I've started reading A Grain of Wheat by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o (available here), and it contains quite a few of what I assume are Kenyan dialect words. Not enough to make it unreadable for me - most of them are roughly guessable from context - but I feel like knowing their precise meanings might increase my understanding or appreciation of the text. For example:

  • jembe and panga - some kind of agricultural tools?
  • shamba - a piece of land, perhaps?
  • Uhuru na Kazi - Google tells me that this phrase means "freedom and work", but in the book it seems to have a deeper cultural meaning which I feel is important but don't understand.
  • micege, mikengeria, bangi - some kind of plants?

All of these and more just from the first two chapters of the book. I'd like to find a comprehensive list of the dialect words used in the book with their meanings. Does such a list exist anywhere already? If not, I would award a bounty to any answerer who compiles one themselves from the book.

Partial answers are acceptable - I'd be grateful for help with any of these words, especially "Uhuru na Kazi", which seems to have some significance in the story.

1 Answer 1


Sure, I can take a crack at this. I took some time to familiarize with the terminology as I was reading this book. My caveat is that I'm not as knowledgeable on the topic as I really could be to answer this in total confidence, so take what I say with a grain of salt.

I used a number of sources during the course of my own research, but it seems the book "X-kit Lit Series Fet: a Grain of Wheat" (ISBN 9781770254978) actually contains a relatively complete list of terms. I suggest using this as a starting point for any research.

  • Uhuru na Kazi - You're right, this means "freedom and work," when directly translated. But its cultural implication here is a little stronger. The movement called themselves the Uhuru movement, which made Uhuru na Kazi more of a rallying cry than something idiomatic.

    The phrase was originally the slogan of Tanganyika, a separate push against British rule, in what's now Tanzania. Since this borders Kenya, and because of cultural diffusion and its direct relevance, this was still an important phrase in Kenya at the time of the uprising.

  • jembe - A hoe. Long handle, sharp edge.

  • panga - A farm tool that doubled as a weapon. It had a long, flat blade, with a curved tip. Similar to jembe, but covering use cases more oriented towards harvesting and threshing.

Note: the fact that farm tools double as weapons is pertinent to understanding some of the things characters say, and isn't explained as such in-text, except contextually.

  • shamba - A plot of land. That's as much as I've been able to gather on this, and it's served as a functional definition throughout the course of the book.

  • sufuria - A flat-bottomed, deep, handle-less pot. Used as a pot, for all intents and purposes.

  • micege, mikengeria - Weeds. Former is a weed known as "black jack," apparently, though I can't find taxonomic information about it. Latter is known as "wandering willie." Though it must be a similar species, and not exactly the species that goes by that name - "wandering willie" is native to South America.

  • bangi - This is actually weed - cannabis.


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