Kenya: Sheng - Language of Empowerment or Disobedience?

Sheng, a once highly stigmatised language, is now gaining greater presence and legitimacy in Kenya's multilingual environment. It is used in music, in print, in political slogans and on television and radio. But should Sheng be celebrated as a reflection of contemporary identity or recognised as a language of disobedience?

Speaking Sheng

Sheng emerged in the 1970s from Nairobi's informal settlements, a great melting pot of languages and cultures. The name "Sheng" is a combination of (S)wahili and (Eng)lish, two of the main languages on which it is based. Sheng also borrows from other Kenyan languages - such as Kikuyu, Luyha, Dholuo and Kikamba - with its grammatical structure loosely obeying the rules of Kiswahili.

The language was originally associated with thugs, matatu (minibus) drivers and Nairobi's youth. Thugs allegedly used the language as code to evade the ears of the law, while young people living in shared and cramped conditions of Nairobi's informal settlements apparently spoke in Sheng when they didn't want their parents to understand.

Many Kenyans - especially older generations - still link Sheng with ghetto life, lack of education and liken it to profanity. But this is no longer the case. Sheng has evolved as a language and now pervades the daily lives of those living across Kenya's urban and rural areas.

Kenya's linguistic landscape

The use of language is rarely neutral and this is particularly true in Kenya where language has been central to the construction of national, ethnic, elite and political identities. As a consequence of British colonisation from 1895 to 1963, English was promoted in every domain of life: through education, in government, in business and by being made the national language alongside Kiswahili. A good grasp of English is still often seen as a gateway to upward social mobility.

Kenya's other languages, of which there are nearly 70, are assigned a subordinate position within this system. But Sheng appears to be defying this ideology by offering its users a contemporary identity distinct from those who use Standard English or Kiswahili. Through its simultaneous rejection and embrace of English and Swahili, Sheng breaks down the ethnic barriers often associated with language. Sheng therefore carries within it the possibility of unifying people of diverse ethnic backgrounds through its ethnically neutral underpinnings.

Inhibiting learning or essential for reaching youths?

Most speakers of Sheng are young people. Its usage often is thought by some to inhibit the learning of Kiswahili and English in school. Some are concerned that speaking Sheng may make it difficult to distinguish the boundaries of the informal and formal languages, and some teachers have been quick to associate poor performance with the use of Sheng.

On the other hand, however, it is possible to make the argument that engagement with Sheng aids young people's learning by communicating in a language readily understood and which speaks directly to youth concerns.

A growing number of publications, such as the comic books Shujaaz and Straight Talk or the literary journal Kwani?, for example, are written entirely in Sheng or feature articles in Sheng. Straight Talk, produced by and for young people, addresses topics such as sexual abuse, pregnancy, homosexuality, and gender inequality while Shujaaz, a comic book launched in 2010, aims to empower young Kenyans with information, ideas and the motivation they need to become active participants in issues such as development and local community cohesion.

Shujaaz and Straight Talk are distributed in some schools, youth organisations and have also featured in the Daily Nation. Shujaaz also branches out into social media, radio and research. Publications like these are proving an important tool to capture the imagination of readers and connect with young people and the issues important to them, on their terms.

Increasing use in popular media and beyond

What propelled Sheng's popularity as well as its growing use outside Nairobi was its use in hip-hop and rap music. Exploding onto the Kenyan music scene in the early 1990s, hip-hop soon became a medium of empowerment through which artists expressed their views, predominantly in Sheng.

By the 2000s, however, it was not only young hip-hop artists and listeners who were using Sheng. During the run up to the 2002 elections, Mwai Kibaki, leader of the National Rainbow Coalition (NARC), addressed his audience with the phrase "We are unbwogable!". The Sheng word "Unbwogable" - meaning unshakeable - was the name of a popular hit by hip-hop group Gidi Gidi Maji Maji. "We are Unbwogable" became NARC's campaign slogan and soon Kenyans, old and young, incorporated "unbwogable" in their everyday dialect.

Sheng is also featured in the distinctive popular humour known as mchongoano, and television and radio are increasingly providing space for Sheng. The TV drama Shuga, which aims to educate young people about HIV/AIDS, sexual issues and gay rights, amongst other things, for example is in Sheng and English.

More and more people are speaking Sheng, and today it is not only Nairobi's young people that are using it but also parents and even politicians further afield. And because the informal language breathes, innovates, grows and rejuvenates itself, the spread of Sheng is likely to continue.

Craig Halliday is a practising artist with a masters degree in African Studies from the School of Oriental and African Studies. He has a particular interest in popular culture and contemporary art, with a special interest in East Africa.

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