wawe)
our place: iwacu
your place: iwanyu
Swahili is the regional language of East Africa, spoken in Burundi, Rwanda, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda and eastern DR Congo. People on the streets of Bujumbura (and Kigali) speak a joyous mix of Kirundi, Kinyarwanda, French, Swahili and occasionally English. Here are some of the more useful Swahili loan words.
If you are ever in a matatu and you hear someone say “Sachet, sachet!” that means “Give me a barf bag, I’m going to vomit.” Bus drivers have a seemingly endless supply of black plastic bags for people whose stomachs can’t take the long, winding, rough roads and overfilled buses.
Here: hapa (useful to get a moto-taxi to stop)
Welcome, come in: Karibu
For real?: Kweli?
No way!: Hapana!
Nonsense! Bullshit!: Wapi!
Take it easy!: Pole sana!
Young boy: kadogo
teacher: mwalimu (also a form of address for a respected elder; sometimes pronounced mwarimu )
sister: dada (polite way of addressing an unknown young woman)
elder, old man: mzée
peanuts: kalanga (often roasted, salted and sold on the street in small plastic bags, by “kadogo” vendors)
Burundi was colonized mainly by French-speaking Belgians, and French is the official language, used in administration and much of the media and spoken by educated people. Kirundi is full of French loan words such as ordinateur (computer), chargeur (phone charger), connexion (Internet connection) and I could go on. A lot of words for foods that are not originally African are also borrowed from French (salade, omelette). French numbers are also frequently used in Kirundi speech, especially where large numbers are concerned. And that’s only the beginning. If you don’t already speak French, do yourself a favour and bring a French phrasebook along.
The first colonizers of Burundi, before the Belgians, before the First World War and the resulting dismemberment of the German empire,were the Germans. German is almost unknown in present-day Burundi (Chinese and Spanish are gaining in popularity as study languages and probably both have more local speakers than German) but I was surprised to hear, cropping up in people’s speech, German loan words like
ishure (schule)- school
ikopfelo (kopfel)- hat
amahera (heller)- money (heller = an old German coin)
Also interesting to note that a guy named John is called Yohani in Kirundi– a lot closer to the German ‘Johann’ than ‘Jean’ or ‘John’
Despite the fact that more and more young and/or educated Burundians speak English– thanks to refugees returning from Anglophone countries, globalization and increasingly intense American cultural self-promotion– there aren’t very many English loan words in Kirundi that I’ve come across, save the ones that are used in European French (“email,” “coach”, “hamburger”, “cameraman”, etc, etc). The most prominent exception to this is the ubiquitous “Byyyeeeeeeeeeee!!!”
All in the family
The words “maman, papa, frère, soeur” (mother, father, brother, sister) don’t necessarily refer to blood relatives. Two guys or two girls who are cousins or best friends often call themselves “brothers” or “sisters” as a matter of course. A young adult who is on familiar terms with someone of his/her parents’ generation might call that person “Maman” or “Papa” followed by the first name of their oldest child. I call Pierre’s parents “Maman Pierre” and “Papa Pierre” rather than by their own first or last names.
What’s in a name?
Last names are not necessarily passed from father to children in Burundi. A more accurate term for what serves as a last name on official documents would be “Kirundi name” or the Kirundi term izina— given, like the Christian or Muslim name, by the parents to the child at birth. Each Kirundi name has a special meaning, linked to religion, the circumstances of the birth or the parents’ wishes or advice for the baby. Some “westernized” families have adopted the custom of passing along the same surname from father to children (sometimes mother to daughters and father to sons) or husband to wife, but it remains the exception rather than the rule. If you have a contact named Jean-Michel Bukeyeneza, you can’t be certain that his parents, wife, children or siblings would be called Mr. or Ms. Bukeyeneza, unless they are expatriates, or they too were “born on a beautiful morning.” Better to just ask what their names are.
A few examples of names:
Ingabirimana- gift from God
Irakoze- Thank God
Hakizimana- God heals
Nininahazwe- God be praised
Nsabiyabandi- the one who prays for others
Yamuremye- What God has created
Nyeniteka- to God goes the glory
Nsengiyumva- I listen to a god who hears
Uwimana- child of God
Maniragaba- God gives
Niyonzima- God is alive
Bukuru- first of twins
Butoyi- second of twins
Bukeyeneza- born on a bright morning
Bucumi- child number 10
Inamahoro- the one who brings peace
Minani- child number 8
Muco- the light, lighting the way (often used for firstborns)
Nyandwi- child number 7
Kaneza- joyous lady
Mitabaro- comes to help others
Mukezabirori- the life of the party
Ndayizeye- I am hopeful
Ngabonziza- good man, God is good
Bankuwiha- people won’t like an independent person
Horicubonye- be discreet
(there was also a name I heard I can’t remember, that meant something like “If you want anything, you have to ask.” Can anyone tell me what it was?)
And as in any culture, there are names that sound good on babies but frankly bizarre on 40-year-old men and women…I’ve heard that in the past some of these names were given to ward off evil spirits…Death would have no interest in eating a “baby chick” now would he?
Buswi- baby chick
Bitariho- so small it isn’t there
Kabge- little dog
Two people who have the same izina but are not related are called mazina.
It occasionally happens that parents create their children’s izina out of thin air — I met one school-aged girl who was named after her father, who was named after an expatriate friend of his father, who in turn was named after a river in Canada. She was certainly the only girl in the school registry with this particular izina.
I found this blog entry in English on izinas and identity by a Toronto-based Burundian blogger… I think it deserves sharing.
Update: Another Burundian fellow blogger has recommended I make Soundcloud files for the phrases, but I am not a native speaker! If any native speakers want to take time to soundcloud a few phrases, please indicate this in the comments. Murakoze cane!
Update #2: Some of the comments left on this blog entry by Kirundi learners and speakers are just as informative as my original post if not more so. If you’ve read this far, Reader, please keep reading…
Update #3: I have just discovered this more complete Kirundi course , an old Foreign Service Institute course manual and tape uploaded to a Russia-based language learning site called Yojik which has archives of a ton of Foreign Service Institute and Peace Corps language courses. The book is several decades old and some of the vocabulary is old (I never once heard someone in Burundi call a motorbike ipikipiki, and the country has not been called Rwanda-Urundi for more than 55 years!!) but the explanations of grammar and pronunciation are very enlightening. The audio files are web embeds but the textbook needs to be downloaded; do this first to get the most out of the course.