As I discovered both during my time in Kenya and while conducting research on Sheng, the view of this slang language has shifted in recent years. While Sheng was largely referred to as a slum language, spoken by troubled Nairobi youth, this idea has been challenged as Sheng continues to gain popularity outside of low income communities in Nairobi. Laura Dean, author of “How the urban slang of Nairobi slums is becoming the language of the people,” discusses the growing popularity of Sheng. She sates, “It has become the lingua franca of Nairobi’s youth, who make up 60 percent of the Kenyan population. Politicians, advertisers, and schoolteachers are taking notice.” The government in particular has used Sheng to reach young Nairobians. For example, in 2005, an anti-HIV/AIDS campaign was launched via the radio and billboards. The advertisements were written in Sheng to attract the attention of the youth, while preventing older generations from taking offense to the sexual nature of the content addressed. As I noted in a previous blog post, marketing companies have also used Sheng in a similar way to drive their products.
Despite these positive benefits, Dean notes the negative associations with Sheng present within the education system. For instance, Eunice Mlati, head of the Moi Avenue Primary School, states “‘Sheng actually interferes with performance of students in languages, both English and Swahili,’… Sheng comes in, and test scores go down.” Mungai Mutonya, professor at Washington University in St. Louis, disagrees with this argument. He believes Sheng has the possibility to disassemble ethnic tensions due to its “detribalizing” effect. He states, speaker of Sheng “‘are not Kikuyus, they’re not Luos … they are Nairobians, young Nairobians speaking Sheng.'”
I believe this shifting perspective is reflected by President Obama’s use of Sheng in 2015 at the Global Entrepreneurship Summit. He asks the audience, “Niaje Wasee? Hawayuni?,” meaning “What’s up? How are you all?” The crowd’s laughter and cheering indicate a largely positive response, demonstrating wider acceptance and use of the language.