How the Urban Slang of Nairobi Slums Is Becoming the Language of the People

Stories from Roads & Kingdoms
Nov. 1 2013 10:25 AM

Street Talk

How the urban slang of Nairobi slums is becoming the language of the people.

Inside the "on air" studio at Ghetto Radio in Nairobi, Kenya.
Inside the "on air" studio at Ghetto Radio in Nairobi, Kenya.

Courtesy Laura Dean

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NAIROBI, Kenya—Henry Ohanga Jr. sits down at the table in an upscale coffee shop in one of Nairobi’s malls. He wears a bright purple baseball cap cocked to one side, and a necklace with shiny black stones in the shape of a pharaonic head around his neck. Octopizzo—as he is known to his fans—is a rising hip-hop star from Kibera, a Nairobi neighborhood whose tagline is “the biggest slum in Africa.” He is one of the ones who found a way out, and he wants to help bridge the gap between places like Kibera and the so-called uptown—the wealthier stretches of Nairobi. Though Kenya is still shaken by last month’s horrific massacre at Westgate mall, it is also true that most of Nairobi couldn’t afford a cup of coffee in any of the uptown malls. “There are people [in Kibera] who’ve never been here,” he gestures to the mall-goers around us. And the people here, he says, have “never been to Kibera.”

Octopizzo is fluent in an unexpected medium for bridging that gap: Sheng, Nairobi’s urban language. There are 42 languages spoken in Kenya—Swahili and English are the two official languages—but Sheng is overtaking them all as the language of the big-city youth. It is a Swahili-based slang, with bits of English thrown in alongside other Kenyan and non-Kenyan languages. And, remarkably, it’s catching on across all parts of society.

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Sheng began its life as a slang largely used by gangs in the poorest corners of Nairobi. The widely agreed upon origin story of Sheng is that in the 1980s and 1990s, a massive migration of people from the countryside to city resulted in large numbers of young people living in close quarters with their families in low-income neighborhoods in Nairobi. “When you had all these young people living together in these very crowded areas of Nairobi, [they needed] a language of secrecy,” says Professor Mungai Mutonya, senior lecturer in socio-linguistics at Washington University in St. Louis, “where they could be able to communicate without getting the information out to their parents.”

Now the secret is out. Today it isn’t uncommon to see Sheng pop up almost anywhere—on billboards, on the radio, in political campaign ads, and public service announcements. It has become the lingua franca of Nairobi’s youth, who make up 60 percent of the Kenyan population. Politicians, advertisers, and schoolteachers are taking notice.

Each neighborhood speaks its own variety, and the language itself changes almost weekly. “Whatever Sheng you are speaking now, the words you’re saying now, when you go like even for three months and you come back, they’re done,” says Octopizzo. The language is familiar enough that a Sheng dictionary came out recently. But dictionaries for Sheng have a short shelf life because of how rapidly the vocabulary change. “After a year,” he says, “the dictionary is expired.”

Its dynamism is one of the language’s unique features. Mutonya says that new Sheng words or phrases are often introduced by entertainers, DJs, and musicians like Octopizzo, all of whom compete to make their own original contributions. Sometimes such innovation is driven by necessity: Octopizzo invented a word for marijuana, octombeedo, so that it would get past the radio censors. Not surprisingly, words that describe illegal substances or law enforcement change most rapidly.

“It’s like a code,” says Octo, “[even] your parents don’t know what you guys are talking about.”

“It’s very secretive. That’s the best thing about it,” says Joseph, a 31-year old card dealer in a Nairobi casino. He spends long afternoons sitting at a coffee stall in the middle of a parking lot filled with large piles of gray sand and construction materials, chewing qat with his friends and chatting in Sheng. Though qat is legal in Kenya, the older generation often don’t approve, and he lists four different Sheng words for it as we talk: ketepa, jamba, veve, gomba.

Sheng allows young people to get around other cultural taboos. In 2005, a government anti-HIV AIDS campaign used Sheng to reach young people; advertisements in Sheng discussing sex  appeared on billboards and radio. It was a way of not only speaking to youth, but also of avoiding the ire of older Kenyans who might have disapproved of such an overtly sexual public service announcement.

Sheng even has its own flagship radio station of sorts, Ghetto Radio, which has taken Nairobi by storm. Founded in early 2008, Ghetto Radio calls itself “the official Sheng station” and “the voice of the youth.” Joseph Lotukoi, 28, a producer for the station, who grew up in a Nairobi slum, says it’s not just the words they use, but also what they talk about—crime, joblessness, child labor, early marriage, and other issues that affect the young and the poor. “We empower [the youth] and also entertain them,” says Lotukoi.

The entrance to the Ghetto Radio studios in Nairobi, Kenya.
The entrance to the Ghetto Radio studios in Nairobi, Kenya.

Courtesy Laura Dean

Ghetto Radio is the only station that broadcasts the news in Sheng. By broadcasting it across the entire city, the station simultaneously makes Sheng a bit more standardized, while trying to actively find new words. There is even a segment called “update your slang” on the morning show that brings in and explains new Sheng words from around the city.

Languages similar to Sheng’s urban slang are popping up in other African cities where, historically, people have spoken a variety of languages. “We have the Sheng-like forms in the major cities,” says Muntonya. “In Soweto … we have [a variety] in Yaoundé, [in] Cameroon, we have [a variety in] Lusaka.”

The Ghetto Radio van in Nairobi, Kenya.
The Ghetto Radio van in Nairobi, Kenya.

Courtesy Laura Dean

Not everyone welcomes the spread of this organic language from Nairobi’s streets. Eunice Mlati, the head mistress of the state-run Moi Avenue Primary School, sees the language as just another obstacle to teaching the next generation of Kenyans. “Sheng actually interferes with performance of students in languages, both English and Swahili,” says Mlati. Sheng comes in, and test scores go down, she says.

Mlati has zero tolerance for it. “Teachers should stress that children shouldn’t be speaking Sheng, especially in school and even at home,” she says. “If they speak English, let them speak English, if Swahili, then Swahili.” At the heart of her complaint—besides the fact that it serves as a secret language for students that many educators don’t understand—is the fact that she believes that only languages that can be tested should be taught in school. Sheng, because it changes so rapidly, would be very difficult to test.

And yet, despite the best efforts of people like Mlati, there are children growing up all over Nairobi who speak Sheng as their first language. And that, says Mutonya, can be a good thing. Given all of Kenya’s bitter ethnic and class lines, Sheng has a “detribalizing” effect, he says. Those who are united by the language “are not Kikuyus, they’re not Luos … they are Nairobians, young Nairobians speaking Sheng.”

Laura Dean is a freelance journalist based in Cairo. She writes about all things Egypt at Laura Dean’s Cairo Diary.

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