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Kiswahili Grammar Notes: Compound Tenses

Compound Tenses

94 As already pointed out (paragraph 42), tense prefixes in Swahili may have more than one function. They may tell us about time, but some tense prefixes tell us something about the character of the action as well.


ME TENSE expresses a completed action or a state of affairs resulting from that action:

Amefika. She has arrived (she is no longer traveling, she is here).
Tumekula. We have eaten (our hunger is satisfied).

If this state of affairs was reached some time in the past, we must place it in the past by using the verb kuwa to establish the time in which the situation existed:

Alikuwa amefika. She had arrived (she was in the state of having arrived).
Tulikuwa tumekula. We had eaten (we were in a state of having eaten, we were no longer hungry).

This is how the future perfect is expressed in Swahili.


Atakuwa amefika. She will have arrived.
Tutakawa tumekula. We will gave eaten.

This is how the future perfect is expressed in Swahili.


NA TENSE expresses an action in the present time, but it also tells us that it is an on-going event that has not been completed at the time indicated elsewhere in the sentence.

Anacheza. She is playing, and not finished playing yet.

If I want to describe that this on-going action took place yesterday, I have to place the situation in the past by using the verb kuwa:

Alikuwa anacheza. She was playing (i.e. in the act of playing).

Likewise, if I want to express that this on-going action is likely to take place tomorrow, I place the situation in the future by using the verb kuwa:

Atakuwa anacheza. She will be (in the act of) playing.


KI TENSE also has the function of expressing an on-going action. It can therefore be used like NA in the above-mentioned examples, i.e.:

Alikuwa akicheza. She was playing.
Atakuwa akicheza.
She will be playing.

A great variety of compound tenses are possible, and give a great precision of expression. The above examples are the most commonly used, but many more combinations are possible, as the illustrations which follow will demonstrate.


When a RELATIVE CONStrUCTION is needed together with a compound tense, the relative particle comes in the first verb:

Aliyekuwa amelala. He who was asleep.
Mtoto aliyekuwa amelala ni huyu.
The child who was asleep is this one.
Alipokuwa amemaliza kazi yake, akapumzika.
When he had finished his work, he rested.
Huyu ni mwizi aliyekuwa anaiba huku mjini.
This is the thief who was stealing here in town.


When an OBJECT is needed together with a compound tense, the object prefix comes in the main verb, i.e., the second verb in the compound construction:

Nilikuwa nimelishona. I had sewn it.
Nilitumia suruali niliyokuwa nimeishona mwenyewe.
I used trousers which I had sewn myself.
Niliwapa chakula nilichokuwa nimekipika asubuhi.
I gave them food which I had cooked in the morning.


NA in the auxiliary verb kuwa is used only with the time relative PO to express when something is being done:

Anapokuwa akicheza when she is playing
Anapokuwa anatengeneza gari
when he is repairing the car
Anapokuwa amemaliza kazi
when he has finished work
Anapokuwa amelala
when she is asleep


The most common compound tenses occur in the following combinations:

LI +


NA (PO) +


TA +













However, the other tense prefixes and the subjunctive may be used with the verb kuwa as well, as the following examples demonstrate.

KA +


Aliacha kazi yake akawa anasoma kwenye Chuo Kikuu kwa miaka mingi.

He left his job and (then) he went on studying at the University for many years.


Alimaliza kufua akawa akisoma kwa muda wa masaa mawili.

He finished washing and then was reading for two hours.


Alipomaliza shule akawa amesoma kwa miaka kumi.

When he finished school he had studied for ten years.

KI +


Akiwa anasoma unapomwona umwache.

If he is reading when you see him, leave him alone.


Akiwa akisoma hapendi mtu kuzungumza naye.

If (when) he is reading, he doesn't like anyone talking to him.


Atatuambia habari zote akiwa amesoma gazeti la leo.

He will tell us all the news if he has read today's paper.

It is common to use the Class.9 subject prefix i as "indefinite it" with kuwa and KI tense: ikiwa, if it is, if it be, if.

Ikiwa amesoma, if he has read.

This ikiwa is an auxiliary in a compound construction.

HU +


Huwa anasoma vitabu kila siku tangu saa 10 mpaka saa 12.

She usually reads books every day from 4 to 6.


Huwa akisoma kila anapokula.

She usually reads every time while eating.


Huwa amesoma gazeti tunapoanza masomo asubuhi.

She has usually read the newspaper when we start classes in the morning.



Angekuwa anasoma nisingemwomba anisaidie.

If he were reading I would not ask him to help me.


Angekuwa akisoma wakati anapokula ningemwambia aache.

If he were reading while eating, I'd tell him to stop it.


Angekuwa amesoma gazeti, angetuambia habari zote.

If he had read the paper, he would tell us all the news.



Angalikuwa akisoma nisingalimwomba anisaidie.

If he were reading, I would not have asked him to help me.


Angalikuwa akisoma muda wote, angalimaliza mapema.

If he had been studying all the time, he would have finished early.


Angalikuwa amesoma barua yangu angalijua kuwa nilitazamia kufika leo.

If he had read my letter, he would have known that I expected to arrive today.

Subjunctive +


Awe anasoma kila asubuhi mpaka saa sita.

He should be studying every morning until 12 o'clock.


Awe akisoma saa za asubuhi.

He should be studying during the morning hours.


Awe amesoma mpaka ukurasa wa hamsini kabla sijafika.

He should have read up to page fifty before I arrive.



NGA and JAPO are tense prefixes expressing the idea of "even though". They are not used as tense prefixes in today's Swahili except in the words ingawa and ijapokuwa. They are commonly treated as conjunctions, but are actually the auxiliary verbs in compound verb constructions:

Ingawa anasoma hajifunzi kitu. Even though he studies he does not learn anything.
Ijapokuwa amesoma maisha yake yote hawezi kujua mambo yote. Even though he has studied his whole life, he can't know everything.

It is possible, very rarely, to hear:
Ajapokuwa amesoma
. . . Even though he has studied, . . .
In this case, it functions as an ordinary tense for "even though".


NA in the main verb: make the main verb negative.

Alikuwa hasomi he was not studying
Atakuwa hachezi
she will not be playing

KI and ME in the main verb: make the auxiliary negative.

hakuwa akisoma he was not studying
hatakuwa akicheza
she will not be playing
hakuwa amesoma
he had not studied
hatakuwa amecheza
she will not have played


The non-verbal elements NI, -NA, PO/KO/MO may be used in compound constructions together with the auxiliary KUWA carrying the appropriate tense prefix

e.g.: Alikuwa ni mgonjwa. He was (then) ill.

This construction draws attention to and emphasizes the situation which existed at a given time.


NI/SI is a compound construction:

Wakati wa mavuno alikuwa ni mgonjwa. At the time of harvest, she was ill.
Simba huwa ni wakali wakiwa na watoto. Lions are usually fierce when they have cubs.
Alianza kutumia dawa ya kuzuia homa ya mbu, akawa si mgonjwa tena. He started using malaria prophylaxis, and (as a result) he did not become ill any more.


-NA in a compound construction:

Alipomaliza kazi alikuwa hana nguvu tena. When he finished work, he had no more strength.
Kila tunapofika huwa wana kazi nyingi. Every time we come they always have much work.


-PO/KO/MO in a compound construction:

Niliporudi alikuwa hayupo. When I returned she was not there.
Kila ninapohitaji kalamu yangu huwa haiko. Every time I need my pen it is not there.


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