Tag Archives: Kenya

The Globalization of Yiddish

Julia Simon painted some of her favorite Yiddish words, using friends and strangers as models, at a Mexican restaurant in Los Angeles.

Julia Simon painted some of her favorite Yiddish words, using friends and strangers as models, at a Mexican restaurant in Los Angeles.

Here’s a guest post from reporter Julia Simon

It started in Nairobi when I was talking to some Kenyan friends including Handerson Mwandembo.

Now Handerson doesn’t speak Yiddish, and yet I couldn’t help but notice that sprinkled into his conversation were certain Yiddish words. Words like “schmooze.” I asked him how he would use “schmooze” in a sentence. Handerson gives an example, “He passes exams because he occasionally schmoozed his lecturers.”

And then there was my friend Reham Hussein who also uses Yiddish words. But Reham doesn’t live in Kenya. She lives in Cairo, Egypt.

Reham says she often uses the word “schmuck” (which, in its original meaning, is not the most polite word but it’s commonly used these days). For example: “Okay, you had a problem with a taxi driver today, oh what a schmuck he’s being,” she says. “More or less like a person who doesn’t know what they were doing and they just keep going. Annoying in a certain way.”

I learned these same Yiddish words from my grandmother who grew up in a Jewish part of Melbourne Australia and my grandfather who learned Yiddish from his Brooklyn parents. But where did Reham pick it up?

“I was introduced to it by American media more than anything else.” Reham says On the NBC TV show Friends, she says, they use a lot of Yiddish. “And in Seinfeld they use it, even more than in Friends.”

American pop culture has long been full of Yiddish words. There’s Mel Brooks, of course. In this scene from “Spaceballs” he uses the Yiddish word “bubkes”.

And then there are Americans with no ancestral connection to Yiddish, like singer Barry White. In his famous song “Never Going to Give you up” he uses the word “schtick”.

More recently, rapper Jay Electronica used the word “schmuck” in a song.

Jan Schwartz is a professor of Yiddish at Lund University in Sweden. He says the widespread use of Yiddish in American culture tells us something. “It’s a great example of how the Jewish acculturation in America has been very successful,” he says. “Jews are comfortable in America, they can express their Jewishness publicly it’s not something you have to hide.”

Schwartz says these Yiddish words entered American English through the European Jewish immigrants who arrived in the US in the late 19th and early 20th century. But Schwarz says it’s not just American English getting the Yiddish treatment. He says there are a good amount of Yiddish words in Dutch too. Yiddish speaking Jews have lived in the Netherlands for hundreds of years.

So I called up some friends in the Hague, Meline Arakelian and Yannick Dierart, and I tried a little experiment with them. I gave them a few Yiddish words and asked if they knew the meanings. “Mazzel”, “Meshuganah”… sure enough they knew them from Dutch.

Meline says she really likes these words, “they are straight from life.” Yannick agrees. “They have a really lived in feel, like a real raw feel, straight from the street, straight from the marketplace. It feels like they’ve been said by centuries of people. A little bit poetic also, lyrical.”

Professor Schwartz thinks they’re onto something, both in the popular appeal of the words and in the lyrical aspect. But he hopes that non Yiddish speakers don’t just stop with the specific words – he hopes they go back to the source: Yiddish literature, Yiddish theater, and Yiddish standup comedy.

“I guess if that’s my mission– a mission impossible but a mission– is to kind of get people to appreciate the richness and the depth of this culture on its own terms,” Schwartz says.

Still, he says he is happy that Yiddish is getting the exposure. He says that in historical European Yiddish literature, you find these non-Jewish characters — the policeman, the postman — speaking Yiddish. The Jewish writers wrote about them with great pride.

The writers were happy that Yiddish wasn’t just a Jewish language– it reached out.



1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

The Many Meanings of Chips Funga


[This is a guest post from Big Show Africa correspondent Anders Kelto]

It’s 2 am in downtown Nairobi, Kenya. Wendy Kimani is doing what a lot of young people here do around this time—standing outside a night club, holding a bag of French fries. You can see the grease soaking through.

