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.
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.”
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.
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.
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]
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

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