Saturday, May 9, 2015

An Introduction To Kenya's Sheng Language & Kenya's "Mchongoano" Insult Jokes

Edited by Azizi Powell

This pancocojams post provides information about Kenyan's Sheng language and information about mchongoano insult jokes. Sheng is the language that is used for every mchongoano.

Some relatively clean examples of mchongoanos (with English translations) are included in this post.

The content of this post is presented for cultural and linguistic purposes.

All copyrights remain with their owners.

Thanks to all those who are quoted in this post.

Disclaimer- I'm African American and don't speak Sheng. Also, I only know about Sheng and mchongoanos from my online reading.

Additions and corrections to this information are welcome. I also welcome the addition of clean examples of mchongoanos (in English or in Sheng with English translation) in the comment section of this post.

From "Insults and folk humor: Rabelaisian parodies and Sheng's Mchongoano" by Peter Githinji (2006) [hereafter given as "Githinji: Insults and folk humor"]
"Sheng — formerly a stigmatized linguistic code in Kenyan has gained a lot of ground in staking its space in Kenya’s multilingual environment. To the majority of the Kenyan urban youth who wish to express their contemporary identity, it has become a language of choice. Still, Sheng’s success in claiming legitimacy in this complex setting will eventually be determined by the extent in which the youth will appropriate it in different cultural institutions as has already happened in the matatu industry and hip-hop music (Mbugua 2003, Samper 2002, 2004).
Here's information about "matatus" from
"In Kenya and neighbouring nations, matatu (or matatus) are privately owned minibuses although pick-up trucks were in the past pressed into service as these East African share taxis.[1] Often decorated, many matatu feature portraits of the famous or slogans and sayings.[2] The music they play is also aimed at quickly attracting riders.[3]"...

"The word "Sheng" is coined from the two languages that it is mainly derived from: Swahili and English. The "h" was included from the middle of "Swahili because "Seng" would have sounded unusual.

Originating in the early 1950s in the Eastlands area of Nairobi (variously described as a "slum", "ghetto" or "suburb"), Sheng is now heard among matatu drivers/touts across the region, and in the popular media. Most of the Sheng words are introduced in various communities and schools and given wide exposure by music artists who include them in their lyrics, hence the rapid growth. It can be assumed to be the first language of many Kenyans in urban areas."

From "How the urban slang of Nairobi slums is becoming the language of the people" by Laura Dean
...”There are 42 languages spoken in Kenya—Swahili and English are the two official languages—but Sheng is overtaking them all as the language of the big-city youth. It is a Swahili-based slang, with bits of English thrown in alongside other Kenyan and non-Kenyan languages. And, remarkably, it’s catching on across all parts of society...

Today it isn’t uncommon to see Sheng pop up almost anywhere—on billboards, on the radio, in political campaign ads, and public service announcements. It has become the lingua franca of Nairobi’s youth, who make up 60 percent of the Kenyan population. Politicians, advertisers, and schoolteachers are taking notice.

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. The language is familiar enough that a Sheng dictionary came out recently. But dictionaries for Sheng have a short shelf life because of how rapidly the vocabulary change. “After a year,” he says, “the dictionary is expired.”
Its dynamism is one of the language’s unique features. Mutonya says that new Sheng words or phrases are often introduced by entertainers, DJs, and musicians… Not surprisingly, words that describe illegal substances or law enforcement change most rapidly....

Sheng allows young people to get around other cultural taboos. 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"...
One example of the legitimization of Sheng is its use in a national Kenyan newspaper which includes a children's section on mchongoanos:
"The Standard On Sunday, a leading Kenyan newspaper...[‘s] children’s pullout Generation Next has a section on mchongoanos called Mchongoanoz.. Since The Standard On Sunday is distributed throughout the country, it acts as one way of making mchongoanos national. Second, the mchongoanos that appear in Mchongoanoz are solicited from readers, which makes it a forum for users of mchongoanos to participate"...

