Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Kenyan English

As a Speech & Language Therapist in Kenya, I am a keen observer of Kenyan English. Working alongside children with speech and language difficulties, I find it is I who is learning new interesting words and phrases. Though I haven't mastered Swahili, I listen constantly to different word meanings of English.
I hope I don't offend anyone here but I am only having a little fun with the words and phrases I hear so please do not take me too seriously. I find Kenyan English rich and interesting, borrowing from local languages and creating an exciting new language Cheng. This is what I hear on the streets of Nairobi...

Let me confirm is a common answer to most questions in Kenya

Can I have my change?
let me just confirm
meaning: haven't a clue, need to ask someone else

Just wait
Common answer to inpatient mzungu requests of which there are many.
meaning: just hang on and wait patiently without talking for a long time like the rest of us

I am alighting
I am getting off the bus, matatu now not in a few minutes

Dangerous mode of public transport which overloads to 20 people with place for only 14 small people under 5 ft with slim hips and behinds. The ride is pimped with trinkets of Barack Obama, Jay Z, Beyonce and unfamous and unrecognizable pop stars from the eighties. The floor is usually wide open, the ceiling is low. You hit your hard hard if you sit in the back. Increased risk of petty theft in the back also. No one talks except drunks, foreigners, and matatu touts who usually just poke and say mzungu, 40 (when it should be only 20).
Common robbery tricks include dropping your change so you bend down to pick up your change and then... there goes your wallet and your phone. When you ask for your things back, don't expect help from others. Yelling thief however, prompts a different response- please see my blog on mob justice. And don't forget to say let me alight when you are getting off or Ume nilipishi kama Mzungu (don't charge me mzungu prices) when you are ripped off (sorry for crazy Swahili spelling! )

We have reached
This sentence is never finished. It means we have reached our destination...and survived

Please and thanks not usually used to request things
give me a coke/burger/Ugali
get me
When you say thanks, people reply you're welcome

Mzungu- foreigner
The word replaces your name. In fact, you do not have a name. If you are white and you live in Kenya, you will be called Mzungu often. Don't get angry, just accept it. You can always reply with Mwafrica meaning African person... if you feel like getting a laugh out of people or a cold hard stare of confusion. Apparently as a mzungu you are expected to be over demanding, panicky, inpatient, with oodles of money and ready to give a job to someone who asks at any time

thrice- 3 times..haven't heard that in a long time

cali- angry...a cali dog

used all the time to mean I am sorry that you are complaining so much and I have to listen to it
I just got ripped off-

I feel sick-

I've just been bitten by a large black spider- like insect with claws, help! (it really happened to me in Naivasha one night)-

It doesn't matter the enormity of the devastation to you, the response will always be-

fizzy Kenyan light beer with a lovely picture of an Elephant on the front, gives instant hangovers after 2

Guinness served cold in a bottle- just don't drink it.I have seen people add coke- sacrilege

Nyama chama- barbecued meat including goat, chicken, beef. Tasty

clean heart
Used when bribing someone. Please give with a clean heart, meaning you will suffer always in your heart if you do not give me some money now. Used by police officers

Please add something
Used in negotiation meaning you are so stingy, add more money

also I have to survive
meaning I am getting a salary from the public sector but I want to earn more on the side, for example facilitators fees at meetings where people are paid to sit around on committees and cause more indecision by never deciding on anything except to arrange more meetings, but you will have to pay facilitators fees for the privilege. We have to survive!

pole pole
slowly slowly- don't rush. go slow and just wait...for a long time

a collection of money for people getting married or dying or dead already. There is no social welfare just harambee

any person working in a hospital including occupational therapists, speech and language therapists (all 2 of them), physiotherapists

what religion are you?
a common question to mzungus. warning: you must have one. you must worship. you cannot answer no religion as you will be called a pagan or atheist- worse than the devil himself
The reply to atheists and non- believers is usually non verbal- shake of head in dismay

polygamy and general infidelity
For men only. If you try this and you are a married female, you risk being divorced and ostracised from your family. Men have biological needs after all which women do not have

I end now, as I'm sure to offend someone
but there will be more later...


  1. You forgot expressions of doubt: Aieee! Wacha! Ati???
    Then there is the Elephant, Mob and other expressions of largeness.

    Visit repentandpreparetheway dot org and save your life. Shalom

  2. you also forgot to share this one..., 'me, i am from Nairobi' typical kenyan style... not sure why we have to always say 'me, I...' instead of just saying, 'I am from Nairobi'.