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How Sheng, the Slang of Nairobi Slums became the default 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.

The origins of the Sheng language

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.

Like wildfire the language soon spread to most corners of the city and after many years of varied metamorphosis it became part of the everyday mode of communication – quickly getting more popular than Swahili or English – with new words being created for everything from foods,clothing’s and even money!

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Ghetto Radio-A radio station broadcasting all its contents in sheng language.

It is rooted so much in the language that the older generation have to learn a few basic words of Sheng. It is always very unique to see two consecutive generations – the youth and elderly/middle-aged people – speaking different languages as if they were from different continents. This forced websites, pamphlets and even Sheng dictionaries to spring up from various sources.

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A billboard advert urging youths to get education in order to better themselves.

With majority of Kenya’s population being youths the best way to connect with them is through Sheng so 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.

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Our Correspondent
Cult Kenya correspondent
Peter - Nairobi

Born in a dusty village along coastal Kenya where only a handful of people had ever seen a car i progressed through my education eventually ending up in "THE CITY" (Nairobi) to study Journalism.I now work with a local media company ...

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About this place

Continent: Africa
Capital: Nairobi
Population: 40,046,600
Area: 582,650 km2
Currency: Shilling
Languages: Swahili, English

Time in Nairobi
1:32 pm

Weather in Nairobi
  16°c

Distance from you
12,170km