Sheng slang raps in Nairobi

Slang of Nairobi's slums is becoming widespread in the capital

An urban slang known as Sheng is rapidly taking over as the main language spoken among the youth of Nairobi, a city of 42 languages of which Swahili and English are official.

Sheng is a Swahili-based slang but includes words from English as well as other Kenyan and non-Kenyan languages, and began in the 1980s. Although it has its roots in Nairobi slums such as Kibera, the language is taking off across the city, spanning all sections of society.

It is most commonly spoken among young people who take their cue from djs and rappers.

There is an element of secrecy in the langauge whose vocabularly varies from district to district and changes rapidly, almost by the week. Most of the words that evolve repidly relate to drugs or police, in a bid to stay one step ahead of the censors.

A Sheng dictionary was published recently however, due to the constantly evolving nature of the language, Nairobi rapper Octopizzo claims it will have a short shelf life. "After a year the dictionary is expired."

Ghetto Radio describes itself as the "official Sheng station" and broadcasts the news in Sheng. It was established in 2008 and keeps its listeners up to date with the lingo's latest developments.

Politicians and government agencies have begun to appreciate the usefulness of Sheng in appealing to the youth as well as being able to bypass cultural taboos such as safe sex advertising campaigns, that might otherwise cause offence in Swahili or English to older generations.

However some language teachers in the capital view the advent of Sheng as an obstacle to teaching English and Swahili to the next generation of Kenyans.