From "On Mchongoanos And Riddles In Kenya" by C. Patrick Kihara [in The Journal of Pan-African Studies vol 6, no 6, December 2013, hereafter given as "Kihara: On Mchongoanos And Riddles In Kenya"]
"In Kenya there is a verbal dueling game called mchongoano which is very popular with the youth but is also appreciated by many adults because of its humorous content. This papar is about mchongoano which is compared with the traditional riddle in Kenya. The two genres are shown to be very similar in terms of function and characteristics. From the comparison it is evident that mchongoano shares with the riddle functions such as education and information, entertainment, social control, development of verbal skills etc. and features both as being of relative length...In the future, mchongoano is likely to replace riddles as a pass-time activity for the youth considering that it uses Sheng, an urban language that is popular among the youth, and since the language that packages the traditional riddle are usually not used by the practitioners of this genre.

Origins of mchongoano, just like the American dozens are unclear. There are those like Githinji (2007) who cite American influence. To Kihara and Schroder (2012) the art form derives its name from the Kiswahili word chongoa meaning "to sharpen" because a contestant is supposed to have "sharp" verbal skills and the jokes are meant to "cut" or to "incite/provoke one into action". They conclude that the origins of mchongoano should not be appropriated to the American influence, although comparison may be in order."...

From "Githinji: Insults and folk humor"
"Mchongoano is a form of aggressive verbal contest comparable to African American ritual insults or the Turkish boy’s verbal duels (see Abrahams 1964, Labov 1972, Dundes, Leach & Örzök 1972). A typical mchongoano exchange requires the presence of at least two antagonists and an optional audience. The audience regulates the exchange by inciting the two antagonists, encouraging the witty remarks, while deriding the dull ones. Each contestant tries to outwit the other by saying something disparaging, mostly about the subject or members of his/her family (see Dollard 1939, Rap Brown 1972 about African American Dozens). Although mchongoano is normally associated with pre-adolescents, there is evidence that the practice extends beyond adolescence. Recent developments heralded by the appearance of mchongoano threads on Kenyan internet sites calls for the broadening of our definition of mchongoano to incorporate both performance and non-performance texts."

From [Eduiah Kamonjo's 2009 review of the book "Wasee Wasee! 99 mchongoanos for your dissing pleasure, hereafter given as "Wasee Wasee: book review"]
"Mchongoanos are very much a part of our culture today as they were all those years ago during my primary school days. And it’s not only school going kids who enjoy this form of art but adults with a youthful heart (and a sense of humour) as well.

Mchongoanos, like traditional storytelling cannot be attributed to anyone because they have been going around for years and you can’t really say who came up with what.

One of the compilers [of the book being reviewed] Joshua Ogutu Muraya says that mchongoanos can be defined as ‘Uniquely formulated jokes that tend to exaggerate or bring out the worst of one’s physical characteristics, behaviours and intelligence. The joke is on your father, grandma, dog, the size of your head or just the dumbness of it*..

So you see, dissing your friends verbally will now become easier. I believe this book will serve as a basis for the exploration of an important part of our culture that has been downplayed for far too long and needs to be mainstreamed."
Similar to African American originated insult exchange "the dozens", either males or females can come up with mchongoanos and both males and females engage in mchongoano exchanges.
*I think that this comment means "‘Uniquely formulated jokes that tend to exaggerate or bring out the worst of [someone else's] physical characteristics, behaviours and intelligence. The joke is on [that person's] father, grandma, dog, the size of [his or her] head or just the dumbness of it".

As is the case with the African American originated insult custom of "the dozens" as well as the African American originated insult/bragging custom of "shabooya insult rhymes"*, I believe that a person speaking or sharing a mchongoano doesn't diss (insult) himself or herself or his or her family.

Click for information about shabooya roll call rhymes.

From "Githinji: Insults and folk humor"
"In this paper, I discuss another domain in which Sheng has stamped its mark — a genre of folk humor popularly known as mchongoano. The most important distinctive feature of mchongoano discourse is its vulgar language and taboo themes."

From "Cultural Production and Social Change in Kenya: Building Bridges" [p. 94] by Kimani Njogu, ‎Garnette Oluoch-Olunya (2007) [hereafter given as "Ngogu et al: Cultural Production & Social Change in Kenya"]
"In the majority of mchongoanos, poverty is the most dominant topic, packaged in images of starvation, filth, illiteracy, ignorance, poor shelter, small house, lack of TV/small or old TV, ridiculous breakfast menu, crime, prostitution, and rural marginalization, among others...

