In 2019, I visited a friend who was studying at the University of Witwatersrand in Joburg. I was with a couple of Kenyan friends and we decided to have a tour around the campus. Along the way, we ended up at a quaint little bookstore. Those ones that have the tingling bell on the door and are somehow soundproof. We all sort of dispersed as we browsed the different aisles.
When we went to pay for my purchase (a lovely looking edition of Crime and Punishment; still not read it), the elderly white gentleman at the checkout heard our voices and with a slightly amused tone said, “You’re from Kenya?” We were kind of shocked at how accurate his guess was. But it turns out the Kenyan accent is quite distinct.
At the end of 2022, as Megan Thee Stallion had her very public day in court against Tory Lanez, an unfortunate Kenyan connection was made by Kenyans on Twitter (KOT).
As Lanez’s dad defended him outside the courtroom, he was accompanied by an equally shouty woman who was also decrying the lack of justice in the American judicial system. But what she was saying wasn’t as interesting as how she was saying it.
In the midst of the rolling r’s that distinguish the American accent, the Kenyan accent sounds like a church bell on Sunday morning; striking and recognizable. In a crowd of people you’d still pick it out immediately, which Kenyans proved during the Lanez trial.
It’s very hard to hear the differences in your accent in comparison with others. To date, I still remember the heated argument I had with a classmate in uni about whether or not Kenyans even have an accent to begin with. Like somehow ours is the standard and everyone else is twenging.
As I’ve traveled and talked to people about what Kenyans sound like, I’ve slowly gained the ability to start hearing what others find ‘weird’ in our accent.
We talk with wide mouths and really emphasize those vowels we were taught in school, even adding them where they didn’t exist before. Wearing becomes ‘weh-yah-ring’ and five becomes ‘fah-eev’. That’s for the generic Nairobi accent. Of course as you traverse the country, other distinctive ways of saying things can be added to the ‘canon’ of the Kenyan accent.
Another thing is that we minimize and maximize words in odd ways. For example, if you take the generic British accent as the proper English accent – as that’s where the language came from, you can distinguish the difference between ‘heard’ and ‘had’ with their accent, but with ours you can’t. Context will tell you which one is being referred to.
But honestly, looking back on the argument with my friend, I admire how sure he was that the Kenyan accent was the baseline. As if to say, we really are all that.
One thing I’ve come to appreciate about our accent is that we really made the English language our own. The means through which it reached us were horrific and brutal. But we simply absorbed this invasive, parasitic language into our societies and let it fall from our lips in the way most comfortable for us.
That’s a sort of privilege, by the way. People who are from countries where English is not an official language tend to learn English later in life from either the shows they watch or from studying abroad. This was the case with an Italian girl I met who spoke English with a serious British accent because she’d gone to the UK for her undergad. It was so bizarre to me at the time but it actually makes sense.
I, as a Kenyan, have the privilege of speaking English with a Kenyan accent because we’re so adaptable. I see it as a kind of heritage of the bravery and confidence of previous generations. Their legacy of “We’ll say it the way we want to say it, and you’ll just have to learn to understand us.”
Especially as I started traveling more, I appreciated each time I had a chance meeting with a Kenyan. Just hearing them talk felt like home for those few minutes or hours.
Like the time I met a Kenyan in the airport in Munich. I was wearing a bright red hoodie with ankara hemming which is also apparently another very Kenyan thing and this guy walks up to me and introduces himself.
For two or so hours as we wandered around the airport waiting for our rides, I soaked in those over-pronounced nouns. The ‘ah’ ‘eh’ ‘ee’ ‘oh’ ‘oo’. The guy had been abroad for some time but still sounded 100 percent Kenyan. That’s another thing; our accent sticks like a lichen. One need only watch Larry Madowo go through the teething problems of transitioning to an American accent to notice (Larry, if you see this, you’re doing great).
More than the Kenyan bracelet and Kenyan forehead and whatever other identifiers we use to find each other out there in the world, the accent is the most beautiful of them all. I dare say.