“These languejs of ours” by Wanjeri Gakuru

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How far?

That phrase made me fall in love with pidgin right there in the backseat of a taxi in sweltering Lagos as I listened to an exchange between the cabbie and a mallam, a security guard.

I’d heard it before but it wasn’t until then that I realized the power in reassigning meaning. It called to mind radical feminist and writer, Audre Lorde’s belief that the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. Here was a challenge. Here was, in fact, a clever subversion of the Queen’s English.

Nigeria, like many other West African nations, managed to mutate what would become a bitter and crucial component of colonial rule to create a veritable new language. Remoulding the language until it rolled off their tongues to their taste.

How far? means hallo/ how are you?

And it’s just one of many examples within Nigerian pidgin, a dialect now eager to be recognized as a creole having standardized into Naija Languej. Continuing in this examination of Lorde’s statement, I’m reminded of how the Nandi—a Kenyan community that fought back the British as early as 1895—took to stealing building materials to make weapons and ornaments. Imagine that. Telegraph wires become silenced, impotent coils adorning a fierce Nandi woman’s neck, steel cables fashioned into whips.

But why is it that my mind lit up when I heard those two men speak? After all, Sheng ostensibly performs the same function for Kenyans. Practically as old as Nairobi itself, it is an urban patois borne out of English, Swahili and local languages. At once a discrete and secret language that prevents outsiders from understanding the users’ conversations and a vehicle for documenting urban experience and culture.

The truth is, even though I already signpost my resistance to the more insidious aspects of Western culture by sporting natural hair and going by my Kikuyu names, I cannot speak Sheng convincingly. Worse, my spoken Swahili is ok but shaky while my Kikuyu is a one-way street, I can comprehend it but my cadence is off.

Perhaps in that moment in the taxi, pidgin appealed to me because it unapologetically crushed that last stubborn kernel of colonization within me, the ability to speak good English.

Let’s face it, Kenyans are desirous of the prestige that comes from having a polished accent. We use it to get ahead, to survive, to mark ourselves as better, superior. A sizable percentage of my generation didn’t experience the dreaded monto or monitor because we went to school in urban areas. Our parents spoke with dread of a stinking jaw bone, stick or plaque hung around the neck or carried in hand that marked the possessor as inept at speaking English.

Instead middle-class children from the 80s onwards were delivered into an education system that subtly cultivated a disdain for speaking our indigenous languages or bearing the effects of mother tongue interference (read: shrubbing). The monto lessons seeped into the psyche of many parents and they willed to shape their children into proper, English-speaking tots. Mukoma wa Ngugi in his essay, “Writing in African Languages: A question for our times” wrote of struggling to master the sentence the red lorry went round the red bend in his youth. What he describes is the ridicule that befell anyone marked as a shrubber.

It would seem education skewed towards uplifting the White Man’s languages was the case for the non-Caucasian child globally. In Dr. Carter Godwin Woodson’s 1933 book, “The Mis-education of the Negro” he observes that:

“In the study of language in school pupils were made to scoff at the Negro dialect as some peculiar possession of the Negro which they should despise rather than directed to study the background of this language as a broken-down African tongue—in short to understand their own linguistic history, which is certainly more important for them than the study of French Phonetics or Historical Spanish Grammar. To the African language as such no attention was given except in case of the preparation of traders, missionaries and public functionaries to exploit the natives.”

The result of a mis-education of any class of black people is that shame wends its way into their cultural productions. Their work starts to reflect this new value system. For instance, of the most prominent Kenyan radio stations seems to only employ presenters with (real or manufactured) American and British accents—TV stations are just as guilty: far too few Kenyan shows develop storylines that are close to our authentic lived experiences and outside the bible, very little literature in published in local languages.

English has become the socio-economic marker in the shows relayed onscreen. Those with sheng, Swahili or local-language speakers are imagined to appeal to the lower class or people from Coastal Kenya who we’ve othered so much we don’t know how to classify. In his essay “sucking stones”, Keguro Macharia speaks of that inability for the middle class to identify with these characters: “And those who sounded like us on Kenyan television, on shows like Vioja Mahakamani and Vitimbi, didn’t inhabit the lives to which we were told to aspire.

And that’s exactly it. Religion, colonization and education all served to reinforce the idea that what was good for us did not exist locally. The land of opportunity stopped being Kenya a long time ago. Whether gathered at an airport waving bay or before a TV screen playing a foreign show, what we wanted and what defined us was out there.

There has been some obvious pushback. There are Swahili and vernacular TV and radio stations with Ghetto Radio even offering news in sheng. Sites such as Sheng Nation run online dictionaries that track and demystify new and old phrases. Nairobi’s spoken word scene is inundated by poets crafting lyrics dripping with slang. Musicians from every genre have ruled the airwaves with non-English songs. Thankfully, it isn’t strange any more to see a new product launched in the market with a name or slogan in sheng.

We need more though, more authentic work in print, radio and onscreen. We need to reclaim our heritage, embody that spirit of resistance, and find ways to create our modern-day ornaments and whips. It is time we allowed the full expression of ourselves and take the invitation to explore something else, something wholly our own, things only our local languages and sheng and pidgin and patois can offer.


Wanjeri Gakuru is a creative writer and freelance magazine journalist living and working in Nairobi. She is an alumna of the 2014 Farafina Creative Writing Workshop and a member of pan-African writers’ collective, Jalada. Her fiction has been published in peer-review journal, JENDa with Jalada:01 entry, “Transaction” featured in a sex-focused exhibition in Johannesburg’s Stevenson Gallery. Other writing has appeared in True Africa, The Africa Report, Brainstorm and LA Times Magazine. Wanjeri’s profile of Afroelectropop Music/Art Collective, Just A Band was published in “Just A Book”, part of Goethe-Institut’s Contact Zones series. Read more at http://www.wanjeri.com