While announcing the 2011 Kenya Certificate of Primary Education results, Education minister Prof Sam Ongeri admonished the rise of the Kiswahili-English-vernacular language mixture as the main reason behind the falling performances in some subjects.
By doing that, the minister was simply endorsing a view long held by educationists and parents, that Sheng is counter-productive. Even pastors are known to caution against the language, alluding to its prevalence amongst the lawless.
But, in 2012, Sheng looks far from going the way of Latin, the ancient language that you will only hear in seminaries and read in school mottos. If anything, Sheng has found a new mojo.
Marketing firms, politicians and activists have turned to the language to connect with the rising segment of urbanised youth because “it is stylish”.
Safaricom has Bamba 50 and the Ponyoka Na Pick-up ad, while Barclays Bank, in spite of its English heritage, has Mkopo Wa Salo.
In a PR campaign for the Cooperative Bank of Kenya, advertising firm Ayton, Young and Rubbicam used Sheng phrases to advertise the opening of a new branch of the bank in Githurai: Tumerudi Githu Mara Ya Twice (We Are Back in Githurai for the Second Time) went the ad.
Sheng is finally getting not just recognition, but an endorsement as well, and Ghetto Radio is a powerful example of new attempts to mainstream and commercialise the language.
The FM station prides itself as “the official Sheng station”, and, going by recent ratings, the strategy is working exceedingly well, with their evening show surging ahead of competition in Nairobi.
Educationists may not like it, at least not yet, but capitalists are already working in overdrive to find the best way to benefit from the lingo.
One such person is Ken Lumbasi, who runs a beauty clinic in the Thika upmarket neighbourhood of Phase 13. The area is home to a youthful middle class, and Ken must blend in with young people as a business necessity.
“What most people do not understand is that Sheng is not just a language,” he says. “It’s a culture. You can kill Sheng somehow, but you can’t do anything to a culture as the roots are deep.”
Ken believes that any proponents of the scrapping of the language have no clue as to what they are taking on.
“In Nigeria, they have their pidgin English. In American inner cities they have their ghetto English. In London they have their cockney.
All these are important expressions of a culture of a certain place, an identity that has its specific roots. In Sheng, we have our unique way of expression, and as long as the communicators are comfortable, it will be impossible to weed it out.”
But even Ken admits that the inconsistent nature of the language is a problem for children in their formative stages as words do not hold on long enough to be completely entrenched.
He gives the example of ‘village’, which has been referred to as ocha,shags and shao in the last five years, denying any particular term a lasting usage.
Sheng should be kept out of the classroom to avoid confusing young minds, so believes Ken, who has seen his children struggle to comprehend some of the dynamic terms in use.
“As far as protecting school-going children is concerned, I am in. But the minister took an extreme position that appeared to demonise the language. In markets, social settings and businesses across the country, you are either apt in Sheng or losing out big time.”
Ken is a born-again Christian who started with a negative impression of the language. Along the way, he encountered the “plain innocence and creativity” of the language. And, importantly for his business, he found an efficient way to blend in.
“Sheng is a nice way of telling people you belong with them,” he says.
But Jane Chira, a middle-aged mother, disagrees. When at home in Umoja, Nairobi, during holidays, Jane is always lost in conversations with her children as the language is evolving faster than she can hope to keep up with.
And because she is also a teacher at an international school, she only wishes she could put a stop to it all.
“Straight after the holidays — in particular — teachers notice a struggle among some students to properly express their thoughts, in writing or otherwise,” she says, adding that Sheng is denying the youth the opportunity to grow into effective speakers and professionals.
“You will struggle to make a good journalist, for instance, if you train yourself to only think and express yourself in Sheng,” she warns.
But, keen to avoid an unnecessary confrontation with her children, Jane is allowing the matter to rest for now, and that is exactly the nightmare in which many other parents find themselves.
The biggest problem — or dynamism, depending on where you stand — with the language is its inconsistency. Mombasa Sheng is different from Nairobi Sheng, Kisumu Sheng, and so on.
Even in a specific geographic area, different words are used to refer to the same thing, confusing the uninitiated.
Jane knew ‘matatu’ was matt in Sheng, but the other day she thought she heard her children talk of mao. “It’s hopeless to expect the language to ever have a standard,” she says in exasperation.
Another teacher keen to see Sheng scrapped is Moses Ng’ang’a of Primrose Schools. Not long ago, Ng’ang’a became aware of the declining performance in languages and, on investigation, identified Sheng as the prime contributor.
Straight away, a policy was effected across all Primrose schools that the only medium of communication be English. “The decline was reversed immediately,” he says.
According to the headmaster, language is central to how well pupils can perform across all disciplines. “When we talk of language, we touch on comprehension. If a child is excellent in languages, invariably, that reflects on all the other disciplines as well.
“Kiswahili is important as a national identifier, but English is what you will need to make presentations and negotiate deals at the workplace and in life... the length and breadth of the world,” he says.
That may well be so, and the intentions of the parents and educationists may be well-meaning, but marketers beg to differ.
Maina Kamau of Exclamation Marketing doesn’t think much of this storm twirling around a tongue. In some countries like Switzerland, he says, children grow up communicating in up to five languages with ease.
“Nobody is pushing for Sheng to become a national language or anything,” he says, “but the language is here to stay and, as marketers, we have to stand up and take notice of its understated import.”
Maina says the current trend where the language is being used in adverts is only a start of what will eventually become an explosion. The G-Pange campaign, a social responsibility ad, is an example of how Sheng can be used for a positive end, he says.
Maina believes Sheng is not merely a dialect as some people would want the country to believe. “It is the mother tongue of millions of people who grew up in a cosmopolitan culture, a fashion statement that distinguishes urbanites from ruralites.
“In secondary school, good Sheng sends a message of who is to call the shots. To this day, high schools around the country are segregated into urban and rural dwellers.
Everywhere, regardless of their numbers, students from rural areas treat those from urban settings with admiration. Sheng is how you get into the club. Even the mannerisms of its users are unique.”
Maina grew up in the epicentre of the language that is Nairobi’s Eastlands. In every small way, a young city boy has to fight his way in, and that helps make urban dwellers confident and brave, qualities that are synonymous with the Sheng culture.
The use of the language in advertising is therefore an attempt to turn that respect into leverage, says Maina.
With 2012 being an election season, politicians seem to have joined the Sheng bandwagon as they look to tap into the large urban voting block.
Raphael Tuju, a presidential hopeful, has released a video in which he pitches his candidature in Sheng.
“The reasoning is that when you communicate in my language, I will accept you as one of my own. By itself, it may not be enough to get you to State House, but it will, at the very least, ensure that you get noticed,” says Maina.
Does Sheng have a future in the modern world? Share your views at [email protected]