“Sasa!” and “mambo” are the classic greetings in Kirwara, a tiny village in the Thika region in Kenya where I spent a little over a month in and where I got introduced to the wonderful world of Kenyan slang.
Kenyan Kiswahili has been deeply influenced by Sheng – an alternative Swahili that developed among the urban youth of Eastern Nairobi during the ’70s and quickly spread through Kenya.
The Swahili spoken in Kenya is anything less than “fasaha” (clean), and the English spoken is even less so. With tons of words and slang coming from Swahili and others coming from their tribal language (most Kenyans can speak at least three languages!) – their informal, everyday English is a beautiful mix of slangs and languages.
A guide to my favorite phrases from Kenyan Slang:
Note: I only spent one month in Kenya and so, these are just a few of the slang and quirks in their daily vernacular. It’s also important for me to note that most of my time in Kenya was spent in the Thika/Nairobi region and here is where I heard these phrases and words. I don’t claim these Kenyan slang phrases are used all across the country.
Rather than being an informative guide to Kenyan slang, I thought this would make for a fun and relaxed post!
Meaning: It is basically a filler for a word they don’t know or can’t instantly remember.
The closest translation to American English would be “the thingy”.
“Pass me the nini”, “I am searching for nini”. I always found it very funny and couldn’t understand why I kept hearing those two syllables. It took me a good two weeks to wrap my head around what it actually meant and suddenly everything made sense.
Meaning: To get out.
“I alighted the bus.”I found it so funny when anyone said this because it sounds so damn proper.
Meaning: You guys
I had a hard time adjusting to this phrase because at first, it sounded so rude to me. I soon got used to it and even started saying it myself. It basically means you (plural).
“You people” are going to the party or “you people should be here at 8”. It is mostly used by the younger generations.
“You are soooo smart!”, was one of the things Kenyan girls loved saying to me. “Your hair is soooo smart”, was another (they love the Western straight hair) or “your dress is so smart!”.
At first, I thought they meant people were saying I was intelligent (ha!), but after some time I realized they were calling me/my hair/my dress beautiful.
Meaning: How are you.
Sawa and Sawa Sawa
One “sawa” means “okay” (whatever you have just suggested). “Sawa sawa” means it is more than okay, it is great!
If you tell a Kenyan that you’ve hurt yourself while walking, they’ll reply saying “pole” even if they weren’t remotely close to the incident. If you’re walking with a Kenyan friend and your phone slips off your finger, they’ll say apologize for it.
We have reached.
Meaning: We have arrived.
That’s it. It sounds so inconclusive that I struggled so much with it at first. It means “we have arrived”. But to where?! WHERE HAVE YOU REACHED? or WHAT did you reach exactly?.
“Me, I have been in Nairobi” or “Me, I am from Kenya”. Either sentence would work just as well sans “me”, but Kenyans like saying it for some reason.
My friend Grace was always saying this and I loved it because it sounds so proper to me. “Maybe one of these fine days we can go to Mombasa” or “On that fine day he told me he was coming to Kenya”.
Go “pole pole”, because, in Kenya, everything is pole pole. Don’t rush.
Loved my guide to Kenyan slang? Save it to Pinterest for later!