Sheng: The Slang Nation

By Mwaura Samora

The East African Community (EAC), which is currently undergoing rocky times with Tanzania complaining of being ignored by Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda, is perhaps the only region in the continent with a uniting language.

Swahili is touted as one of the biggest linguafrancas in the world with an estimated 100 million people using it in East and Central Africa and beyond according to the University of San Franscico’s College of Art and Sciences.

But while EAC is banking on Swahili to foster its quest for an elusive unity, some Kenyans believe that sheng, a slang spoken by many urban youth, could be one of the glues to socially unite the 47 counties.

“Sheng should be promoted since it’s a uniting factor among young people living in urban centers all across the country,” King Kafu, a popular sheng presenter at Ghetto Radio, told The Standard. “If properly enhanced, sheng can play a huge role in killing negative ethnicity and promote national unity among the youth, who are seventy percent of the population”.

The street parlance has confounded linguists and speakers alike over the years. Sheng is not only hard to comprehend for “outsiders” but also linguistically amorphous, volatile and chaotic.

Words and phrases are discarded as first as they are coined, making it one of the most mutative slangs in this side of the globe. Terms like ashara (ten shillings), jongo (a shilling), moti (car) and wagido (dog) that were a favourite in the past are now faded and forgotten.

“The goodness of sheng is that across all ethnic groups to enable the youth to communicate implicitly among themselves,” explains Abdonbinson Karoki, a self-declared sheng guru from Kasarani area in Nairobi. “The fact that the artistic slang have come of age is evidenced by the fact that even corporates are using it in their advertising slogans”.

The easiest way to tell a favourite issue or item among the urban youth one need not look further than the number of sheng words attributed to it.

Take for instance the reference term for a gorgeous young woman. In the early nineties in Eastlands neighbourhoods like “D” (Dandora) and Oriosh, Bangla or Bango (Kariobangi). It was Shaba, ngethe, supuu, mamaa and gala in the nineties then it evolved to shori, mtotoo, saramboo, mroro, vima, tuki, mreshi, msupa, gingi and manzi and dwanki in 2000s.

Police, who constantly cross paths with ragamuffin city youths, have also been called many names from sinya, sanse, karao, ponyi to mavedi, popo, mambang’a and many more.

The frequent armed robberies across the city have also triggered an avalanche of references for firearms that include thiao, mguu ya kuku, mchuma, ndeng’a, mtoo, mkwaka among others.

Money has been referred to as dough, niadu, ganji, kisisa, noti, mkwanja, chwaa and chwakada. A thousand, the most favourite denomination among mahasoras, have been christened kapa, tenga, ndovu, thao, brambo, muti and ngiri while a shilling have been referred to as bop, jongo and dala.

Bang, a regular item in the highness diet among many youth, is called gode, kuchi, ngwai, pireh, limah, ankada, bomu and pakalolo while the process of smoking is kuspliff, kuchoma, kuskank, kuriao or kujiskizia.

“Sheng does not qualify to be called a language because it lacks three key parameters of a language namely native speakers, regularized grammar and stable vocabulary,” opines Dr. Maloba Wekesa, a linguistics lecturer at the University of Nairobi. “For this slang to come anywhere near being a language it has to transcend the use among cohorts groups and be appreciated as a communication tool in official places”.

The don says sheng should not be taken as an isolated case because other countries have their own versions of what he calls urban vernaculars.

“In Democratic Republic of Congo there is Indobin, in Cameroon there is Camfranglais and in South Africa there is Tsotsilaal,” Dr. Maloba, who says sheng is just an urban linguafranca or pidgin that should never be called a language, explains. “Therefore sheng is not news and those alleging that it can develop and be adopted as a subject in school or an official language are daydreamers who should not be taken seriously”.

He says it’s a linguafranca or pidgin designed to entertain a certain group and lock out others but after sometimes even the speakers eventually distance themselves from it.

Some of the renowned linguistic scholars who have done notable works on sheng are Dr. Lillian Kaviti, Pro. Abdul Aziz, Alamin Mazrui and Kenyan Ambassador to Germany Keny Nyauncho Osinde.

“Condemners of sheng like academicians should respect the language since it’s a source of livelihood for many. I pay my bills and educate my family through it,” explains popular sheng presenter Mbusi. “I have a dream that one day the government will recognize sheng as the forty third Kenyan language”.

Mbusi, who also prophesies sheng will be a future subject in school, is famous for popular trademark phrases like “Hakuna mbrrr…cha!” and kungu’kuta miwa kung’ukung’u.

“The essence of language is communication and if people can communicate in sheng then it has fulfilled its mandate as a language,” he says. “Otherwise if you remove sheng from the scene people like me would go back to Korogocho and poverty, which is not a very good idea”.

So rapid is the evolution of this urban parlance that when some creative Nairobians tried to script a sheng dictionary, its contents were irrelevant long before the booklet hit the streets.

Jua Cali, a popular genge artiste, has done a popular number called Kuna Sheng that have remained a hit since its release.

But who decides on the words and their meanings?

