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Kenyan Dictionary; a hilarious look at our language

By Brian Guserwa | October 19th 2021

When a person calls you ‘Kiongozi’, it is a sign of respect and deference to your leadership. It is the first cousin of ‘Boss’, and the illegitimate sibling of ‘Mkubwa’. Do not be surprised if they ask you to run for elective office.

But when a Kenyan calls you ‘Kiongozi’, it is not the compliment you think it is. The subtext is that they have determined your wallet to be thick, and will now proceed to ask you to back up your title by throwing drinks at everyone.

Similarly, Kenyans do not give approximations on when they will be ready, where they are in relation to Mombasa Road, or how much longer it will take them to get to the venue where you have been waiting for them for an hour. They will simply say “Ndio huyu mimi nacome.”

It is up to you, a fellow Kenyan who also speaks the language, to understand that the person you’re waiting for has not left the house. Your third phone call sped them up just enough to hop into the shower, but it will be some time before you actually see them.

Over the past few weeks, a journal of Kenyan expressions and mannerisms has surfaced on social media, featuring entries just like these. It is a rib-cracking collection of seemingly innocent things Kenyans say, which mean something completely different.

Apparently, Kenyans don’t often stick to the denotative meanings of the words they use. However, we have a shared culture that does the translating for us, and the results are often hilarious.

Early in the year, H_art the Band released My Jaber, an earworm celebrating the beautiful Kenyan girl.

It was a phrase Kenyans immediately understood. ‘Jaber’ translates to ‘beautiful girl’ in Dholuo; it belongs to a lineup of pet-names that have been in rotation for casanovas looking to charm their way into lonely hearts.

The other culprits are A gal bebi, A gal toto and Jasianda. If a lady refers to herself as ‘Babyghurl’, according to the Kenyan dictionary, then she is asserting her right to be treated like a princess, and will not settle for less.


Funny but informative

Some of the posts are informative. If someone visits your humble one-bedroom abode and asks how much rent you pay, that is a subtle way of gauging the depth of your pockets. It is a calculated question, with which they can ascertain how much you make, and therefore determine that you are living above your means.

A Kenyan DIctionary entry.

A Kenyan woman will rarely tell you that you are attractive. She might, however, mention that “Unakaa kua na madem wengi”. Nor will they tell you you’re doing well. They’ll simply protest “Sasa hatutapumua?”

“Ata sikai sana” is code for “I am just getting comfortable, so you might as well start making dinner plans.”

You don’t end a call with goodbye, you say “Wee tutaongea.”

And when you go for a job interview, the most important tool to have in your back pocket is not a strategically edited CV; it is not even an answer to “Where do you see yourself in five years?”

No, the best weapon in your arsenal is the statement “Mwambie ni mimi nimekutuma.”

A lot more entries are just amusing insights into the Kenyan way of doing things.

Like “Asking for a friend,” which is a silent plea to not be judged, “DM for prices,” an unnecessary trip into private messages where prices are fudged, and “Si pole bas,” a final, stubborn, take-it-or-leave-it apology that’s the best you’re going to get.

It is the best and worst of Kenyans; glib and comical, just like the people it represents.


The minds behind the craze

The idea was originally conceived by a group of friends, Kelvin Kamau, Winnie Mashirima & Edwin Ngari, who came together to help break down the uniquely Kenyan lingo.

“We were having a discussion on how Kenyans use phrases that only Kenyans would understand and also how some of these words have a deeper meaning to them,” says Kelvin, one of the creators.

“So we decided to come up with the Kenyan Dictionary to help people understand what these words and phrases mean.”

“It’s part of our vocabulary, stuff we say daily, but now we get people telling us that every time they use a phrase that we have posted, their friends go like, ‘niliona hiyo Kenyan Dictionary so najua unamaanisha nini’.”

The popularity of the posts came as a surprise, even to them: “We thought that it would resonate with only a few people, only to find out we all go through the same things.”

It also meant a large surge in the follower counts.

“We started on August 15 and on that day we gained 300 followers. On the following day we gained 25k followers and kept growing with around 5k followers every day.


Biggest appeal

“It has impacted us significantly because now we have a voice in the community and people come to us for definitions of phrases. Also, something that we started as a hobby is now turning into a brand.”

Perhaps the biggest appeal of the Dictionary is the shared nature of the experiences.

“It’s our way of talking,” says Brian Mwendwa, a JKUAT student who has shared the posts extensively.

“People from different parts of the country all relate. I find myself using the expressions, even without thinking about it. My family and friends have had a great time going through the phrases, so it’s definitely been fun,” he says.

Mwendwa, an aspiring social marketer, regularly shares the content on his social media, particularly on Twitter. It has been instructive for him.

“I’ve gotten to interact with a lot of people, developed new ideas on running my page, and I am grateful for it.”


Creative Kenyans

Peter Githinji, an Associate Professor at Kenyatta University who specializes in Sociolinguistics and Dialectology, believes such a catalogue of our language represents our creativity and innovation.

“Kenyans are very creative,” he says, “and we see this a lot in our language use. If you come with a corrupted version of any language, even mother tongue, we take fun in that, and it is part of our creativity.

“Our language use reflects a rejection of these codified versions of language that are imposed on us.

“We like something that gives us room to create, room to manoeuver. You can do whatever you want with it, express yourself the way you want,” he says.

He also sees the attempts to define our language as our way of trying to connect with each other.

“Remember, a defining factor for urban languages like Sheng’ is that they have some secrecy to them, some exclusivity.

“Some groups are excluded from it by default. So, now we see this renegotiation where the people engaging in the languages want to broaden awareness, make more people participate.”

“The stigma that was once there is removed, and the language is then acceptable to a majority. We see this with things like memes, as well. And it’s not restricted to Kenya, too.

“If you look in America, for example, there is the Urban Dictionary, which breaks down language and culture as well. Through things like this, we can engage in global discourse.”

“Our usage reflects an emerging culture, and a part of it is bringing everyone to the fold. It is also a reflection of the vitality of our culture.”

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