A new African language is helping to reduce tensions and bring young people together in areas previously torn apart by tribal violence. And academics are so impressed by the language’s potential that a social media platform promoting it will form the subject of a major presentation at this year’s eLearning Africa, the continent’s leading conference on technology-assisted learning, training and development.
The language – ‘Sheng’ – combines Kiswahili, English and a number of Kenyan tribal words, along with a smattering of Arabic, Hindu, French, German, Spanish and Italian. It was born on the streets of Nairobi, in some of the areas hardest hit by eruptions of post-election violence in 2007- 2008.
Now a ‘social enterprise initiative’ in Kenya, ‘Go Sheng’, is helping to celebrate and promote the language, which is almost exclusively used by young people – so much so that it has become the first language of many young Kenyans in urban areas.

The initiative provides a platform for social dialogue for the language’s growing numbers of speakers. In so doing, it is giving a voice to a powerful alternative culture in Kenya and celebrating the many tribal languages that contribute to Sheng. In turn, this helps to bring some welcome cultural harmony and mutual understanding to a country, which has too often been divided against itself in the recent past

Although Kenya is a modern cosmopolitan nation, it is still plagued by ethnic divisions, which are often exacerbated political, land distribution and cultural issues. To many young people, the Sheng language and culture seem to offer a means of overcoming these traditional divisions. With an array of diverse Kenyan tribal languages within it, Sheng provides otherwise marginalised young people with a sense of ownership, as they help to define this continually evolving language. It also, perhaps, gives them an opportunity to question and challenge the mainstream ideologies and identities that traditionally define them.

‘Go Sheng’ uses a variety of different means to demystify, document, archive and grow Sheng language and culture. . Its most significant achievement, to date, has been the development of a Sheng dictionary, which contains over 3,900 words and continues to grow rapidly. It functions as a socially driven resource where registered members can add words or phrases which then get voted for by other members, before being accepted as authentic. Go Sheng also runs a website, a forum and various social media channels, which have  an online community of around 15000 active participants. As Kelvin Okoth, PR and Projects Officer at Go Sheng, says:

“Sheng has the potential to be with us for generations to come. As curators of this language and culture, we at Go Sheng hope to preserve this urban language and provide a platform for social dialogue among its speakers.”

Go Sheng will be presented at eLearning Africa 2015, which takes place at the African Union Headquarters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia on May 20th – 22nd.

  • Bill Chapman

    I wish speakers of Sheng well, but it is clear no substitute for Esperanto, a language specifically designed to bring people of different nationalities together.