In the 1970s, a new medium of communication emerged in the slums of Nairobi, the bustling and cosmopolitan capital of Kenya. Originally created as a secret language for Kenyan youth growing up in multicultural, multilingual urban environments, Sheng has become widely recognized as a linguistic phenomenon that goes beyond traditional slang. Its increasingly common use in Kenyan society testifies to a yearning to move past traditional forms of identity and toward new group solidarities and identities beyond ethnicity. Sheng has developed as a way for the Kenyan youth to emerge as a unique group within Kenyan society with new modes of interaction and socialization that celebrate the fluidity of culture and identity.
The Emergence of Sheng: Nairobi's Linguistic Context
Sixty percent of Kenya's population is younger than 30 years old. Urbanization has been rising quickly since the end of the 20th century, especially in younger populations seeking economic opportunities in urban cities. The flow of Kenyans from ethnically fragmented rural areas to urban centers have meaningfully increased cities' diversity, and, consequently, the occurrence of interethnic interactions and linguistic shifts among urban populations.
The capital's less-affluent Eastlands, referred to as "the ghettos" in Sheng, are especially diverse. They act as a melting pot wherein the 42 Kenyan tribes interact frequently and live in close proximity. In these streets, it is not uncommon to hear calls in Kiswahili (the native name of Swahili), English, and all of the more than 40 ethnic languages spoken in the Kenyan territory. Each of these languages serves a specific purpose. English is used for international commerce, higher education, and national administrations, while Kiswahili is used for interethnic social interactions and grassroot or local administration. Both are the country's official languages and used for instruction in schools: Kiswahili in lower primary and English through upper primary and high school. Ethnic languages serve a different purpose: they are the languages of tradition and heritage, symbolizing one's tribal identity.
Most Kenyans grow up as multilingual and multicultural individuals. In Nairobi slums especially, children interact with peers from other ethnic groups and are exposed to a myriad of different languages that shape their own speech from a young age. It is typical to hear instances of language mixing and code-switching, which is the process of shifting from one code to another based on social context; in linguistic studies, a code depicts a language, dialect, or any shared system of communication that is linguistic in nature. Typically, code-switching is used by multicultural individuals to balance a sense of ethnic identity with a sense of belonging to the larger community. Kenyans will often speak their ethnic language with their parents and co-ethnics, and switch to Kiswahili or English...