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Sheng even has its own flagship radio station of sorts, Ghetto Radio, which has taken Nairobi by storm.Founded in early 2008, Ghetto Radio calls itself “the official Sheng station” and “the voice of the youth.” Joseph Lotukoi, 28, a producer for the station, who grew up in a Nairobi slum, says it’s not just the words they use, but also what they talk about—crime, joblessness, child labor, early marriage, and other issues that affect the young and the poor.Sheng, because it changes so rapidly, would be very difficult to test.And yet, despite the best efforts of people like Mlati, there are children growing up all over Nairobi who speak Sheng as their first language. Given all of Kenya’s bitter ethnic and class lines, Sheng has a “detribalizing” effect, he says.In 2005, a government anti-HIV AIDS campaign used Sheng to reach young people; advertisements in Sheng discussing sex appeared on billboards and radio.It was a way of not only speaking to youth, but also of avoiding the ire of older Kenyans who might have disapproved of such an overtly sexual public service announcement.And, remarkably, it’s catching on across all parts of society.
And the people here, he says, have “never been to Kibera.” Octopizzo is fluent in an unexpected medium for bridging that gap: Sheng, Nairobi’s urban language.
Each neighborhood speaks its own variety, and the language itself changes almost weekly.
“Whatever Sheng you are speaking now, the words you’re saying now, when you go like even for three months and you come back, they’re done,” says Octopizzo.
Sometimes such innovation is driven by necessity: Octopizzo invented a word for marijuana, “It’s very secretive.
That’s the best thing about it,” says Joseph, a 31-year old card dealer in a Nairobi casino.
“After a year,” he says, “the dictionary is expired.” Its dynamism is one of the language’s unique features.