Lesson: Sheng - Youth and Language in Kenya


To gain insight on how language, identity and culture intertwine and change through learning about Sheng. Read online or download PDF.


Sheng is a hybrid language that developed among youth in Nairobi perhaps as early at the 1960s. Grammatically inspired by Kiswahili, it draws on many other languages spoken in Kenya. Identified with youth, it is constantly evolving and can be locally specific. Many code switch between Sheng, Swahili, English and other languages and using each intentionally. Originating in the estates of Nairobi and specifically the Eastlands, its use is now widespread among elite, families and the media. It can be a marker of ‘exposure’ and has spread beyond Nairobi and even beyond Kenya. Some have been concerned that the use of Sheng is at the expense of literacy and fluency in Swahili, English and other Kenyan languages.


A range of videos about or using Sheng can be found online. Here is just a sampling:


GHETTO RADIO 89.5 FM, http://www.ghettoradio.co.ke.

“In February 2008 the Ghetto Radio Foundation set up a radio operation in Nairobi, Kenya. The station transmits on 89.5FM to the wider area of Nairobi and has become one of the country’s most popular youth stations.”
Live stream: http://www.thisisafrica.me/radioplayer/live/ghettoradio


Read one or more of the following or select others from the bibliography below.


There are many points of discussion. Here are just two suggestions:

  1. In what ways does Sheng signify the power of youth culture in Kenya?
  2. Compare Sheng to Ebonics, Spanglish or other forms of American English


 Sheng Bibliography

 “Sheng Slang.” Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Sheng_slang&oldid=558246680.

Abdulaziz, Mohamed H., and Ken Osinde. “Sheng and Engsh: Development of Mixed Codes Among the Urban Youth in Kenya.” International Journal of the Sociology of Language 1997, no. 125 (January 1997): 43–64. http://dx.doi.org/10.1515/ijsl.1997.125.43.

Bosire, M. “Hybrid Languages: The Case of Sheng.” In Selected Proceedings of the 36th Annual Conference on African Linguistics: Shifting the Center of Africanism in Language Politics and Economic Globalization, 185. Cascadilla Proceedings Project, 2006.

Githiora, Chege. “Sheng: Peer Language, Swahili Dialect or Emerging Creole?” Journal of African Cultural Studies 15, no. 2 (2002): 159–181. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/1369681022000042637.

Githinji, Peter. “Bazes and Their Shibboleths: Lexical Variation and Sheng Speakers’ Identity in Nairobi.” Nordic Journal of African Studies 15, no. 4 (2006): 443–472.

Kang’ethe-Iraki, Frederick. “Cognitive Efficiency: The Sheng Phenomenon in Kenya.” Text.Serial.Journal, February 23, 2010. http://elanguage.net/journals/index.php/pragmatics/article/viewArticle/427.

Karanja, Peter N. “Kiswahili Dialects Endangered: The Case of Kiamu and Kimvita.” International Journal of Humanities and Social Science 2, no. 17 (September 2012). http://www.ijhssnet.com/journals/Vol_2_No_17_September_2012/11.pdf.

Mcintosh, Janet. “Mobile Phones and Mipoho’s Prophecy: The Powers and Dangers of Flying Language.” American Ethnologist 37, no. 2 (2010): 337–353. http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/j.1548-1425.2010.01259.x.

Momanyi, C. “The Effects of ‘Sheng’in the Teaching of Kiswahili in Kenyan Schools.” The Journal of Pan African Studies 2, no. 8 (2009): 127–138.

Mutiga, Jayne. “Effects of Language Spread on a People’ Phenomenology: The Case of Sheng’ in Kenya.” Journal of Language, Technology & Entrepreneurship in Africa 4, no. 1 (May 3, 2013): 1–15. http://dx.doi.org/10.4314/jolte.v4i1.

Nyairo, Joyce Wambũi. “‘Reading The Referents’:(Inter) Textuality in Contemporary Kenyan Popular Music.” Faculty of Humanities, University of the Witwatersrand, 2004. http://wiredspace.wits.ac.za/handle/10539/1855.

Ogechi, Nathan Oyori. The Language Situation in Kenya. IUPUI-Moi University FH GPA. Moi University, 2010. http://international.iupui.edu/kenya/resources/Language-Situation-in-Kenya.pdf.

———. “On Lexicalization in Sheng.” Nordic Journal of African Studies 14, no. 3 (2005): 334–355.

———. “Sheng as a Youth Identity Marker: Reality or Misconception?” In Culture, Performance & Identity: Paths of Communication in Kenya, 2:75, Art, Culture & Society. Twaweza Communications , Nairobi, Kenya (2008). http://books.google.com/books?id=nCo_XzQZDD0C

———. Trilingual Codeswitching in Kenya - Evidence from Ekegusii, Kiswahili, English and Sheng. PhD, Universität Hamburg, 2005. http://ediss.sub.uni-hamburg.de/volltexte/2005/2749/.

Rudd, Philip W. “Sheng: The Mixed Language of Nairobi.” Ball State University, 2008. http://proquest.umi.com/pqdlink?did=1631230581&Fmt=7&clientId=1566&RQT=309&VName=PQD.

Samper, David Arthur. “Talking Sheng:  The Role of a Hybrid Language in the Construction of Identity and Youth Culture in Nairobi, Kenya.” Ph.D., University of Pennsylvania, 2002. http://repository.upenn.edu/dissertations/AAI3043947.

Swahili Language Resources

1. Classic textbook: Hinnebusch, Thomas J, and Sarah M Mirza. Kiswahili, msingi wa kusema kusoma na kuandika = Swahili, a foundation for speaking, reading, and writing. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1998.

2. Online Swahili materials from the Five College Center for the Study of World Languages

3. Foreign Service online course materials: http://www.livelingua.com/fsi-swahili-course.php

Other links