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Kiswahili Grammar Notes: KUWA

KUWA: The Verb "To Be"


The verb "to be" is expressed with the monosyllabic verb kuwa. In the present tense, however, kuwa is not used nowadays (except in a very few isolated expressions); instead, "to be" is expressed in a non-verbal way for "is/are."


The most-used way of expressing "is/are" is by NI for all persons and noun classes. However, another form, the subject prefix standing alone, is preferred usage in some instances. In Class 1, the old prefix YU is used. The negative is always expressed with SI in the present. (Although NI is the preferred form in most normal usage, it is possible to hear kuwa used in these circumstances: (a) With HU tense: Huwa safi siku zote. It is always clean.; (b) In the negative: Hawi tayari. She is not ready. The non-standard negative form is used especially with the first person plural - compare these two equivalent alternatives to see why: hatuwi tayari or sisi si tayari.)

A. For description (with an adjective), NI is used, but it is also possible to use the subject prefix. The negative is SI.

Mti ni mrefu or Mti u mrefu Mti si mrefu
The tree is tall The tree is not tall
Shati ni chafu or Shati li chafu Shati si chafu
The shirt is dirty The shirt is not dirty
Mtoto ni mdogo or Mtoto yu mdogo Mtoto si mdogo
The child is small The child is not small


B. For expressing a state or condition of the subject, the subject prefix is the preferred form.

Chakula ki tayari. The food is ready.
Fungu li kamili. The bunch is complete.
Nguo zi safi. The clothes are clean.
Tu wagonjwa. We are ill.
Wa wazima. They are well.
Kaka yu macho. (Our) brother is awake.

Although grammarians of some decades ago claimed that the subject prefix was the only alternative in this case, it must be noted that NI is frequently used by Swahili speakers in daily speech.

C. For identification of a person in 1st and 2nd persons, the subject prefixes are used:

Ni mwalimu. I am a teacher.
U mkulima? Are you a farmer?
U nani? Who are you?
Tu walimu. We are teachers.
M wakulima? Are you farmers?
M nani? Who are you?

Obviously, these forms are more economical than saying, e.g., Wewe ni nani?

D. In certain cases, the "is/are" forms are omitted entirely, particularly following a personal pronoun, demonstrative, or possessive:

Sisi tayari. We (are) ready.
Yeye mgonjwa. She (is) ill.
Hiki changu. This one (e.g. knife) (is) mine.
Nyumba yako nzuri. Your house (is) nice.


In tenses other than the simple present, kuwa is a part of the verb construction like any other monosyllabic verb. NOtice the constructions in which the KU infinitive is retained.

Huwa tayari. Shis is usually ready.
Si tayari. She is not ready.

Alikuwa mrefu. She was tall.
Hakuwa mrefu. She was not tall.

Atakuwa mrefu. She will be (become) tall.
Hatakuwa mrefu. She will not be (become) tall.

Amekuwa mrefu. She has become tall.
Hajawa mrefu. She has not become tall.

Akawa mrefu. She became tall.
(Alikua akawa mrefu. She grew and became tall.)

Akiwa mrefu zaidi tutamnunulia nguo mpya. If she gets taller, we will buy her new clothes.

Asipokuwa mrefu zaidi nguo zitafaa zilivyo. If she does not get taller, the clothes will fit as they are.

Angekuwa mrefu angeweza kuona. If she were tall she would be able to see.
Asingekuwa mfefu asingeweza kucheza mpira wa pete. If she were not not she would not be able to play netball.

Angalikuwa mrefu asingalishindwa kuona. If she had been tall she would not have failed to see.
Asingalikuwa mrefu asingaliweza kucheza mpira wa pete. If she had not been tall she would not have been able to play netball.

Notice that in some tenses kuwa means "become":

Amekuwa mrefu. She has become tall.
Akawa mrefu. (and) she became tall.

In rare cases, kuwa may be used with the NA tense:
Jua linakuwa kali. The sun is (in the process of becoming) hot.
Compare to:
Jua ni kali. The sun is hot.


Kuwa forms the subjunctive construction exactly like any other monosyllabic verb:

Tuwe tayari saa sita. Let us be ready at twelve o'clock.
Fimbo isiwe ndefu mno. The stick should not be too long.
Udongo uwe laini. The soil should be soft.
Mizigo isiwe mizito. The loads should not be heavy.
Wasiwe wagonjwa. May they not be ill!


"To be" with the relative particle differs only in the present tense from other verb constructions with the relative.


An old verb for "to be," LI, is used when making a relative construction in the present tense. This verb must not be confused with the LI tense.

The construction is identical to the General Relative verb form (paragraph 68), i.e., Subject prefix + verb stem + relative.

S/he who is
Mtu aliye mwanachama apige kura. The person who is a party (club, etc.) member may vote.
Matandiko yaliyo machafu uyafue. The bedding that is dirty you should wash.
Usitumie kuni zilizo mbichi. Don't use the firewood that is wet.
Kisima kilicho kirefu kina maji mengi. The well that is deep has much water.

Note the following relative constructions with persons, singular and plural:

Mimi niliye mgonjwa... I who am sick...
Wewe uliye tayari... You who are ready...
Yeye aliye mrefu... He who is tall...
Sisi tulio wanafunzi... We who are students...
Ninyi mlio waaminifu... You who are faithful...
Wao walio wanachama... They who are members...

Relative constructions with AMBA may also be used in the present:

Watakata miti ambayo ni mifupi. They will cut trees that are short.
Ufue nguo zote ambazo ni chafu. Wash all the clothes that are dirty.

