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Of Sheng and it’s alleged “Corruption” of English and Swahili

A lot has been said about the dangers of using Sheng as a language in schools and even in publications. A common factor in all these contributions is the fear that Sheng will or has eroded Swahili to the extent that school going children are unable to communicate effectively in English or Swahili.

The fact of the matter is that for the average Nairobi child – at birth – is exposed to at minimum, three languages (English, Swahili and at least one local language). This being the case, the child finds him/herself selecting the language of use depending on who the target is. To this extent, English will be prevalent in School, Swahili while shopping, local language while communicating with one’s parents. This leaves out one’s peers… and hence the birth of Sheng.

Sheng was born out of the need to go into “stealth mode” by the kids of early Nairobi immigrants (Rural to City folk) of the 60s. Most of those that settled in Nairobi were from Railways and the now defunct Kenya Posts and Telecommunications Corporation – the bulk of whom were Luhya and Luo. This group of earlier immigrants had to contend with a new language that their children “invented” given that the Luo & Luhya children found Kikuyu (Nairobi’s default tribe) children being their new playmates.

These children would find themselves playing far away from home and would – on return – find themselves having to resort to “stealth mode” to recount events of the day. These would have to be recounted without their parents understanding what was being said – for the simple reason that some matters were rather weighty and would have earned one a spanking (this is Africa). The need for stealth was also more out of necessity to protect oneself as opposed to one attempting to be devious. This was because most of the early immigrants lived in single roomed quarters (Muthurwa, Jerico, Maringo, Race-course estates etc) and hence there was no “boy’s room” or sufficient privacy for that matter!. To this extent, the birth of Sheng was natural and necessary.

Having come from rural areas and probably not so fluent in Swahili, the only other possible means of communication – short of drawing pictures on the ground 🙂 (did I just say that?) – was Sheng, which took care of virtually every child’s language needs by virtue of it’s accomodating English, Swahili and vernacular. Most importantly though, Sheng being versatile. The rule in Sheng is simple. So long as you have one or two other people that understand what you mean in a word, it doesn’t take long for the word to find itself in the local kiosk, then to the estate and ultimately in public domain. It’s more of jungle law – Survival for the fitest. Words that don’t find themselves outside of the peer circle, simply die off.

In this context then, the Sheng language has been misrepresented as a tout’s language without due mention being made of it’s origins and essence. It would serve Sheng’s bashers well to understand it’s origins before condeming it. After all. Even English and VIRTUALLY ANY OTHER language is a mix of other languages. Swahili (which Sheng bashers are quick to forget) is in itself a child of an Arabic and East Africa’s coastal languages.

Lastly, as is true of all languages, the essence of language is communication between a group of people. Sheng does fulfil this for the youth and later day adults alike. So why the fuss?

This history was derived from www.sheng.co.ke
developed by~~ Dunkie ~~

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