Saying Sorry – The Kenyan Way…

Recently I had lost my blog motivation and was beginning to accept that I may never blog again but a friend’s comment on what he terms as ‘cross-cultural communication interpretations’ led me to reflect on some of the things that Kenyans say in Kiswahili which when translated to English lose their meaning.

One word that stands out is ‘sorry’ and a while back Kaki touched on this in a comment she posted. I have been told by many of my non-Kenyan friends that I apologise too much and I am sure a Western psychologist could analyse me and find some underlying self esteem issues that have led to my ‘over apologetic’ nature but I think the real reason has to do with my heritage. I overuse the word ‘sorry’ because I am Kenyan and before any Western psychologist rushes to classify all Kenyans as lacking self esteem etc, here is my explanation.

The Kiswahili word for ‘sorry’ is ‘pole’ (pron. po-lay) and this tiny four letter word means a lot more than the English fault based apology. Depending on the context ‘pole’ can mean, among other things, ‘I emphathise’, ‘I understand’ or ‘ooops…my bad’.

The best way to illustrate the versatile nature of the word ‘pole’ is by way of example based on fictitious but highly likely conversations between two Kenyans.

Example 1

P1: “uuuuwwiiiii…I’ve ngogad (stubbed) my toe on the door”

P2: ” Woi! Pole”

Meaning: Haki (I swear) I jua (know) your pain! I have ngogad my toe before and it hurts. I feel your pain.

Example 2

P1: “You guy! Did you hear, someone thugged (stole) my wheels?!”

P2: “No way! Pole.”

Meaning: I have never owned a car, dude, you know I can’t even drive but I know how you and your car were tight…like husband and wife…I hope they shika (catch) the theiving bastard.

Example 3

P1: ” Did you watch the game last night? My team lost 10-0!”

P2: “Heh heh Pole”

Meaning: Ha! I did watch the game. Why lie, we thrashed you guys vizuri sana (good and proper) and nita ku enjoy mpaka (I will ridicule you until) next season. But jokes aside, if that were my team I would feel bad too.

Now take any of the above examples; in this case Example 2 and this time imagine that P1 is non-Kenyan. The conversation would probably go a bit like this.

P1: “My good man, I would like to bring to your attention that on or about the 31st of December my sole mode of transportation, namely my car, was dishonestly appropriated.”

P2: “Eh…sorry.”

P1: “Why are you saying sorry? It’s not your fault.”

So there you have it.

I just noticed that I used the word ‘bastard’ so pole if I have offended anyone.

Meaning: This is my blog, I can say whatever I want to say..but I know my aunties read this so I better act like I was raised properly.


  1. says

    I love this… I just got a free Kiswahili lesson!! You know a brutha is trying to learn… so this actually helped

    Kui Says: Woi pole Ted… I should have warned you that the Kiswahili used here is not 100% correct…

  2. says

    There’s also the one of “dude, you’re on your own”

    p1: Si we agreed no one would tell the cops anything?
    p2: Pole. Things change

  3. says

    Most people overuse the word the sense that when you want to sound re-assuring or like your listening say pole..well i hate it when am telling someone something bad i went thru and they be like”pole” the whole kind of sounds mocking..If someone is telling me something i prefer to nod or simply say hmm (not loudly!) i only say pole when i really mean it..pole has a way of making you feel like the other person is dismissing you..or asking you to summarise your for the sake of not being misunderstood..i say hmm..and a quick pole and proceed to re-assure something while leaving out the two commonly /wrongly used/over used phrases “pole” and “i understand”