77. In the negative form the negative SI is used in place of the verb LI.

S/he who is not
Wale wasio tayari wabaki nyumbani. Those who are not ready should stay home.
Usinywe maji yasiyo safi. Don't drink water that is not clean.
Kisima kisicho kirefu hakifai. A well that is not deep is no good.

The normal verb form with KUWA may also be heard in the negative:
Wale wasiokuwa tayari wabaki nyumbani. Those who are not ready should stay home.

The construction with AMBA may also be used with the negative:
Shati ambali si chafu liwekwe kabatini. The shirt that is not dirty should be put in the cupboard.


The relative construction with KUWA is exactly the same as for any other monosyllabic verb except that the types of construction are more limited in number. The are:

1. Constructions with LI and TA(KA) tenses
2. Constructions with AMBA
3. Negative constructions

A. Constructions with LI and TA(KA)

Hatukufurahia joto lililokuwa kali. We did not enjoy the heat that was intense.
Nilistaajabia matope yaliyokuwa mengi. I was amazed at the mud that was abundant.
Wameanza kujenga nyumba itakayokuwa kubwa vya kutosha. The have begun building a house that will be big enough.
Umwite yeyote atakayekuwa tayari. Call anyone who will be ready.

B. Constructions with AMBA

As is usual, AMBA may be used with LI and TA(KA) if desired. But it must be used whenever any other tense is needed.

Hawa ndio watoto ambao wamekuwa wagonjwa kwa muda mrefu. These are the children who have been ill for a long time.
Wamekwenda kulima shamba ambalo hawajamaliza kulilima. They have gone to cultivate the garden that they haven't finished cultivating.

C. Negative constructions can be made in several ways, but in order to show a tense in past time, only AMBA can be used in the construction.

Relative constructions with SI have no time designation:

Wamenionyesha nyumba isiyokuwa tayari. They have shown me the house that is (was) not ready.
Wamenionyesha nyumba isiyo tayari. The have shown me the unfinished house (house that is not ready).

Negative constructions with AMBA can also include the tense:

Walifua nguo ambazo hazikuwa safi. They washed the clothes that were not clean.
Uache chakula ambacho hakitakuwa tayari. Leave the food that will not be ready.
Amezoea sana na kazi hii ambayo ameifanya kwa miaka ishirini. She is very accustomed to this work that she has done for 20 years.


Present tense with relative is made with the verb LI only with Location and Manner. For Time, the verb KUWA is used for relative constructions in all tenses including the present. Constructions with KUWA are also used for non-present tense constructions with Location and Manner.

A. TIME: the relative particle is PO

1. In the present tense, a construction with NA tense and KUWA is used:

Umtafute anapokuwa ofisini. Look for him when he is in the office.

2. In other tenses:

Walipokuwa tayari walituambia. When they were ready they told us.
Nitasafisha nyumba itakapokuwa chafu. I will clean the house when it gets dirty.

B. LOCATION: the relative particles are PO, KO, and MO

1. In the present tense, the construction with the verb LI is used.

Sina hakika na mahali alipo. I'm not sure where he is.
Kokote waliko watatukumbuka. Wherever they are they will remember us.
Uliona shimo alimo nyoka? Did you see the pit where the snake is?

2. In other tenses, the verb KUWA is used.

Mahali atakapokuwa... The place where she will be...

C. MANNER: the relative particle is VYO

1. In the present the construction with the verb LI is used.

Gauni linafaa hivi lilivyo. The dress is ok as it is.
Njoo ulivyo. Come as you are.
Hivyo ndivyo tulivyo, sivyo? That is how we are, isn't it?

2. In other tenses, the verb KUWA is used.

Uliona maua jinsi yalivyokuwa mazuri? Did you see how nice the flowers were?
Ndivyo itakavyokuwa. That is the way it will be.


NI, "is/are," has an emphatic form, NDI-. It must be followed by the O of reference agreeing with the noun or pronoun to which it refers.

Hili ndilo gari lililoharibika.

Hiki ndicho kitabu alichonipa. This is the very book he gave me.
Huyu ndiye aliyejibu swali langu. This is the person who answered my question.
Haya ndiyo majibu yake. These are his answers.
Ndiyo sababu amefika. That is the very reason he has come.

Note these combinations with the personal pronouns:

Mimi ndimi niliyesoma. I am the very one who read.
Wewe ndiwe uliyesoma. You are the one who read.
Yeye ndiye aliyesoma. She is the one who read.

It is possible to use ndiye for all three persons in the singular. In the plural ndio is used for all three persons:

Sisi ndio tutatakaokwenda. We are the ones who will go.
Ninyi ndio mliotuambia. You are the ones who told us.
Wao ndio wanaoimba. The are the ones who are singing.

81. The NEGATIVE of NDI- is SI- followed by the appropriate pronomial prefix and the O of reference.

Huyu siye tuliyemtazamia. The is not the person we expected.
Kitabu hiki sicho alichonionyesha. This book is not the one she showed me.
Mtu huyu ndiye? Siye. Is this the person? He is not the one.

82. The emphatic NDI- and its negative SI- may also be used in reference to any adverbial noun - time, location, manner.


Alipopanda mlima, ndipo alipoanguka. When he climbed the mountain, that is the time when he fell.


Hapa ndipo tunapokaa. This is where we live.
Hapa sipo tunapokaa. This is not where we live.
Huko ndiko tunakokwenda. That is the place we are going to.
Humo ndimo anamokaa yule nyoka. In there is where the snake lives.


Mtoto umleavyo ndivyo akuavyo (proverb). As you train the child, so he develops.
Hivyo sivyo ninavyokung'uta mkeka! That is not how I shake the mat!


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