“Sheng words starts in the low income mtaas (neighbourhoods) where they are coined by young men who want to communicate in their own secret language,” King Kafu says. “Many words are developed but while some never get past those who coined them, some grow to national fame”.

King Kafu, whose real names are Nicholas Cheruiyot Kimel, says that although each neighbourhood has their own sheng it’s the most powerful sheng that prevails.

“Sheng mob uwaga zinanzishwa na wagondi juu ao ndio utaka kubonga na language wasee wengine awashikanishi (most sheng words are started by thugs since they want to communicate in a language no one else can understand),” alleges King Kafu who spent three years cumulatively at Industrial Area Remand Prison for being involved in criminal activities. “This way they can avoid their plans being eavesdropped on”.

Kafu, who have a sheng-teaching segment in his morning show Breko, laments that some people are spoiling the popular urban tongue by using words wrongly.

“Every neighbourhood have it’s own unique and different language,” he says. “This means that the sheng that is spoken in “D” or Githare (Mathare) is different from the one spoken in Kibich (Kibera), Oyole (Kayole), Paipu (Pipeline) and other hoods in Eastalando”.

To be equipped with the latest sheng vocabulary and phrases for his popular morning radio show, King Kafu frequents various neighbourhoods to interact with the youth and catch the latest words and phrases.

“This is the only way to keep abreast with one of the most dynamic languages in this side of the Sahara,” he explains. “I usually listen and pick those words that sound interesting and use my platform as a presenter to spread them to the masses”.

He also claims to have created some words himself, a fact that we couldn’t verify. The dynamic radio man says he is the one who coined the words zangaro (prison), mtu wa bling (armed robber) and ngati (a stupid fellow).

Although some words are the obvious shortening, reversing or twisting of the originals in English or Swahili, others are complete inventions whose origin is hard to trace.

“The word Sonko was coined in the nineties, inspired by the late Sierra Leonean rebel maniac Fodey Sankoh,” claims Marto from Githurai. “He was the ultimate symbol of a mad boss so youngsters started referring to bosses as ‘sonkos’, which offered stiff competition for previously unchallenged terms like ‘mdosi’”.

Other words whose origin is hard to trace is Keja (house), mbulu (chaos), dwanzi (fool), msoti (broke fellow), mbuyu (father), buda (dandy or father), shona (full or built up), usororaji (nosiness), nyong’inyo (socks), ndeng’a (gun) and vedi (policeman).

The apparently vague origin of some sheng words have led some religious puritans to allege that they are coined by Satanists under the sea to confuse the young generation.

But this is fiercely disputed by sheng “native” speakers who says the language is just a creative way of enabling urbanite youngsters to exclude the uninitiated.

“Associating sheng with things like ma-devil (devil worshippers) or claiming it hampers the speaker’s ability to communicate in fluent Swahili and English is total nonsense,” King Kafu, who is also a columnist at our sister publication The Nairobian, opines, “I can speak both languages if I want to. There are many other youth in Nairobi who can speak both languages perfectly. Even the political class, including the president, sometimes speaks sheng, which shows the language is rapidly gaining respect”.

While some words disappear as fast as they appear, others have endured the test of time to sustain their relevance. “Manze”, a sign of amazement, “ishia”, literary meaning “go away”, “fala, ngamwe and ngati”, all of which refers to a dimwit, “manga”, to eat, “noma” which means trouble.

Some neighbourhoods especially those in Eastlands and low income areas like Dandora, Mathare, Kariobangi North and other speak some of the most complex sheng in town. They are also the language’s boiling pots where most words are coined.

“These low income hoods have very many idle youth, most of whom engage in crime, congregate in “bases”(jobless corners) chewing gomba or mbachu (miraa) or playing cards or football,” King Kafu explains. “It is during these long idle hours that they coin sheng words to communicate among themselves”.

Sheng is also determined by age groups.

Younger people especially those in urban primary and high schools speak a more complex version of sheng than their counterparts in tertiary levels where formality is emphasized by the “system”, as they refer to the institutions.

Given the fact that in universities and colleges there is a mixture of rural and urban youth, English starts forcing its way into “shengers” linguistic sphere as they prepare for the formal workplace.  Not unless they hang out with their friends in the “hood” more often, by the time they are graduating their sheng is heavily diluted.

“I went to Jamhuri High School hence when I joined Egerton University my sheng was hard to an extent that colleagues from other parts of the country were always bamboozled by my word choice,” explains Pius Ojiambo, who grew up in Dandora. “But by the time I closed schools for semester breaks which was about four months I would find myself grappling with new words. My friends in the hood would always laugh at me and call me msee wa ocha (rural man)”.

Things changed even further when 26 year-old landed a job in one of the corporate organizations in Kenya where he spent five and half days of the week and he had to shift from his beloved “D” to South B.

This is usually the story of many from the sheng “strongholds” who qualify for higher learning and later on join the corporate world, where English is emphasized as a medium of communication.  It’s the price they have to pay for their transition from “huslers” to “ma-source”.

“The fact that sheng use diminishes with the individual’s rising success is a clear indicator that it’s only a uniting factor at some levels,” concludes Dr. Maloba. “After realizing progress or getting out of that particular group people find less ground to associate with it”.