Mellon Globalization Forum faculty research lecture: "Bringing Them Down”: The Discourse of “Shrubbing” in Kenyan High Schools

Friday, Mar, 6 2015 — 2:15 PM
At: Gailor 202

Michael Wairungu, Mellon post-doctoral fellow in the Department of International and Global Studies, will deliver a lecture on “Bringing Them Down”: The Discourse of “Shrubbing” in Kenyan High Schools. The talk is open to the public.

Lecture Abstract:                                 

Is it resistance, compliance or both? The increased popularity of Sheng among young Kenyans has led them to innovate a counter strategy that they call “shrubbing” or Kung’oa to contest schools’ intensive efforts to promote the officially sanctioned standard Swahili and English. Young Kenyans describe “shrubbing” as speaking Swahili or English with ethnic/mother tongue influence, and this is highly stigmatized. Peers expect those who seek to speak the two languages to do so without “errors.”However, a critical look at the “shrubbing” discourse reveals that it is paradoxical: participants simultaneously associate and dissociate with standard Swahili and English. While peers reprimand “shrubbers,” they do not reward those who speak the two languages “correctly.” Instead, they ridicule them as Wasomi (Swahili for scholars) or Washamba (rural folk). The data used in this presentation is drawn from Nakuru and Mombasa. In Nakuru, peers document “shrubbers” and associated details on a section of a classroom wall that they call “Wall of Shame” and further transfer them onto a condemned space that they call “Wall of Fame” if they continue “shrubbing.” Owing to the cosmopolitan nature of Sheng speakers and the underlying ethnic and regional tensions in Nakuru and Mombasa, I ask why speakers pick on Swahili and English and whether “shrubbing” occurs in Sheng. Some of my findings indicate that the “shrubbing” discourse challenges the validity of standard Swahili as Kenya’s national language and the dominant official/standard language ideology prevalent in schools and wider Kenyan society.

Michael Wairungu is a Mellon post-doctoral fellow in the Department of International and Global Studies (INGS). His Ph.D. is in linguistic anthropology from the University of Virginia, Charlottesville. Wairungu’s research and teaching interests are in the broad areas of language and culture, youth and social change, language in education, gender and power. His geographical focus is Africa, especially urban settings. He is currently teaching Introduction to Swahili Language and Culture and Sociolinguistics of Africa.

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