“It tastes like heaven,” says Wendy. “Greasy as hell. And we like it that way.”

French fries to go—or chips funga as they’re called here—are the late-night snack of choice in Nairobi. But recently, chips funga has taken on a whole new meaning.

“It’s basically taking a lady home who you don’t know,” says singer Anto Neosoul. “You met her for the first time, and you take her home for a one-night stand.”

Neosoul is a rising star on the Kenyan music scene. His song, ‘Chips Funga,’ has been riding high on the airwaves here for more than a year.


Neosoul says when he first heard the term chips funga he immediately got it. He says young Kenyans are constantly inventing new slang terms—in English, Swahili, and tribal languages.

The phrase chips funga started popping up on Facebook and Twitter about two years ago, says Harriet Ocharo, a 25-year-old technology writer. So she decided to blog about it. She asked readers about the “etiquette” of a chips funga. The comments started pouring in.

“No sleeping over,” was one comment. “No phone calls before 9 pm, like, there’s nothing to talk about during the day, so you only call for the hook-up in the evening.”

“No emotional discussions. All gifts are accepted; money is always good. No baby talk.”

Ocharo says, at first, it was mostly men who used the term. But now, women use it too. They’ve even come up with a spin-off: sausage funga. You can probably figure out what that one means. Ocharo says women’s use of these slang terms is a sign of the times in Nairobi, where women no longer feel bound by traditional gender roles.

“Nairobi is a very free town,” says Ocharo. “No one judges a woman if she chips fungas a guy or the other way around. I think it’s a good sign.”

There’s even an online dating site called Chips Funga.

But singer Anto Neosoul says he sometimes worries that young people in Kenya are chips funga-ing too much. And they’re putting themselves in dangerous situations.

“We might contract HIV and AIDS,” says Neosoul. “We might contract STDs and STIs, we might get pregnant.”

Anto even worries that the term makes people want to chips funga – because it sounds funny and lighthearted. So he wanted his song to send a message: that it isn’t necessarily good to be a chips funga. The third verse, which he sings in Swahili, does just that.

“If I put it in English,” says Neosoul, “it would basically be, ‘Put on some ketchup, put on some mayonnaise, put on some salad, you’ve just been served. So, you’ve had a one-night stand, and that’s what you are. You’re chips. You’re French fries. You’re vegetables. And you’ve made yourself cheap, like chips.’”

That’s the message Anto wants people to hear. But it may be the opposite message that has them singing along.

Watch a 15-minute documentary of the chips funga phenomenon here.




1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Nairobi’s Smart Graffiti and Sheng Hip Hop

For the past few months, a group of Kenyan artists have been decorating Nairobi’s street-facing walls. Their series of graffiti-splashed murals makes the case that street art can also be essential political speech.

It’s pretty easy to overlook graffiti as a serious form of speech. It’s often little more than illegal, scatalogical  public nuisance.  But there’s far more than that going on in Nairobi. The images and slogans are overtly political– they’re full of criticism of “arrogant” and “corrupt” elected politicians who mock the “idiot” voters who re-elect them.

There are lists of scandals: “Pyramid schemes…post-election violence…tax evasion.”  And lists of attributes that a political leader should have: “courage…doesn’t buy votes/bribe…ready to declare their wealth and source of wealth.”

The timing is significant. Kenya holds a presidential election next year. And these street artists are clearly worried about corruption and petty tribalism among the candidates, and apathy among the electorate. There’s so much sharp political commentary in the murals that they seem more like satirical magazines than street art. Perhaps that underscores a lack of confidence in Kenya’s mainstream news media. Whether or not that’s the case, these mainly anonymous artists have turned a few corners of Nairobi into colorful hotspots of free speech.

The BBC has a slideshow with more images of the murals.

Also in the podcast this week, Kenyan pop star Juliani, whose tactics somewhat resemble the street artists. Juliani raps about climate change– not a usual subject for hip hop stars . And he does it in a slangy English-Swahili mash-up known as  Sheng. As with the street artists, the message is political,  it’s is aimed at young people, and it sidesteps more conventional forms of delivery.


Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized