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Welcome to Kibera! You’ll be lucky if you figure out your way around as an “outsider” and not be “smelled out,” warns Enoch, an extremely competent Sheng speaker. Sheng is the official and widely spoken language in Kibera and other informal urban settlements in Nairobi. This Nairobi urban Slang is drawn from the acronym for “Swahili-English Slang.” Sheng is not just an informal settlement language, but a fast spreading culture within the city, especially among young people. Kibera is characterized by a distinctive, busy, and chaotic pace of life. The community is alive 24/7 as people attend to their dynamic work shifts in the city.

For over a decade now, the Sheng language has been the primary medium of communication in the multicultural informal settlements of Nairobi. I asked Enoch how he learnt Sheng even though he came from a middle-class family where the primary languages are Swahili and English. “In secondary school. I needed to fit in with my peers and survive verbal bullying.” he replies. He then displays his expertise in Sheng by quickly listing eight (8) Sheng words used to refer to a girl. I realize that I know only one word out of the eight. Then as though to caution me, Enoch quips, “Sheng is not for people of your class,” referring to my age, literacy level, and where I live. It is clear by now that Sheng is not just a language. It is more of a culture since it is developed and spoken by populations from informal settlements, is used to communicate their beliefs and values, and is assumed to represent the poor populations in Nairobi’s informal settlements. I ponder, could urban Slangs like Sheng eventually become one of the major waves shaping the futures of urban cultures? Will governments be forced to adopt them as official languages?

Like the ancient Egyptians’ and the Mayans’ highly visible pyramids and tombs, it is easy to hear, feel or observe cultural artifacts like Sheng but hard to decipher their meaning. In fact, most new urban codes are not only based on multilingual speech, but their vocabulary is unstable and changing fast. This is the case with Nouchi, a mixed code from French and local Ivorian languages in Abidjan, which began as a street Slang used by disenfranchised youths in the capital city (Ferrari, 2014). Similarly, Hindubill, a creole of French and Lingala, is another Slang spoke in the informal areas of Kinshasa, while Tsotsitaal/Isicamtho is a South African Slang coded from all the eleven national languages, particularly Afrikaans, English and Zulu, and widely spoken in Gauteng townships and beyond (Ferrari, 2014). These languages provide the cultural “climate” of respective groups and any “foreigner” wishing to fit in must adapt to the Slang’s codes and values.

So, what is culture? Many of us associate culture with diverse cultural artifacts that are easily observable. Artifacts comprise the first level of culture, and are easy to see, hear or even feel. Examples are food, clothing, language, songs, customs and traditions (Schein, 2010). The second level of culture comprises shared beliefs and values. Examples are honesty, diligence, and purity. The third level of culture entails the underlying assumptions which are unconscious, taken for granted, values and beliefs (Schein, 2010). Culture is therefore artifacts, values, beliefs and assumptions learned by a group of people as it solves its problems of external adaptation and internal integration. The newcomers to a particular culture are oriented to those values, beliefs and assumptions found to have worked well in relation to prevailing or emerging changes, problems, and solutions. However, within urban settlements where family, group or community cultures are multifaceted, multi- layered, and a conglomeration of various cultures, self-orientation and self-adaptation are the keys to culture adaptation, since survival is a top priority. Will the future be different? What will shape the futures of culture in urban contexts?

Increasingly, the power of push and pull factors is defining the speed and scope of urbanization. The push factors - poverty; unemployment or underemployment; limited or poor basic services; overpopulation; lack of unproductive assets; and disasters – drive people from rural areas or other destinations where single cultures dominated their lifestyles, to urban centres. This “leaving” is exacerbated by the pull factors - better paying jobs; technological advancement; better health and education services; food availability; religious tolerance; and attractive environment - that attract people to towns and cities. Once in the cities, the migrants are confronted by serious culture shock and uncertainties that must be addressed for survival. Since most of the migrants from rural areas to urban centres have limited chances of understanding the urban cultures before landing, both speed of learning urban Slangs, and commitment to adapt to the new urban culture become a necessity.

