I’ll just start with a caveat; I would have written this story in Sheng’ but some who might want to read it and don’t know the language would be completely lost. Secondly and the most important reason is that Sheng’ is so dynamic a language, that what I write today might not exist tomorrow or may have a completely different meaning which would render my story senseless.
Sheng is described on Wikipedia as a slang based language originating in Nairobi, Kenya and is heavily influenced by many languages spoken in the country. The word itself is coined from the words (S)wahili and (Eng)lish and was primarily a language of the urban youth but has now spread across social classes. Yesterday the Minister of education, quite predictably, condemned ‘Sheng’ and attributed the poor performance in ‘proper’ Swahili and English to the exceeding use of the language. He seemed particularly miffed at the fact that the media and politicians seem to ‘encourage’ Sheng usage as a normal thing. As a matter of fact ever since Raphael Tuju announced his bid for presidency in Sheng all I heard was curses, hissing and cringing from every corner and especially in the literary world. Most of whom were embarrassed on his behalf because according to them he is a political elite who is ‘trying too hard’ to be ‘ordinary people”.
Well, I disagree. I think Sheng is quite extraordinary and the last thing we should do is cringe in shame when it’s spoken or worse, try to stamp it out. I love Sheng! ‘Tell you why;
The times we live in are described as the postmodern era. Many philosophers believe that modernity gave way to post-modernity in the late 20th Century maybe around 1980′s. While Modernity was characterized by set systems, order and clear-cut structured way of operation, post-modernity is in turn significantly different. Frederick Jameson, an American philosopher, has described it using the term schizophrenic. Post-modernity is more abstract, more flamboyant, less solidly structured and more ‘liquid’. I’m talking less clear-cut boundaries and more free flowing way of living. Boundaries fade in our postmodern world to give rise to a new age. There are no absolutes here! Jameson also used the term fragmentation while talking of post-modernity. Breaking down of traditional walls whose pieces now float freely ready to take up any shapes or forms in life’s course.
Sheng is therefore to me the best representation of Post-modernity in the Kenyan community. Predicted to have started in the 70′s, Sheng is a representative of all of the above characteristics in a young, dynamic multicultural community like ours! French philosopher Jacque Derrida took issue with the traditional ‘set-in-stone’ way of thinking, saying that one day man will be in full control of his own environment ‘deconstructing’ the old systems. That is exactly what we do when we speak Sheng! We are ‘deconstructing’ the old rigid language systems that were set in place to facilitate and ease the spread of colonization. We are breaking down those languages that were a by-product of slavery and the dark pasts there-in. We are also refusing to be held captive within cultural imperialism and neo-colonialism and finding our own niche within which we can exist and indulge our creativity. And that we did so even before the term post-modernity surfaced in the ‘normal world’, is an amazing and awesome testament to who we are as a people.
The dynamism in the language is a literal embodiment of the ever free, ever positive youth culture in Kenya. When it began, this Sheng culture spread like wild fire among the youth like a force which excluded the traditional political elite who used the clear-cut boundaries of modernity to remind us who is Samburu and who is Maasai for example. Sheng went above that to create an environment where you could be both or none at all! Which is why the political elite were too quick at first to dismiss it as a ghetto language and paint a picture of it being used by the ‘illiterate or the outlaws’ only. They have unfortunately succeeded to some extent as demonstrated in the 2007/08 election violence. Still amazingly Sheng continues to dilute these tribal and ethnic walls to establish the ever-growing ever dynamic young Kenyan minds that possess creativity and innovation in abundance! Yearning to break from yokes of tradition and the ‘status-quo’ – they can formulate words and phrases to express themselves in a unique and amazing way.
This is why we should rethink our stance on Sheng. To see the same political elite that dismissed it as the ‘corrupt’ and inappropriate language, now striving oh so hard to learn and to speak it, even if it means them ‘making fools of themselves’ while doing so?! This is a testament to the unbreakable genius that is the Sheng culture. Mind you there are so many other versions of Sheng worldwide (with different names of course). I watched Jua Cali being interviewed by Kajairo the other day and he said that during one of his tours in Europe somebody asked him why he doesn’t sing in English so that they can understand him better. He said ” Sisi tushaajifunza hio lugha yenu English. Na sisi pia tuna lugha yetu inaitwa Sheng, infaa pia nyinyi mjifunze hio yetu ndo mtuelewe” (We have already learnt (your) English language, you could also start learning Our language which is Sheng to understand my music). Blew my mind he did! Awesome, awesome guy.