1. umesota sana mpaka ukifika kwa streets za Nai kubeg, mabeggers wanakupatia doo zao.
You are so poor that if you go to Nairobi streets to beg, beggers give you their money.

2. Ati family yenu nyinyi hushare underpant moja
That your family shares a pair of underpants

From "Kihara: On Mchongoanos And Riddles In Kenya"
Mchongoanos is likened by Githinji (2007, 2006a), and Kihara and Schroder (2012) to a popular African American verbal art called playing the dozens, sounds, sounding, jonning, snapping, capping, the dozens, busting, signifying etc. (cf Abrahams (1962), Labov (1972), Morgan (2002), a speech genre of playful verbal insults exchanged with an opponent and directed to another opponent* directly or to his/her family members e.g. mother, sister, father, friends, girlfriend, or boyfriend. Interestingly, these traits are also found in mchongoanos

...mchongoanos is now found in both print and electronic forms: the range of insults in...mchongoanos may also involve close friends (e.g. girl/boyfriends), the immediate family members, or possessions like houses, pets, cars, cell phones, television sets, etc...

Mchongoano makes use of kinship terms like father, mother, brother, sister etc. It is not unusual to find examples such like Ati baba yako/budako...that your father, “Ati masako/mama yako…that your mother...”Ati sistako”...”Ati brathako”...that your sister/brother etc . Githinji 2006a)...
*To clarify that sentence, one opponent exchanges insults with another opponent, directing insults about that opponent himself (or herself) or directs insults about that opponent's family members.

I've also read that another common theme in mchongoanos is putting down the lifestyle of rich people. An example of that type of mchongoano from that same article is: "Nyinyi ni wadosi hadi dogi zemu zina dogi za kuzichunga (You (Your family) is so rich that even your dogs have guard dogs."

From "Popular Culture in Africa: The Episteme of the Everyday" by Stephanie Newell, Onookome Okome, 2013 (p. 204)
“The most visible characteristic of mchongoanos is its consistent formal structure. This short form has a two-part separated by the word “hadi” or “mpaka” (until/that). Although there are a few exceptions to this rule, the vast majority follow this pattern. This structure gives this short form a formulaic pattern, making it memorable and presenting a ready template which participants work with to create individual teasers. The formal structure suggests a cause=effect relationship between the first and second part of the teaser. The effectiveness of the joke is embodied in this suggested casual relationship which creates an expectation which eventually turns out to be a non sequitur. For example, Nasikia akina Franc’s kwao kuna masheto mob hadi mende huja na Bible ("I hear at Franc’s home there are so many demons that cockroaches have to carry Bibles”.)

From "Cultural Production and Social Change in Kenya: Building Bridges" [p. 94] by Kimani Njogu, ‎Garnette Oluoch-Olunya (2007) [hereafter given as "Ngogu et al: Cultural Production & Social Change in Kenya"]
In mchongoano the subject is normally an adjectival attribute expressed in phrases such as wewe mzee "you are so old", kwenyu wapoor "you are so poor", wewe mrefu/mtall "you are too tall", mathako mfat "Your mother is so fat" etc.

From "Githinji: Insults and folk humor"
"Mchongoano has a type of beginning which I call an opening formula. For instance, the most common is Wasee! Wasee! Mnaona huya chali, translated loosely to “friends, friends, you see this lad". It is followed by the mchongoano, signaling the start of a session. The interaction between Boy A and Boy B is a typical example of a face-to-face performance text.
Boy A: Budako mreefu mpaka anaweza ona next week
Your father is so tall that he can see next week

Boy B: na wako mreefu mpaka akivaa trao, kitambo ifike waist ishatoka fashion.
And yours is so tall that when he wears pants by the time they reaches the waist, they have gone out of fashion

Audience: (appreciating B’s retort) Maze hiyo ni kali!
Hapo umewezwa

Man, that is tough! He got you there

Boy B’s retort may vary to na wako mreefu mpaka akikunywa maziwa kitambo ifike tumboni ishakuwa mala “and yours is so tall that when he drinks milk, by the time it gets to the stomach, it has become sour”...

