Picture a sexagenarian in a suit under a tree. Birds are singing in the trees, as the man (in the video) speaks to us, Pulsers. ‘Vipi? Nimefikisha 60, lakini mi si mzae. Tushikane, tuwe ka mbogi moja, ndio Kenya iendelee mbele. Ama we unaonaje? La pili, nawashukuru juu ya ujumbe ya Happy Birthday! Asanteni sana. Nashukuru Mungu. Tutembee pamoja!’
The man in the suit is veteran politician Musalia Mudavadi. He’s been in mainstream politics for 30 years now, and this is his message in sheng, meant to target 16 to 30-year-olds. In another video, we see another man with a smooth boyish face, dressed in cap and windbreaker in a corridor adorned with flags. He too is channelling youth through use of sheng.
‘Nawagotea Wakenya, kuwapeleka radar kiasi. Wadosi wako kiasi, maskini ndio kibao,’ he starts. ‘Hauna ka-kitu kwa mbosho, bazu ndio wanapora maganji zenu! Vijana wanakufa moyo, hakuna mawera. Nijoin mimi Alf Mutua na mbogi yangu ya Masaku. Tuskakuwe tribal, tukuwe ‘tribe all,’’ Machakos Governor Alfred Mutua ends his ad message, almost in spoken word. The youthful governor made his ‘sheng’ ad before the ANC leader Musalia Mudavadi did, leading to the sheng storm at the end of last month, when Alf Mutua accused the Man from Sabatia of always copying his ideas, and slogans, and now his idea to address the youth in ‘very bad sheng.’
It is true that ‘Guv Alf’ is the pioneer when it comes to declaring a bid for the presidency to address the youthful ‘Pulsers’ of this country in ‘their’ street language and the urban patois of sheng, that while it may grate on an older generation’s ears, is lingual patisserie to ‘ghetto’ ears.‘Kenya sio ya mabazu wanaoka kwa Kamati za Ufisadi,’ Mutua said on that occasion. ‘wakiskia tuu rhumba za Japani. Sisi sio wapenzi watazamaji, (na) maisha yetu sio bahati. Mumetupiga (yut) kiboko, ma-stingo yenu imefika kikomo. Sasa ni wakati wa ‘fresh,’ uwe Mwikali au Mukami, etc, Wakifunga, tutafungua/ wakipanga, tutapangua, sasa extravaganza ni ya fresh ...’ (Kenya isn’t for the Big Men who sit on Committees of Corruption, listening to old rhumba (music) about ‘Japan.’ We are not idle viewers (of our destiny), and our lives aren’t a casino. You’ve whipped us, and your pride has reached its peak. Now it is time for us to speak afresh!
If you block our path, we’ll unblock it! If you try to plot around us, we’ll unmask your plots. Because this ‘extravaganza’ show is a whole new one.’) Note the Sauti Sol reference there. If music soothes the savage beast, as the saying goes, then language is the road to the soul. So that this unprecedented ‘war over sheng’ is actually a battle not of, but for words!
To lay claim to the language that will best reach the Youth Demography of Voting Age. Let us look at the statistics in our nation, as per the 2019 Census. The total urban population makes up 31.1 per cent of Kenyans, totalling 14.83 million. Nairobi ranks highest in urban population with 4.397 million, Mombasa 1.208 million, Nakuru 570,674, Kisumu 440,891, and Eldoret 475,716.
Interestingly, the population pyramid for urban areas indicates that the majority of the population is concentrated between ages 20 and 34 among both sexes. Furthermore, the data reveals the growth of satellite towns around Nairobi – Ruiru 490,120, 0ngata Rongai 172,569, Juja 156,041, and Kitengela 154,436. Now toss in the demographic that Kenyans between 18 and 35 make up 30 per cent of the population, or 15 million people, with youth unemployment at around 6 million.
And now you can see, with that demographic, urban geographical and work (or lack of it) data, that the informal lingo of the urban youth constitutes a formidable vote basket. Which explains why among the politicos who have ‘omuokad’ (become ‘woke’) like Governor Mutua, the once disrespected ‘ghetto’ pidgin of sheng is precious turf to defend (lest other ‘big dogs’ like MaDvD – Mudavadi – come and ‘piss piracy’ on it).
Of course this sheng, unlike our English that is static (although not stuck in time, as it evolves through its gate-keepers), is a very fluid ‘tongue,’ looking at its ‘ku’ ngeli alone can drive a linguist totally kukus. Kuchora (to plot for), kudingo (to steal), kudunda (to party), kafyatuka (go crazy), kukinda (to sell), kuhaha (be scared), kuingiwa njeve (be cold, like in Limuru), kujichomea (to embarrass oneself), kukung’uta (beat someone up/ have sex), kulola (drool after), kudialala (be idle), kunyonga (kill a tale/ jerk off), kurora (to ramble), kunyweta (get totally drunk + s*** faced), kuoshwa (to be conned, like Mungatana was, by ‘wash wash’ swindlers/ be betrayed), ‘kuom’ (come) and ‘kuomoka’ (gentrification).
One of the biggest gengetone groups in Kenya at the moment are some ‘Eastlanders’ who call themselves ‘Mbogi Genje.’ They rose to national notoriety on the knife-edge point of an anthem called Kidungi. ‘Iyo rieng yenu ya kusaka title/ heri ata nikae med ata na ki ital./Mandaki za tunapiga mosheki/ juu walikataa kutukatia keki/Kwa hii ring mtakula mavindichu/ hamjui vile sisi usakanga vushings si ndio?’
(That group of yours of looking for/ grabbing titles/deeds, indeed you’ve left us medicated / on drugs and jobless, idle. Middle classes we’ll chop ye with machetes, Because (ruling classes) you refused to share the national cake (with us ghetto folks). If you come to our hood/arena you will ‘eat’ daggers, because you have no idea how we survive/ chase the shilling, do you?).
So that even when a politician like Deputy President William Samoei Ruto goes around talking to the youth about being ‘hustlers’ (facing up to ‘Dynasties’), this could also be interpreted as stoking up the kerosene among youth for city class wars – just as the fanning of the national fuel of tribalism led to the 2008 PEV (not that that type of conflagration could never happen again, let alone in the neighbourhood year of 2022). Indeed that kind of speech could fall under the dark umbra of ‘inciting’ youths.
When the ‘establishment’ leaders of Kieleweke, like Raila ‘Baba’ Odinga speak of the coming BBI (Building Bridges Initiative) referendum as ‘na-baddy can stop reggae’ (not even Covid-19), it is still an attempt to frame highly elite processes in ‘yut’ lingo. After all, the man who said that is wildly popular among youth in the country (with Meru youth particularly fanatical).
Academician and social archivist Dr Joyce Nyairo wrote in an essay on a past election ‘Nyayo Stadium also very colourful. Just heard blasts of Bob Marley’s ‘I’m on the run ... fire, like lion in Zion’ and the crowds are amazing for their numbers, elation, energy.’ In the same essay – ‘Drivers of Victory and Loss’ – Dr Joyce also mentions the Big Teds, KJs (John Kiaries), Juliani, Madtraxx, Ringtone, John De 'Mathew, Mungai wa Njoroge, Makadems and Size 8 (then just Linet Munyalis) who wowed the crowds.
It seems that starting 2020 and going into 2022, the Seekers of Power through the Youth Vote now want not just to own the musical messengers who speak to Pulsers. They need to own the message, and the way it is spoken, which is Sheng.
The writer is an award-winning poet who ‘invented’ his own sheng called ‘Sminglish.’