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Is there a place for sheng in schools?


Many years ago, when I was in primary school, there was something called a disc. A disc was basically a dirty smell bone that was used symbolically. Anybody who spoke Kiswahili or their mother tongue, had to endure the embarrassment of carrying the smelling bone for the better part of the class day.

Everybody hated being subjected to such humiliation and so we all did our best to speak English broken as it was. Kiswahili is the national language and so in retrospect I wonder why they used to discourage us from communicating in this language. Anyway I digress.

Now enter 2014, the shame language that earns someone a bone on the neck is - sheng. I visited my daughter Tasha’s school recently and what I saw hanged on the class wall shocked me.

“I am a sheng speaker, keep off” was the small placard that was used as a punishment for pupils who speak slang.

I got curious when I spotted it and asked my daughter what it means.

“It’s for anybody who says words like mtu nguyas,” I laughed at her explanation. Now how things have changed. Now enter 2014 and sheng is the abhorred language.

My question is can we really ignore sheng? Or better still does sheng have a place in school curriculum?

Here’s my argument.

Some people may consider sheng the language of street hustlers and that it has no place at the dinner table but I beg to differ.

If you want to capture the minds and psyche of the young people - who actually make up almost 60 per cent of the Kenyan population - do sheng.

Our president and his deputy have cut the image of a young vibrant duo that is conversant with this street language. Most memorable commercials are done with a pinch of sheng in it to add that oomph.

I know sheng cannot be included in the official syllabus but the schools need to realise they cannot wish it away.

Sheng is part and parcel of the youth lingua franca. Even though the school cannot allow the teachers to use it as their mode of communication, they should not ‘stigmatise’ the language.

In Tasha’s school, the teachers condemn its usage with such vehemence, the kids associate it with poverty, backwardness and ragamuffin attitude.

But this is not the case.

Sheng is slowly finding its place in the society and those who ignore it do it at their own peril.  By the way what is mtu nguyas?


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