He’s garbed in a yellow suit, black folder in hand. His hair is neat and shaven, but a blanket of grey hair tells a tale of old. His eyes, wide open and warm. His mouth turns up into a smile, and a shattering “hello” emerges to reveal a neatly arranged set of teeth.
Some people call him “Chairman”; others know him as Joe Akech, the former mayor of Nairobi. Akech was born in the Kenyan capital in 1947, during the colonial period. The city was stratified—British in affluent western areas, Indian immigrants in the central part, and Africans who migrated from rural areas in search of employment settled in the congested “Eastlands”.
Akech was born in Eastlands, where he intermingled with peers from different ethnic groups. He mostly spoke to his parents in English and Swahili, but his parents responded in his ethnic tongue, Luo.
“Like most who live in the city, I would communicate with my parents in broken Luo to the extent that I would be told, ‘You might as well speak Swahili.’”
As knowledge of ethnic languages decreased, Akech’s generation would fuse remnants with Swahili and English, giving birth to a pidgin—Sheng. Its name takes “sh” from Swahili and “eng” from English. It’s a patois—or colloquial language—spoken predominantly in Kenya’s urban areas.
Youth initially adopted Sheng to exclude parents. “When my brother would want to tell me that I had a message from a girl, he would say, ‘Dame wako amekupigia binja (Your girlfriend has whistled at you),’” Akech laughs.
“Sheng is a child of the railway line,” says Kelvin Okoth, founder of online Sheng database Go Sheng. He explains that the language “originates from those who grew up in the late 40s early 50s” in Eastlands, referring to the Akech’s generation, born in the first wave of urban migration.
The language has evolved far beyond the codes of a small group. Today, it is so widely spoken that corporate Kenya uses Sheng to capture youth.
“Most companies believe that once they use some Sheng in their advertising campaign, they will have a great campaign,” explains Teddy Muthusi, Creative Services Manager at Kenya’s Nation Media Group.
But Go Sheng’s Senior Content Manager, Gitua Gathu, points out that Sheng is still coded, preventing outsiders from catching on. “On the basis of it being like a secret code, once the authorities get to know about this code that you are using, you need to evolve into something new that they don’t know.”
The Go Sheng team sees this rapid change firsthand. Their database grows at a rate of five to 10 words each day.
“The dynamic elements are so dynamic in themselves,” says Okoth. “You can’t place a finger that this is why they are dynamic. The elements keep changing.”
This dynamism means words and phrases often differ among neighborhoods, making it a challenge to keep up. Gathu says changes evolve and spread organically through day-to-day use. “People are being creative every day.”
“Sheng is social,” explains one Sheng speaker. “You get to learn new words from interacting with people. I even learn new words from church.”
Another says she gets to know about new words from matatus—minibuses that serve as public transit. “The conductors use new words for fare prices so often that I lose track of what is what.”
Okoth says it’s important “not to just see it as a language but as a culture. It is a way that we live, bond, communicate—a way we transact.”
One popular cultural figure, Robert Ochola—better known as Rowbow—says Sheng saved his life. He’s a former reporter for the first mainstream Sheng radio station, Ghetto Radio.
In the thick of the 2007 post-election violence, a group of men stood over Ochola, machetes in hand. Ochola was from a different ethnic group, making him a target. Luckily, an elderly woman he’d just interviewed stepped in: “Don’t you know Robow from Ghetto Radio?” The attackers put their weapons down. “Tunaiskiza jo. Mko juu. (We listen to your station. You’re the best.)”
Ochola now believes Sheng is the key to uniting Kenya.
The pidgin has also been popularized through the growth of locally produced music. In 2000, Paul Nunda—known by his stage name, Jua Cali—co-founded Calif Records, and with it genge, a new genre of music influenced by American hip hop.
“Genge in Swahili means ‘a mob of people’,” Nunda enthuses. “And that is what the music we were creating was for.” He says genge was designed for Nairobi’s youth, mired with perceptions of crime, poverty, and poor education.
The music speaks of struggle and poverty experienced by youth in Eastlands—without the misogyny and glorification of wealth often associated with American hip hop. Nunda wants to inspire the generation to follow their dreams.
But Sheng has its skeptics. Professor Kiprop Lagat, anthropologist and Deputy Director of the Nairobi National Museums of Kenya, questions its applicability.
“It does not have its own lexicon. For example, can you teach chemistry in it? There are not that many words you can use in it.”
Yet Professor Frederick Iraki, linguist at the United States International university—Africa (USIU), contests that some critics don’t understand linguistic history. “French and English started off as ‘Shengs’ [informal pidgins]. You were called ‘trash’ or seen as barbaric in Europe if you couldn’t speak Latin.” But Lagat argues that Sheng’s dynamism poses a barrier its use as a communication tool. In his 2010 paper, he points to the word “niaje” (how are you?), which evolved to “ajejo”, then “ni wuodhes” in just six weeks, setting a precedent for confusion.
While Iraki maintains that dynamism is normal in languages, he admits that Sheng’s fluctuations are too rapid to maintain a reliable lexicon of what constitutes Sheng.Despite the tongue’s fragmentation, “Chairman” Akech echoes Rowbow’s sentiment that Sheng will contribute to Kenyan unity. “Look at all the intermarriages. Parents already speak to their children in Sheng.”