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Kenya: The Big Language Dilemma For Kenyan Poet Bloggers

With over 42 dialects, Kiswahili as the National Language, English as the main business language and Sheng, a language composed of Kiswahili, English and different words from Kenyan local languages, an emerging Kenyan artist or poet has to give a lot of thought to his choice of language.

mashairiHis choice, like his style, can make or break him in the art and entertainment industry, as it is more often than not used to determine his authenticity (or lack of it), his target audience and also his genre. This will most likely affect a performing artist more than a poet as it is easier for a poet to switch between languages depending on their theme.

Kenyan poets, unlike artists, find it easier to write and perform in English as opposed to any other language. This would be closely attributed to what language enables them express themselves better, and most definitely their command of that language.

After a few interactions with a cross section of poets and by visiting their blogs, I realized that virtually none write in their mother tongue as much and very few have written in Kiswahili or Sheng.

This is with the exception of several bloggers of note who experiment not only with Kiswahili but also with Sheng and their Mother Tongues.

Ushairi Mamboleo which is Kiswahili for ‘Contemporary Poetry’, is a blog run by James Adolwa. As his blog disclaims—it is for those with a short memory span and so he does not indulge in a lot of lengthy articles—poetry for that matter.

His blog is more of a personal diary (as blogs were initially set out to be) with commentary on daily occurrences of note. However, it does also feature his poetry as well as poetry by others that have fascinated him. A sample of his poetry is Jibu Kwako ( An answer to you).

Jibu kwako
mimi sina
mpaka unipe
swali unalouliza
funga macho
alafu fikiria
Labda maono
yatakutafsiria
James Adolwa, 2004

An answer to you

I do not have
till you ask
close your eyes
think
maybe your vision
will interpret it

Mshairi (A Poet in Kiswahili) is a Kenyan blogger living in the UK dreaming of a time when the cultural, legal and political obstacles that prevent African women attaining economic independence and equality are eradicated. She hopes to see the development of gender-sensitive ICT policies leading to more African women accessing and using these technologies. Her interests are world music, poetry, books, art, love, movies, life, Africa, gender activism.

Her blog, Mshairi features her interests as well as her poetry which she writes mainly in English. A cross check of her archived posts did not reveal any shairi, Kiswahili for poetry, as I was hoping, judging by her choice of blog name. However, she is one blogger who has been using the blogosphere since 2004 to share poetry with the world.

Serina who goes by the blog name Serinaserina is also a Kenyan blogger whose writing of Kiswahili poetry is more prolific. Her tag line; “Upande Mwingine – Kila simulizi lina pande mbili.. hili ni langu” (Another side – every story has two versions… this is my version) gives one a peak into the nature of her blog's content. Hers is quite a unique blog as the different sections are defined in Kiswahili as well.

In a poem called ‘Nimetosheka‘ (I am fed up) she says,

Shughuli hapa na pale zaniita…
Kuzitimiza bila malalamiko desturi,
Ulegevu huu umetoka wapi?
Maungo kwa machofu nimevunjika,
kama mganga anayepunga pepo kilingeni…
Mwisho wa simba umeletwa na nzi!

Hapa nasema, pale nakimya…
Jogoo la shamba haliwiki mjini…
Ongeza kasi, jua latua…
Huu ni uvivu wa kike au ni balaa?
Maliza ya leo, leo… ya kesho mageni
Hivi kumbuka walipwa masaa
Lakini tena…
Sheria hazitii wasiwasi aliyetosheka!

Nimetosheka.

