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February 09, 2009

I've been lost, and other adventures in Kenglish

Every foreigner in Kenya is familiar with Kenglish, those terms and turns of phrase that are unique to this country. Most of us come to understand it and a few, me included, occasionally find themselves peppering their speech with choice bits of Kenglish like:

  • "Nice time!" and "Safe journey!" -- breezy abbreviations to wish you on your way

  • "Fine" in response to "Hello," because the standard Kiswahili greeting is "How are you?"

  • "You've added" to tell someone they've gained weight
    -- Note: This is always said cheerfully

  • "Me, what I know," as a preface to any declarative sentence
    -- Example: "Me, what I know, he went to America and he has added"

  • "Now now," meaning immediately, as opposed to "just now," meaning sometime during the current lunar phase

  • "Within," a broad locator meaning the place you're currently in
    -- Example: "Did you go out of town for Christmas?" "No, I was just within"

  • All the qualifying variations on "OK," as in "very OK," "just OK," "somehow OK" and even "not so very OK" (which I actually heard once).

My favorite, however, is a greeting I've been hearing a lot since I returned to Nairobi after a month away. I'll see someone for the first time since before Christmas and they'll say, "You've been lost!"

The Kiswahili greeting for a long-lost person, or just one who's been out of touch, is Umepotea, which roughly translates to, "You got yourself lost" (please correct my pidgin translation). Naturally, the subject wasn't lost; s/he was away on a trip, or hadn't kept in touch, but always knew exactly where s/he was. And the people who say "you're lost" didn't actually look for you and decide they couldn't find you.

"Lost" can have a pejorative meaning in English, suggesting a mistake. In the Kenyan version it just means you've been away from people who know you. It's a gentle way of tying someone to a place. Kenyans can sometimes go off on a job or a long trip to the city or the village and months could pass before they're seen again. When they finally return it's as if they've been found -- or maybe, and not to get too poetic here, that they've found themselves.

I've often disappeared from Nairobi for weeks unannounced. After I realized that people weren't faulting my sense of direction, I came to like hearing this very Kenyan greeting. I'll probably never use it myself -- it still makes me laugh -- but when I hear it I know I'm home.


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evelyn hockstein

this is soooo funny and so true!!! you, you are too smart.

Pamela Mayhew

That's really cute.

sally chin

funny! you didn't include my favourite though - when you greet a whole roomfull of people with the plural of hello, that is, "Hellos!"

Steve B

Great stuff. My favourites include "I am on my way coming" and "Can you pick me?". There's also a variation on starting a sentence with "Me..." which is "Even me..."

Shashank Bengali

Excellent additions. Keep em coming and we'll compile a helpful glossary


There's always, "Let me give you a push." They say this when you are leaving and want to walk with you part (or all) of the way. You can also ask it of someone--"Will you give me a push?"

Texas in Africa

"Can you pick me?" That's dead-on!

Another I always love is at the end of the meal when everyone else is eating and I can't do another bite. Someone always asks, "You have surrendered already?"

Shashank Bengali

And the list grows. Last night I offered to buy a round of drinks and I found myself saying to my friends, "I invite you." In Kenya, you can "invite" someone to something as small as a soda, which is great.


I always smiled when in a coffee shop they ask if, along with your coffee, you would like "something to bite" with that.

Or, when someone is giving you a ride (maybe they have "picked you"), they will then sometimes ask you where you would like "to alight," i.e. be dropped off. It took me awhile to catch on to this highly poetic phrasing, especially if it happened to be asked in a matatu that was careening around corners blasting rap music or reggae at insane volume.


I've always been fond of "It is just there," accompanied by a strangely crooked arm, in response to a request for directions. I think I would faint if I asked for directions and somebody responded with "walk two blocks North and then turn left onto Kenyatta..."

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Somewhere in Africa was written by McClatchy correspondent Shashank Bengali, who covered sub-Saharan Africa from 2005 to 2009. He's now based in Washington, D.C., as a national correspondent.

Read Shashank's stories at news.mcclatchy.com or send him a story idea.


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