Decoding shembeteng, sheng’s new variant
Even by the dynamic standards of its evolution, the recent tongue-twisting variant of sheng — Kenya’s beloved urban slang that predominantly mixes English, Kiswahili and local languages — shared on social media has left many scratching their heads.
In this nascent version, known as shembeteng, a phrase as straightforward as “I love you”, mouthed as “nakulombotove”, would sound like a foreign language to most Kenyans. The opposite, when the hearts begin growing colder towards each other – and apart, “nakuhambatate” for “I hate you” or “divombotorce” for “divorce” would hide the pain of heartbreak.
The new sheng variant is being relentlessly pushed by a group of friends from Nairobi’s Kayole estate, who call themselves Jembeteshi Jimbitinga or Jeshi Jinga.
Brian Muasya and his friend Zakaria Mwangi, in the company of another, only recognised as Master, have been working on the slang and social media has helped them spread it beyond their neighbourhood.
They thought of a way to communicate within their circles and lock out other people from getting the message. That’s how they came up with the slang, which is different from the mainstream sheng.
The shared passion for music bound them. Their genre – Gengetone, a Kenyan sound with on-and-off popularity among the youth and dancehall enthusiasts. Together, they are now associates and the founders of Jeshi Jinga – a clique of friends associated with the new wave of sheng. The third individual, Master, was tasked with publicity and content creation. Several others have since joined them.
It took them two years to master and use the words flawlessly. Master then took up the role of using the language on social media, TikTok especially.
Shembeteng is founded on the “vowels” “mbata”, “mbete”, “mbiti”, “mboto” and “mbutu” that are infused into English or Kiswahili words that are truncated and re-joined to form the desired variant.
When Gengetone was blooming, most artistes who were in this genre, were mostly explicit in their lyrics and used offensive words. As a result, there was public backlash.
VERSION OF SHENG
“When we joined the Gengetone club, we infused our new language to hide explicit lyrics from a majority of those listening to the songs,” says Muasya.
He adds: “In 2020, we had a collabo with Juacali. We were only repeating his words with their equivalence in our version of sheng. And it was warmly received.”
There is apparently a simple method to learn this seemingly complex slang. But, isn’t the language related to crime?
Brian explains: “In the first video about us that went viral, he had ‘dissed’ Madocho – a rival faction. And the public thought that we were out to cause trouble and conceal it with a language no one else understood. But really, that was for entertainment purposes. This language is in no way associated with crime.”
Jeshi Jinga hopes that their language in future “will get a good recognition and acceptance”.