Connecting with young Kenyans via the Sheng urban language

Sheng is predominantly spoken by Kenya's urban youth.

Sheng is predominantly spoken by Kenya’s urban youth.

English and Swahili are the official languages in Kenya. But if you run a business targeted at the bulging youth population, you might want to throw in the urban slang called Sheng. Some of Kenya’s leading corporate firms have already taken note and are increasingly employing advertising spiced with Sheng phrases to entice customers.

Mobile network operator Safaricom has ran successful campaigns in Sheng, including Ponyoka Na Pickup (win a pick-up). In 2010 one of the country’s leading lenders Kenya Commercial Bank (KCB) rolled out the “Bankika na KCB” (get banked with KCB) campaign to promote its Bankika Personal Account product among youth. Within a month the bank reportedly opened no fewer than 30,000 new accounts with over Ksh.200m ($2m) in customer deposits.

Ironically, Sheng has always been associated with “thugs” as Duncan Ogweno bluntly puts it. Ogweno grew up in Nairobi speaking Sheng. Since the late 1990s, the computer studies graduate worked on building a database of Sheng words to preserve and demystify the language. He is the founder of Go Sheng Services, a curator of the Sheng language and culture.

“Sheng is the heartbeat of Nairobi. Growing up, it was the best way for us to express ourselves. Today nearly 90% of local music we consume is in Sheng and most adverts that really connect with audiences are in Sheng,” he says.

Go Sheng runs various media platforms aimed at preserving and promoting the language, including an online Sheng dictionary, which has 3,900 words, idioms and phrases. Registered members can add words on the online dictionary which then get voted for by other members before being accepted as authentic.

A unifying language of the youth

Sheng is a blend of Swahili, English, some local ethnic words as well as terms borrowed from other cultures. It is seen as a unifying language of the Kenyan youth. For many of them, being fluent in Sheng implies one has street knowledge of urban life in Kenya.

Sheng allows youth to communicate without the message being decoded by authorities and the older generation. To Sheng speakers, ‘karao‘ means ‘police’, ‘earthwire‘ is for ‘necktie’, ‘mlami‘ means ‘caucasian person’ while ‘vipepe‘ is for ‘girl’. As of 2009, about 53.7% of Kenyans were under the age of 20, according to the National Council for Population and Development.

Recently Ogweno’s Go Sheng was tapped by the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) to work on a project aimed at helping the broadcaster connect with younger audiences. And ahead of the 2010 constitutional referendum, Go Sheng, in partnership with civil rights organisations, translated the Bill of Rights to Sheng. As a result it was recognised by the New York-headquartered Ford Foundation as one of its ‘champions of democracy’.

Together with 17 other Ford grantees, Go Sheng traversed Kenya ahead of the 2013 elections speaking to youth, encouraging them to vote wisely and shun the violence that plagued the country after the 2007 polls.

Negative perceptions

It is believed Sheng was born in Nairobi decades ago following a massive migration of young people to low income suburbs. They came from different ethnic groups and needed a common language.

In recent years Sheng has been popularised and further developed by musicians and public transport workers. It has also been adopted by radio stations such as the Nairobi-based Ghetto Radio which broadcasts in Sheng.

But there are still many negative perceptions around Sheng. For starters, many of the older generation despise the language. Educators accuse Sheng for having corrupted English and Swahili, and see it as a hindrance to mastery of the two official languages.

“Unfortunately the perception that Sheng is for ‘riffraffs’ still persists. Many people imagine that if you speak Sheng you must be illiterate and a thug waiting to steal. Yet at Go Sheng Services we have 14 employees, and three of them are doing their Master’s degrees with money they make working for Go Sheng, in Sheng,” he says. Ogweno himself has had a stellar career in technology working with leading institutions, including the International Finance Corporation.

Ogweno believes urban slang is here to stay and communicators have no option but to get over the perceptions and embrace it.

“These 20-year-old kids will have purchasing power tomorrow. Sheng is the language to use to resonate with them.”