What then, is the primary thread that weaves the migrants’ individual and group cultures into coherent sets of intra-group urban cultures? Could it be the fast-evolving urban Slangs? If yes, will these Slangs eventually replace formal languages in the fast-approaching, complex and uncertain future? What cultural values do these Slangs espouse which adhere to the respective “communities”? Let us examine three of such values – Identity, security, and agility.

Identity is the sense of belonging and acceptance, a feeling of authenticity, the power to transact and thrive, and the ability to commune. It enhances self and communal acceptance, thus giving a “license” to belong. It also extends grace and time to a new member to assimilate the group culture without rejection. Identity is foundational to individual productivity in this tough and complex environment. All migrants require some form of identity for survival and security, especially, in informal urban settings. Slang languages like Sheng tends to provide the much-needed identity in informal settlement communities.

Urban Slangs promote a sense of “community” that ensures better survival. This parallels the kind of “community” that develops among middle- and upper-class urban groups who speak other languages such as English, Swahili and French. The emerging “communities” become the vehicle for advocating and accessing better services, rights, and certain freedoms, especially constitutional, political, cultural, and religious freedoms. Unfortunately, “the extent and diversity of language codes among youth Slang users have become a weapon in planning and executing crimes in the city,” explains Diana, resident of Kibera. And while the middle- and upper-class can “pay” for their security, populations in the informal settlement must explore alternative ways of ensuring that they are safe from various forms of insecurities. With few options available, these informal dwellers tend to wave the language and cultural card. This is important since most informal urban dwellers do not enjoy government protection. Instead, they are viewed as illegitimate and a security threat to the middle- and upper-classes.

The agility of these languages makes them attractive and user friendly to their primary users. Unlike traditional cultures and languages which are rigid and highly guarded by the so-called cultural policemen, the new urban Slangs are flexible in development, coding and use. There are no designated cultural authorities to check the dynamism of these languages, a factor that makes these languages desirable to the youth, especially those in the informal settlements. Every user has a right to contribute to the language’s development as long as they can educate their peers on its use. This is cultural innovation at its best! Most urban youth treasure this level of cultural agility.

Conversely, the type of cultural agility that favors the urban middle- and upper-classes relates to professional advancement. Among these groups, cultural agility is not required in language development, coding, and use, but in professional growth. The two groups view cultural agility as a mega-competency that enables professionals to perform successfully in cross-cultural situations (Caligiuri, 2012). This notwithstanding, Slang’s languages and their cultural artifacts – especially clothing, hair styles, and ornaments - are slowly infiltrating both middle- and upper-groups, especially through their children.

How will the futures of culture pan out in 2050 when 75% of the global population (NIC, 2012) will be living in urban areas? Will Slangs have overtaken most of the official languages – English, French, Spanish, and Swahili? There possibly will be new and solid languages emanating from some of these Slangs. Some solid urban cultures with distinct artifacts, values, beliefs and assumptions will already have been established considering that certain generations will have been born and raised in urban environments for over 20 years, speaking Slang languages as their primary mother tongue.

How about cultural identity? Will it still drive the need for cultural adaptation? Possibly yes for those still in urban centers, but it will most likely be a non-issue for those who will have been urbanized for over 10 years. It may also be different for new migrants since acculturation of rural cultures by urban cultural values will be highly common. How about survival needs? Yes, they will most likely be a core cultural driver in future. With a population projected to be above 8 billion people in 2050 (National Intelligence Council, 2012) versus diminishing resources, survival will be one of the greatest challenges facing urban populations. How will cultural agility pan out beyond 2050? I believe any form of cultural agility will be pivotal as populations grapple with complex social, economic, technological, environmental, legal, ethical, and political changes. Are you ready to embrace the future of cultures in urbanization?


Caligiuri, P. (2012): Cultural Agility: Building a pipeline of successful global professional. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Ferrari Aurelia (2014). Evolution of Sheng During the Last Decade. (pp. 29-54), OpenEdition Journals. Source:,Introduction,%2C%20Luyha%2C%20Dholuo%20and%20Kikamba.

National Intelligence Council (2012): Global Trend 2030: Alternative Worlds.

Schein, H. E (2010): Organizational culture and leadership. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

© Anne Kyoya 2021

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