Sheng, a once highly stigmatised language, is now gaining greater presence and legitimacy in Kenya's multilingual environment. It is used in music, in print, in political slogans and on television and radio. But should Sheng be celebrated as a reflection of contemporary identity or recognised as a language of disobedience?
Sheng emerged in the 1970s from Nairobi's informal settlements, a great melting pot of languages and cultures. The name "Sheng" is a combination of (S)wahili and (Eng)lish, two of the main languages on which it is based. Sheng also borrows from other Kenyan languages - such as Kikuyu, Luyha, Dholuo and Kikamba - with its grammatical structure loosely obeying the rules of Kiswahili.
The language was originally associated with thugs, matatu (minibus) drivers and Nairobi's youth. Thugs allegedly used the language as code to evade the ears of the law, while young people living in shared and cramped conditions of Nairobi's informal settlements apparently spoke in Sheng when they didn't want their parents to understand.