At times a contestant uses a statement that serves as a closing formula. If an opponent is overwhelmed by an insult or by a series of insults , they may say “Wachahiyoitoshe Kiswahili for ‘let that be enough’, or “umeniweza” “you have outdone me”. Such statements indicate a willingness to exit from a contest having conceded defeat for a moment and if the winner would go on, it would be taken in bad taste. Statements such as “kubali umewezwa” agree that you have been outdone/beaten’ na hiyo ni kali!” “and that one is hot" may come from the audience in a bid to make a contestant withdraw...As the exchange progresses, the audiences’ comments increases, and the exchange becomes more animated. The pressure to win drives the losing antagonist into frustration leading to the breaching of the norms governing these types of exchanges such as saying something that he or she knows will hurt the opponent. This normally leads to a fight or termination of the exchange (Githinji 2006).

Online mchongoano on the other hand lacks the face-to-face dynamism such as modification of voice quality for dramatic effect, or the participation of the audience . In addition, the question and response adjacency pair sequence (Schegloff & Sachs, 1973) such as the one between Boy A and Boy B above is not possible because the internet anonymity and virtual distance between contributors does not compel anyone to respond. The example below is a typical online mchongoano which is not directed to anyone in particular:
"lips zako rusty mpaka chali yako hukuchorea kiss na biro kwa mwili"
(your lips are so rusty that your boyfriend draws you a kiss on your body with a ball point pen).

... mothers alone are not the only taboo signifiers in mchongoano. Examples (8) through (10) degrade the material of the lower body stratum and their respective functions, which in many cultures, is taboo.
8. Dame yako ni kama fridge nyama huingia na kutoka kila siku
Your girlfriend is like a fridge, meat gets in and out everyday

9. Senye ya manzi wa kwako huthrow hadi akipanuwa miguu inzi zinahepa
Your girlfriend’s vagina stinks so much that when she spreads her legs flies take cover.

10. Decki yako tiny…we huifunga na string ndio isipotee kwa mafudhee
Your penis is so tiny that you tie it with a string lest it disappears in the pubic hair"

From "Kihara: On Mchongoanos And Riddles In Kenya"
..."whatever is said in mchongoano is not supposed to be taken seriously at face value. The structure and content of these teasers seem to indicate an understanding between contestants that whatever is being said is too bad, too ugly, or too absurd to be taken literally...

Since the art form is a verbal contest, it requires of the participants to be quick- witted in order to respond to verbal challenges in a spontaneous and quaint manner. The successful contestant must possess an alertness of mind that enables him or her to identify the ironical"...

"Why the name ‘Wasee Wasee!? [the title of the book "Wasee Wasee! 99 mchongoanos for your dissing pleasure] You might ask. That’s how mchongoano challenges start, like how we say ‘Hadithi Hadithi!’ at the beginning of a story."...

From "Githinji: Insults and folk humor"
"Mchongoano shares striking parallels with African American game of dozens (Labov 1972, Abrahams 1964). To begin with, both are carnival modes of expression that revel in transgression of taboo and subversion of the mainstream. Both are embedded in linguistic codes that are highly stigmatized. They are also identified more with young boys, though girls also excel in the practice (see Rap Brown, 1972, Mitchel-Kernan 1972). Evidence of mchongoano borrowing from African American dozens comes in the forms of ‘yo mama jokes’ that are copied and pasted onto mchongoano threads. In others cases, ‘yo mama jokes’ are translated into Sheng and made to conform to Kenyan reality as we can see in the examples below. M (mchongoano in Sheng) is glossed in italics, followed by yo mama joke D (Dozens).
M. wee mjinga mpaka ulitegwa na a wireless fone.
You are so stupid that you were tripped by a wireless phone
D. Yo mama's so stupid, she tripped over a cordless phone

M. wee mjinga mpaka ulithrow jiwe kwa floor ukamiss!
You are so stupid that you threw a stone to the floor and
D. Yo mama's so stupid, she threw a rock to the ground and missed

M. wee mso ukijump kwa air una get stuck!
You are so big that when you jump up in the air you get stuck
D.Yo mama's so fat, she jumped up in the air and got stuck

M. we m-ugly mpaka una trick-or-treat over the phone
You are so ugly that you trick or treat over the phone
D. Yo mama's so ugly, she has to trick or treat over the phone.

