Coming in paperback next year, Sheng: Rise of a Kenyan Swahili Vernacular by Chege Githiora is “[A] major contribution to the study of (urban) multilingualism, the dynamic nature of language, and African oral narratives.” In this article, originally published in the African Griot, the author takes the reader through what led him to focus his research on Sheng.
This book is the culmination of more than a decade and half of collating thoughts about Sheng, structured research and spontaneous participant-observation in Nairobi and its metropolis. Initially, I wanted to answer the question: who speaks what language where, when and why? – the stratification of language in Nairobi. But quickly, the focus of research settled on Sheng, as those I interviewed turned to me for answers to their own questions: what is this Sheng and its origin? who speaks it when and why? is it Swahili? a pidgin or creole? is it even a language – indeed, what is ‘language’?
In this pursuit, I came up with a few surprising and others not so-surprising answers: that Sheng really is a form of Kenyan Swahili (KS), specifically one that emerged from the Eastlands, Nairobi’s low-income housing estates. Sheng is not separate from KS, although in its extreme registers (‘deep Sheng’) it can take on the character of a secret language (argot), unintelligible to outsiders of such ingroups. It was interesting to confirm through this research, that Nairobians, as most Kenyans, speak three languages on average; that a significant percentage consider Sheng their first or primary language; that nearly 60% of those sampled do not speak their presumed mother tongue (either or both parents’ language) at home; that Kenya is home to at least 60 living indigenous languages, and more than one third of them were spoken by the sample of 1300 people that we interviewed in Nairobi (See Fig 1). Notably, most of those Nairobians speak Gikuyu at home, followed by Swahili, and other Kenyan languages, with Sheng reported as the 6th most common household language. For a significant minority it is English. In reality, all these languages alternate in a fluid manner, speakers switching between languages, and mixing words, idioms, fixed expressions, physical gestures, at times employing the grammar of one language over the other and so on, a phenomenon described in more recent literature as ‘translanguaging’ (Garcia & Wei 2015).
In a typical Kenyan household, at a street corner shop or even at the bank, conversations are carried out in a mixture of English, Swahili and Sheng among millennials, who may interact with parents in Swahili, English or an indigenous language; or with a rural cousin in Swahili, Sheng and indigenous language. This type of situation is replicated in many parts of the fast urbanizing continent which means African multilingualism must be embraced in practical ways to free up the creativity of its young generation. I’ve demonstrated how Sheng and Kenyan indigenous languages are now drivers of a vast creative and entertainment industry (Radio, film TV, Internet) which generates many jobs and incomes to millions of millennials. It also empowers them with the confidence of wielding a valued means of communication, which cannot be said of the rest of Kenyan indigenous languages. Language policy must move away from looking at the continent’s linguistic diversity as a problem to be overcome by imposing a monolingual national or regional identity based on a colonial language.
Sheng and the question of mother tongue in education
There are proven cognitive, psychological and pedagogical benefits of using mother tongue at early stages of learning/schooling, not to mention the inherent value of bringing up fluent bilingual or multilingual citizens. A lot of research shows that a vernacular – the most familiar language of everyday interaction – not necessarily ‘mother tongue’ – is useful when exploring the grammar of a second language such as English or Swahili in the Kenyan case, to promote literacy in them. It is argued that the ‘additive bilingualism’ model works for educational purposes better than the ‘subtractive bilingualism’ model where a Second Language (L2 – English or Swahili) is acquired without accommodating linguistic skills already developed in the first language or ‘mother tongue’ (L1). Instead, more attempts are made to replace L1 (mother tongue, indigenous language) skills with those of L2 (English or Swahili): this is like throwing out the baby with the bath water. It results in a conflict of linguistic and cultural systems at best, or the child loses their mother tongue (L1) entirely. I have pointed at studies on current practices in Wales, UK and in Canada, USA and elsewhere, which demonstrate that in a model of well-managed multilingualism, teachers respect their students’ sociolinguistic knowledge and allow them to speak in vernacular and draw on their experiences when appropriate but increase their opportunities to practice ‘good’ (Standard) L2 (English in all cases) by creating those discourse conditions that call for it. According to our research in Nairobi, Sheng is the vernacular language of a large, key section of the population – the 60% mainly urban Kenyans under 24 years of age. If Sheng were given equal treatment to other Kenyan vernacular languages, then it can be used in managing students’ transition in the classroom from a ‘primary, home language’ to the desired Standard Swahili and English as recommended by the country’s early childhood (ECD) educational policy (KICD 2017).
There is a lot of translation in this book: translating my thoughts into words on paper, poring over translations and interpretation of meanings, and translating them yet again between Sheng, Swahili, English, Gikuyu and Dholuo. It is quite normal and easy to switch languages when speaking, aided by facial and other body gestures and so on – ‘translanguaging’ (Garcia & Wei 2015). But in writing, it is an energy draining exercise to the writer who must not only translate between the languages and dialects, but also explain many cultural nuances of the language. But the painstaking work (no less for editors and copy editors!) is necessary to the telling of the Sheng story. It is part and parcel of the sociolinguistic description needed to understand a complex multilingual ecology such as that of Nairobi or Kenya at large; such ‘thick description’ is often absent in linguistic research studies conducted in Africa due to the challenges of mastering several, diverse languages and relying on others’ nuanced interpretations of data. All the same, in filtering and assimilating the ‘foreign’ and the ‘other’ (Sheng, Kenya, Swahili, etc.) into the target culture (English), I felt self-conscious, at times, of engaging with excessive ‘cultural translation,’ which can be seen as a reflection of power relations in which the global south works doubly hard to feed the global north with research data – in translation. That aside, this exercise demonstrates the nature of language in actual practice: it is fluid and shifting, it involves shared knowledge of linguistic codes as well as the socio-cultural norms and values which guide the conduct and interpretation of speech in a community of practice.
In sum, Sheng is a book about African multilingualism, urbanism, socioeconomic stratification of Nairobi, attitudes towards languages and the city’s social history. It is about Swahili language contact and change, as it continues to mutate – as all languages great and small do. It is also about millennials and the future of Kenya’s Sheng generation, their creativity, enterprise and global linkages with Global Black culture and the diaspora.
In writing this book, I hoped to make a useful contribution to the understanding of the language, culture and society of Kenya in a style accessible to all those interested in the topic, including those who may just be interested in learning about Sheng, its history, and its relationship to Swahili. The book is also addressed to Sheng speakers and practitioners – ma-youth wa Kenya (Kenyan youth), millennials who are passionate about Sheng, which they refer to as lugha yetu ya vijanaa (our (youth) language), and who are eager to see it documented, its commercial potential harnessed, and for it to be given the serious attention it deserves when discussing the language situation of Kenya. I therefore, wrote in the hope that the book may make a difference to lives outside the university.
This guest post was written by Chege Githiora, Professor of Linguistics, African Languages and Literatures at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS).
This article was originally published in the African Griot Volume 18.