Commitments here and there call me
to fulfill them without complaints a habit
where did this laziness come from
my limb, broken from fatigue
like a witchdoctor who wads away evil spirits
the end to a lion is brought by flies

Here I talk, there I keep quiet
a village cockerel does not crow in the city
hasten, the sun sets
is this female laziness or a disaster?
finish today's task today, tomorrow's is a new one
remember you are paid by the hour
but then again
rules do not worry him who is content

I am content

Cindy Ogana- a Kenyan blogger, poet, TV producer and thespian shared with me some of her thoughts on choice of language in poetry in this brief interview:

Q. What language do you specialize in when writing/performing your poetry?
A. English
Q. Why?
A. It is my register, the language that my brain deciphers as communication
Q. Do you use any other languages?
A. Nope
Q. With Kiswahili as Kenya's National language, why do you think Mashairi (Kiswahili for poetry) are not very popular for performing poets?
A. Because most Kenyans don’t speak fluent Kiswahili
Q. Have you ever explored writing in Sheng?
A. Yes
Q. Why?
A. To give my writing a more social feel
Q. Have you ever writing a poem in your mother tongue?
A. Nope
Q. Why not?
A. I cant speak it very well
Q. Do you think poems in mother tongue have a future on the internet and on performing stages?
A. Yes

The video below features Ukoo Flani Mau Mau, Kenyan renown Hip Hop group, as they celebrate Kenyan writers in a song called Mashairi (Kiswahili for poems).

This dilemma on language is not only faced by Cindy but a cross section of Kenyan poets in their writing and performances. Grand Master Masese and Njeri Wangari are some of the poets who constantly experiment with Sheng, Kiswahili and even their mother tongue in their poems posted on their blogs as well in performance.

Maisha ya Hawker (the life of a hawker) is Njeri’s latest piece written in a mix of Kiswahili, Sheng and Kikuyu – her mother tongue, a language used by most ware sellers who constantly invade the Nairobi pedestrian walks and streets trying to eke out a living.
An extract from Wangari's ‘Maisha ya Hawker’ poem

Hamsini, fifty
Fifty, hamsini
Hamsini, fifty
Ya jioni
Hamsini
Tops
Fifty
Mali
Ya jioni
Fifty, hamsini

Mathee, auntie, sistee
Bei ni ya jioni
Ni kuoya kuoya
Kira kitu na hamsini
Vitu ni ya kamera
Nguo ni ya wanga bado inanuka mafuta ya dege

Fifty, fifty
fifty, fifty
Evening rate
fifty
tops
fifty
goods
evening rate
fifty shillings

The rate is the evening's
hurry and pick
everything is fifty shillings
good as new products
new clothes, still smell of plane fuel(fresh from the plane)

Grand Master in an earlier piece writes,

Literature ni maisha yetu na ni kioo chetu,
uliza Joseph Ngunjiri na Njeri Wangari
Tunaikabiri hatari kupitia mistari
Kupitia poetry na sound Club Soundd
Udia Kamozo sorry Kamonjo
ma-paintings vibonzo
Dennis Inkwa na Leon Kiptum
Poetry zao ukiskia akili ina-jump
Mwambie Udia Kamonjo
Hii ndio expression of my time

Literature is our life and our mirror
as Joseph Ngunjiri and Njeri Wangari
We testify it in verses
in poetry and sound at club Soundd
Yudia Kamonjo
great paintings
Dennis Inkwa and Leon Kiptum
Their Poetry makes your mind want to go crazy
tell Yudia Kamonjo
This is the expression of my time

The essence of a language is to communicate with one’s audience and in a world where more than half the population understands English, it is no wonder that poets find it an easy option. However, for a Kenyan poet seeking an identity on global stage and the promotion of African languages in the blogosphere, then Kiswahili does give them the edge of originality and authenticity.

Let us hope that there will be more poems in other Kenyan languages on performing stages and on the internet.

3 comments

  • Thanks so much for this lovely post and translations.

  • Hallo Larsen,

    I am glad you enjoyed reading it and that the translations helped you understand the Swahili and sheng poetry.

    Njeri Wangari

  • Just saw this…pleasantly suprised…here
    is an interpretation of \Jibu Kwako\
    derived from your translation…

    MY RESPONSE

    I have no answers
    To questions you havn’t asked
    so just close your eyes and think a little
    Maybe a vision will open up your mind

    James Adolwa

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