In spite of these similarities, there is need for caution because too much emphasis on African American influence denies agency to the users of mchongoano. I agree with Mbugua’s (2003) arguments that authenticity should not be restricted to the origin of the signifiers. Instead, it should be extended to the choice of contexts in which the signifiers are deployed. The same story, creatively told by a different narrator to a different audience is different; so is the story told by one narrator to a different audience in a different context. Through the agency of the Kenyan youth, African Americans signifiers assume new meanings and nuances when deployed into Kenyan folklore. After translation and localization, the jokes are completely altered and are entered into local folklore...

From "Ngogu et al: Cultural Production & Social Change in Kenya"
"The fact that some Kenyan websites have more than two mchongoano threads demonstrates its popularity among Kenyans An examination of these jokes reveals that some are directly borrowed from African American dozens and then ”Shengnized” or modified to reflect Kenyan reality.[Sheng example, English translation, Dozens source example]

a. Wee mdark mpaka ukikanyanga makaa unaacha footmarks za black!
You are so dark that if you step on a coal you leave black footprints!
Yo mama’s so black, she can leave fingerprints on charcoal

b. wee mjinga mpaka ulithrow jiwe kwa floor ukamiss!
You are so stupid that you threw a rock to the floor and missed!
Yo mama's so stupid, she threw a rock to the ground and missed.

c. Budako mjinga mpaka alifail blood test.
Your father is so stupid that he failed a blood test.
Yo mama's so stupid, she studied for a blood test and failed it.

d. Mathako amekonda...alimeza meatball na budako alifikiri ako pregnant.
Your mother is so skinny that she swallowed a meatball and your father thought that she was pregnant.
Yo mama's so skinny, she swallowed a meatball and thought she was pregnant."...

From "Kihara: On Mchongoanos And Riddles In Kenya"
Dame wako ni fala hadi nilimkuta akiyell kwa envelop ati amasend voicemail.
Your girlfriend is foolish since I found her yelling at an envelope thinking she was sending a voice mail.

Ati nyanyako ni mzee lakini hajaacha bado kujitta “sexy lady”.
That your grandmother is old but still calls herself a “sexy lady”.

Ati mshuto wako ni mkali hadi mende za kwenu zinasema “ataafadhali Doom”….
Your fart is so smelly that roaches say that it is better Doom.(an insecticide)

Ati wewe ni mkono ngumu hadi ukishika computer inajiandika “new hardware found”
[it is said that] you have such a hard hand that when you touch the computer it shows this message “new hardware found”.
I added italics for the English translation of these Sheng language diss [insults].

Thanks for visiting pancocojams.

Visitor comments are welcome.

1 comment:

  1. Here's another excerpt from "On Mchongoanos & Riddles In Kenya" by
    C. Patrick Kihara [p. 101] that provides information about the custom of insult exchanges in various African cultures and elsewhere besides the African American orginated custom of the dozens:

    For the American dozens, Chimezie (1976) argues that they are carryovers from Africa. He cites Ikocha Nkocha an equivalent type of verbal duel from the Igbo of Nigeria. Schwegler (2007: 136-137) citing Fu-KiauBunseki, a native speaker of Kikongo and an expert of Congo culture, reports that the Bakongo of Central Africa had Biensa and Nsonsani as verbal duel systems. Schwegler adds Vociferacion and vacilada among the Palenque and Chota respectively, both people from the Americas as forms of verbal duels. And also Lefever (1981: 83-84) reports similar duels among the Apo of the Ashanti (Ghana), the Eskimo, and the Tiwiin northern Australia, with Kihari & Schroder (2012) adding the Kikuyu example of Huhi and other equivalents, e.g. the Luhyu Okhuchayana and the Luo's Nyung'rwok, all from Kenya".