Cant, creole, patois, pidgin, a bit of vernacular, English and Swahili teachers’ worst nightmare? Sheng is many things to many people. For the urban youth in Nairobi’s Eastlands, it is an identifier. For the more conservative, it bastardises English and Swahili and contributes to students’ low performance in these languages. For the linguist, it is an interesting phenomenon that indicates the push and the pull across the socio-economic stratum. For the politician and the newly hired ad marketer, it offers a pliable connection to tap into the youth votes or purchasing power respectively.
What then is Sheng? Loosely, it is a smattering of Swahili, English, and vernacular and which is moulded to fit one’s local context. The word is derived from SwaHili and ENGlish according to Prof. Ali Mazrui as quoted by one Mokaya Bosire, as these are the base languages in which Sheng is found; plus, a smattering of vernacular languages including Kikuyu, Dholuo, Kamba and Luhya. It is instructive to note that these major vernacular languages that have lent Sheng a broad vocabulary did not come about by accident. On the contrary, they are a reflection of the cosmopolitan nature of Nairobi as it morphed into a city – or a collection of villages as some proffer – during the colonial times.
As the push and pull gathered momentum and intensified towards independence, the colonialists’ policies mutated in reaction to this. And even before that, the colonialists’ policies had disrupted the way of life of indigenous communities; for instance, the colonialists’ appropriation of agricultural lands meant that a number of Africans migrated to the cities as they did not have sustainable livelihoods back in the village or they could not afford the taxes imposed by the colonialists such as the hut tax. And once in the cities, these communities found themselves segregated into African quarters that is Eastlands – Kariakor (a corruption of ‘Carrier Corps’), Kaloleni, Maringo and so on.
Thus, was Sheng founded: English from the colonialists; Swahili from the coast as the defacto national language; Kikuyu, Dholuo, Kamba, Luhya languages as members of these communities, now lodged in the African quarters of Nairobi, found it necessary to interact with one another. Further to this is that not all Africans in the city could be absorbed into European and Asian employment in what could pass as formal employment or the jua kali sector run by fellow Africans and what is still referred up to today as the informal sector (though this dichotomy is being challenged.
Man must eat and thus was born Nairobi’s underworld and who furthered Sheng in their criminal enterprise as a code to pass secret messages and evade law enforcement. With time, their coded language would be known to those they wished not to be privy to their communications and which necessitated them to come up with new vocabulary every so often, hence the fluidity of Sheng. Presently, this is the case and thus, the Sheng employed in Nairobi (indeed, in different estates in Nairobi) may be different from, say, the one that is employed in Mombasa or Kisumu or Eldoret.
This phenomenon that is the fluidity of Sheng has also given rise to Engsh. Derived from English and Sheng, it sneaks among members of Nairobi’s uptown – affluent Nairobians who have settled in what was once the European quarters and which residents of Eastlands refer to as ‘Westy’, from Westlands, a rough guide being Uhuru highway as the boundary. In both instances, though, Sheng and Engsh is mainly anchored by the youth as the older populace tends to either Nairobi Swahili or English as the case may be; with room for code-switching as the need arises.
Essentially, code-switching is the practise of switching from one language to another and reflects group and class dynamics. For instance, Kenyans primarily identify by their ethnicity. Hence, the debate that ethnicity has positive connotations – positive ethnicity – as a celebration and pride in one’s identity as belonging to a certain community and related heritage and culture as a result. This in contrast to tribalism which is negative in that one gives one’s community members, say in employment, an undue advantage through an act or acts of commission and omission.
It can be argued that code-switching happens almost on reflex. Taking an example of two young men from Eastlands and who have secured employment on a company owned by an Englishman, it is only natural that they will switch from this to that language depending on the situation. When the Englishman is around, English will be the medium of communication between the three. On their lunch break Sheng then takes over (or if they are older workers or workers who spent most of their lives back in the village and are from the same village, then it is mother tongue for the duration of the lunch break).
In our above example, the two young men may identify with Sheng as a kind of mother tongue. This in the reality that they have been born and bred in the city; perhaps visiting their (their parents’?) ancestral land once or twice in the course of their lives; if they have one to begin with. How can one not know one’s mother tongue? Someone might ask in shock. Our lives unfolded in the way it unfolded and we are better off for it, they might answer. Sheng blurs our tribes and the associated political and social venom based on tribe.
The person castigating them for not knowing to speak their tongue might then quote Ngugi wa Thion’go and his push for vernacular in literature, extrapolating this to their daily lives. That mighty nations – the US, the UK, Germany, Spain, China, France, Russia, Japan – are mighty as they have fully owned their languages in their communication and their technology. To which they may reply that English is not indigenous to the US, rather, native languages abounded such as Navajo. That and the fact that it is more or less a bilingual language with Spanish giving English a run for its money and that the US is a melting point of diverse languages and cultures. That the UK has English and Irish and Welsh and cockney in London and so on and so forth.
It is my contention that Sheng is here to stay and we are much better for it, its fluidity notwithstanding. As someone pointed out, Kenyans think in their mother tongue then translates their thoughts into English via Swahili. I would say that Nairobians are a step ahead as they straightway move from the realm of Sheng into English at full speed.