From native languages to performances, Kenya has a great mix of traditional offerings. The challenge, however, lies in blending the traditional with the modern to generate a truly responsive national culture

The language issue

Kenya gained independence from Britain in 1963 as a nation seeking to reclaim what had been taken away by colonialism, including pride in its multi-cultural and linguistic heritage. Colonial language policy dating back to 1927 declared Kiswahili an East African regional language, but this changed in 1934 in favour of English, with vernacular being relegated to the first four years of primary school. The declaration of English as the formal educational language in 1953 saw Kiswahili and vernacular languages lose their statuses.

Kenya made a bold move by making Kiswahili a compulsory subject in primary school in 1964, with the policy being extended to secondary schools and other educational institutions in 1967. The move was strengthened by the declaration of Kiswahili as the national language in 1969 and a corresponding establishment of the Department of Linguistics and African Languages at the University of Nairobi (UON). The introduction of the 8-4-4 system of education in 1985 made Kiswahili mandatory in primary and secondary education.

Culture--7In this scenario, however, the national language seems to have gained at the expense of vernacular languages. To date, there is ambivalence with regard to the place of vernacular in the formal school curriculum. Schools discourage vernacular speech among students in the mistaken belief that it compromises mastery of English and Kiswahili.

Article 7(3) of the Constitution of Kenya (COK) 2010 obliges the State to “promote and protect the diversity of language of the people of Kenya” and “the development and use of indigenous languages”. It recognises, in Article 44(1-2), that “a person belonging to a cultural or linguistic community has the right… to enjoy the person’s culture and use the person’s language”.

Despite this, there are still simmering policy controversies. One arose in Parliament in June 2011 during debate on a motion sponsored by Elias Mbau (then Member of Parliament for Maragua) seeking to ban the use of vernacular in public offices because it is “a major contributor to disharmony, suspicion and discomfort …to those who may not understand a particular vernacular language and might stir ethnic hatred.” Such initiatives need to be put into the context of a country seeking to forge nationhood and grappling with ethno-centrism. Perhaps it is necessary to imagine that if Kenyans from different ethno-linguistic communities were able to learn each other’s local languages, then ethnic bigotry and insularism could be reduced without compromising the march towards nationhood.

The importance of vernacular is internationally recognised by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), which regards mother tongue as part of the right education and encourages its use by member states in instruction and education. It in this regard, that the International Mother Language Day (February 21) has been celebrated every year since 2000. The day was first announced in November 17, 1999 with 2008 being declared the International Year of Languages. The national celebrations were held in Nakuru on February 21, 2012, under the theme “Mother Tongue Instruction and Inclusive Education”.


For some people, the question of language in Kenya must also address the place of Sheng, the urban slang preferred by youths. The name Sheng is an abbreviation of Swahili-English, a coinage that indicates that the two languages dominate the lexis although it accommodates other local Kenyan languages. Sheng originated in the early 1950s in Eastlands, Nairobi. Eastlands is characterised by low income populations who live in slums or suburban settlements. Sheng is now a widely used means of communication in urban popular culture including the matatu (public service vans) industry and in music.

Culture-1Conservative linguists regard Sheng as merely a code for the youth to exclude others from their communication. It is also commonly demonised for interfering with performance of students in language examinations. That Sheng evolves new words for the same concept all the time, hence betraying lexical instability, could explain part of the attitude that it really is not a language. It is also spoken differently in various towns and even within the same town. The issue of standardisation is, therefore, a major concern. Yet Sheng is becoming popularised and legitimised by its increased use in advertisements, pop music, political campaigns and mass media. For instance, FM radio station Ghetto Radio broadcasts solely in Sheng and prides itself as the official Sheng station.

Even before Ghetto Radio, Sheng had been popularised on Kenya Broadcasting Corporation (KBC)radio by presenters Jeff Mwangemi, John Karani and Prince Otach. Today, there is a touch of Sheng in most radio stations in the country, as well as some TV programmes, especially entertainment-based ones that target the youth. One ardent user of Sheng today is radio presenter Raphael Kasuku of Ramogi Radio whose style mimics that of Mwangemi.