Sheng: Shaping Kenya’s identity

by on January 19, 2015

In a country that speaks over 42 languages but uses English and Swahili as its official languages, it is easy for confusion to arise among people from varied backgrounds. The church reaches out to you in English; the mosque calls upon you in Swahili, and the media tries to grab your attention via a mix of both English and Swahili while your folks schmooze with you in your mother tongue. All this begins to feel really confusing, and within you starts a rebellion. You refuse to accept society’s efforts to try and define you; you want a brand new identity. So you decide to cobble up a new dialect that expresses the uniqueness in you. The dialect spreads like fire on tinder savannah, and within the blink of an eye it leapfrogs into a lingua franca for you and your peers. The name of your invention? Sheng.

Nobody can accurately put a finger on when the language came to be, but an undeniable fact is that Sheng is on its course to overtaking all the languages in Kenya as the most used language of communication. It is a Swahili-based slang with bits of English thrown in alongside other Kenyan languages, majorly Luo, Luhya, Kikuyu and Kamba. Although it borrows vocabulary widely, its grammar and syntax remain predominantly Swahili.

The word “Sheng” is a clever coinage from Swahili and English. The ‘h’ in Sheng was included because ‘Seng’ would have sounded quite abnormal.

It is most common among the youth, though it is fast gaining speakers across multiple age groups. The youth crafted the language to use as a code, to keep secrets from their parents. Thus, Sheng came to be identified as a language of rebellion.

Indeed, words that describe illegal substances (like bhang) or law-enforcement, tend to be the ones that change more rapidly, as a new code is invented every time the old words become mainstream. Bhang for instance, has a plethora of Sheng synonyms such as gode, kuchi, ndom, ngwai, ankada, and ngwai. Police officers are referred to as magava, sirkal, maponye, mapai, popo, sinya, sanse, and many other terms. In the streets of Nairobi where armed robberies are frequent, firearms have also earned countless monikers such as mguu ya kuku, bonoko, thiao, ndenga and mthoo to mention just a few.

Manambas are credited as the master innovators of Sheng, and rightly so. In Kenya, manambas are the agile, stylish, young men who serve as bus conductors in the widely used public transport sector. They have been instrumental in coining new Sheng words and spreading them to different corners of the country. Rappers and other music artists play a huge role in the development of the language by featuring new words in their mainstream hits. For instance, the popular Kenyan rapper Octopizzo invented the word Octombitho for marijuana so as to get it past radio sensors.

Though initially sequestered to only ghetto hoods and Nairobi’s youth, the language has become such a powerful force that everyone has begun taking notice. Media houses have included Sheng both in print and broadcast. There have emerged radio stations that broadcast exclusively in this new lingo. Politicians too have been forced to familiarise with the dialect so as to attract the votes of the youth. This has seen Sheng travel across the borders to neighbouring Uganda and Tanzania, where it has been embraced with alacrity. It is not uncommon to find a Ugandan or Tanzanian referring to money as chapaa, a predominant Sheng word for ‘cash’.

Sheng’s benefits are legion, the most patent being its uniting property and detribalising effect. In a country that communicates in over 70 dialects, bitter ethnic divides often pose a challenge to national peace. But Nairobi’s urban slang is fast becoming the lingua franca, thus uniting people across ethnic divides. It is a first language to many people born in urban areas. Those speaking in Sheng have no tribes, they’re simply Nairobians.

A Barclays Bank advertisement.
Mkopo wa Salo” is Sheng for a ‘loaned salary’

Another merit brought about by Sheng is that taboo topics like sex can be discussed freely without the ire associated with it. This has been extremely useful in government campaigns promoting use of contraceptives and in educating the masses about HIV/AIDS.


 A poster promoting sexual abstinence targeted at youths.
Ni op ku-chill” is Sheng for ‘it’s cool to abstain’

A condom advertisement.
Nakufeel” is Sheng for ‘I care for you”

But using Sheng has its limitations too. Teachers are the ones who frown most upon the language, as it degrades everything they teach about ‘proper’ grammar in schools. The slang has uncannily found its way into students’ answer sheets in exams, posing a threat to examinable languages like English and Swahili.

Several linguists have opined that Sheng could be the most dynamic language in the world. This has made it extremely arduous to standardise, as its vocabulary keeps changing at a speedy rate. The Sheng spoken five years ago is not exactly the same Sheng spoken today. Terms like ashara (‘ten shillings’), jongo (‘a shilling’), moti (‘car’), and wagido (‘dog’) were favourites in the past but are now faded and forgotten. Also, its vocabulary varies significantly across Kenya’s various subdivisions. While one region might refer to a radio as tenje, another region might use tenje to mean a cell phone.

Despite the obstacles, Sheng is not only here to stay, but also grow. It is more than a language. It is an ideology. It is an identity.

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