Why Sheng Craze is Unlikely to Die Down Among Kenyan Urbanites
You can hear or read it everywhere you go in the lyrics of local hip hop hits, on radio call-in shows, in Facebook posts, and trending topics on Twitter, and in the taglines of advertising campaigns.
Now, Sheng is set to get global attention due to its high profile in Kenya’s home-grown Oscar offering for this year, the David Gitonga training film Nairobi Half Life. But entry of the Swahili-English patois into the mainstream is far from complete. While it lends words into the national vocabulary and gives Kenyans a sneak peak into youth culture, there is still a vast changing underworld of language that often remains hidden.
In 2009, part of that world burst into the mainstream when 20-year-old street boy James Kimani was interviewed over the illegal police killing of an acquaintance. Kimani claimed the man, a butcher, had been shot dead for fleeing police officers who wanted to arrest him for urinating in public.
He accused police of planting a bonoko, which he described as a fake pistol, at the scene to cover up the crime. In just days, a word known just in the youth sub-culture targeted this way by police was on the lips of everyone in the country even as outrage mounted over the high rate of unexplained extra-judicial killings in the city’s poorer estates. Today, Kimani is a presenter at Ghetto Radio, which describes itself as ‘The Official Sheng Station’.
Under the name Bonoko, he co-hosts a late afternoon programme called Air Goteana with Captain Mbusi, which intersperses periods of dancehall and reggae music with discussions in (and about) Sheng.The language of the youth, particularly the urban poor, has always been a powerful tool for capturing larger ideas. A decade ago, when Kenya was on the verge of a major political change, the mood of the period was captured in one music anthem –Unbwogable by Gidi Gidi and Maji Maji. Every radio station, TV channel, newspaper and lip repeated the lyrics sang the song in the hope and belief of a new dawn for the country. The song was among the early efforts at crossover music that had lyrics in a mix of Swahili, English and other Kenyan native languages.
On the back of its success, the duo shot their first professional video abroad, rapping in Sheng to an English language chorus. In the years since, as local music gains attention across Africa, Sheng has found a larger mainstream audience even as it continues to evolve in the streets and estates of the city of its birth, Nairobi. Today, its terms are the preferred vocabulary of persuasion by marketers and advertisers.
Mobile telephony giant Safaricom stands out as a trailblazer borrowing from and even lending words and phrases to Sheng. Better known efforts include the name for their low denomination scratch cards, ’Bamba Fifty’, their bonus scheme ’Bonga Points’ and their ‘Sambaza’ top up facility. Banks followed suit, with Barclays Bank, for instance, coming up with its ‘Mkopo wa Salo’ loan. Soon, virtually all new advertising campaigns were looking for a Swahili or Sheng-style hook. Not everyone is happy about this growth of Sheng. Indeed, when releasing last year’s Kenya Certificate of Secondary Exams results earlier this year the then Minister of Education Sam Ongeri decried the rise of Sheng in schools as it impeded the development of English among pupils.
“Our suspicion is that adulteration of Kiswahili and English, where even senior members of the society... speak Sheng to the youth has affected performance in the two subjects,” he said.
This followed the surprisingly poor ranking of Kenya by Southern African Consortium for Monitoring Educational Quality (SACMEQ) in a survey, which said the trend is hurting performance. In the survey, Kenya was ranked at position two behind Mauritius out of 15 SACMEQ countries in numeracy but was placed at position five in literacy behind Tanzania, Seychelles, Mauritius and Swaziland.
But Ashford Kimani, a teacher at the Marion Group of Schools disagrees. He counters that if that were the case, schools in the cities would be the worst hit. “As a matter of fact, students from city schools are more self-expressed in languages than their rural colleagues.” he says.
Curiously some of the winning items at the annual Kenya Schools and Colleges drama Festival draw their comic moments from the use of Sheng words and lines. The Kenya Publishers Association stirred a hornet’s nest when they declared at a national book exhibition that they will start publishing some book in Sheng. Indeed, some publications such as the Kwani? Series have had a heavy dose of Sheng in them.
Award wining comic strips Shujaaz feeds and breathes in Sheng as its language and so are many Behaviour Change Communication materials such as Straight Talk and Roda produced buy the Kenya Association of Professional Counsellors and the Program for Appropriate Technology in Health respectively.
The high-octane TV series Shuga; Sex, Love Money draws its lifeline from Sheng. Its message on HIV and Aids, relationships, and youth empowerment is obtrusive, persuasive and entertaining, the targeted audience gets the message clear and direct. Children’s TV drama, Machahari is pure Sheng stuff and it is what actually defines it.
According to Dr Clara Momanyi of Kenyatta university slang reflects the norms and values among the urban youth of Kenya. The particular ‘Sheng’ they adopt will also depend on the geographic location and social background. For example, if in one estate the dominant ethnic community is Kikuyu or Luo, the kind of Sheng will have a higher percentage of Kikuyu or Luo words. Yet there is another Sheng from across the Uhuru Highway where the middle class youth has more English and just a little spike of Kiswahili. While some have argued that Sheng remains a language of defiance, others argue it’s the language fro the future. Today, many parents speak some variant of Sheng or are trying to learn from their children.
By George Orido
This article was originally published in The Standard.
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