Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Speaking the Language

Sheng is the language of the street in Nairobi. It is a mixture of English, Kiswahili, and tribal slang. It is constantly evolving and is the common language of urban youth. Most of the guys at Light and Power are well versed in Sheng. I’ve been taking classes and trying to learn Swahili, but Sheng is just too crazy and too tough for me. Sheng varies from one neighborhood to another and employs all kind of strange contractions and meanings. In the Eastlands area of Nairobi, for example, someone can take an English word, say it backwards, conjugate it like a Swahili verb, add a Kikuyu infix, and it becomes Sheng. Here’s another example: the term “mbao” is common Sheng for “pound”, which is slang for shilingi ishirini, which is Swahili for twenty shillings, which is Kenyan for 200 cents, which is equivalent to about thirty pennies in the United States. “Mbao” is an average “matatu” or public transportation fare. “Matatu” is slang for three pennies, which in Kenyan shillings is 300 cents or roughly a nickel. I have no idea how this works.

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