12 Kenyan Slang Terms Obama Should Know When In Nairobi

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Written by Dana Sanchez

There are 42 languages spoken in Kenya. Swahili and English are the two official languages, but Sheng — a term coined from combining elements of both — is  bypassing all of them as the language of the urban youth.

As U.S. President Barack Obama heads to Nairobi this week, he’ll be expected to speak a few words of the language of the locals. Sheng increasingly fits the bill.

Sheng is a Swahili-based slang with English thrown in as well as other Kenyan and non-Kenyan languages, and although it began in Nairobi’s slums, it has spread to all segments of society and beyond — into Tanzania and Uganda.

The language evolves fast. Words move in and out of Sheng use. You can leave Kenya for a few months and find, on your return, that you no longer speak the language you thought you did. Hip hop artists use Sheng. Some teachers dislike it — even forbid its use.

Today it’s common to see Sheng almost anywhere — on billboards, the radio, in political campaign ads, and public service announcements, Laura Dean wrote in Slate. “It has become the lingua franca of Nairobi’s youth…Politicians, advertisers, and schoolteachers are taking notice.”

Each neighborhood speaks its own variety of Sheng, and the language itself changes almost weekly, Dean said.

Here’s what a Swahili student Amanda Leigh Lichtenstein said about Kenyan street slang in an article in Matador Network:

I thought I knew Kiswahili.

I’d earned an advanced certificate at the State University of Zanzibar. The program prides itself on teaching a kind of Swahili described as sanifu (standard) or fasaha (clean).

It was rigorous and foundational, but it left me speechless (more like a beginner) every time I left the classroom and headed down Stone Town’s boisterous streets, where social greetings happen at every corner and turn. You really can’t walk from point A to point B in Stone Town without getting involved in greeting loops with friends and strangers alike.

Perhaps the gatekeepers of standard Swahili do not want to accept that Stone Town youth have been and continue to be deeply influenced by Sheng – a kind of Swahili patois that developed by urban youth in Eastern Nairobi in the 1970s and spread, overtime, into all realms of East African life as a legitimate form of expression.

Here are 12  Kenyan slang terms Obama should know when in Nairobi.

Sources: Matador NetworkSlateKenya Updateswiki,