Telegrams on Air

Hewa is the sheng word for loud music. The phrase kupewa hewa that is used to describe how good the music sounds literally translates into giving air. When someone plays you music you are literally telling them that they have given you air.

That you can now breath.


I’ve been thinking about language recently (see here, for example). Language does a work of gathering and of alienation. Imagine being with a group of friends. All of them are from one ethnic group – you aren’t. At some point they begin to speak their language. Immediately you are placed outside the scope. Suddenly you have moved from being the participator in a conversation to an observer of culture. As an observer you realise that even nuances change. Intonations are all over the place (in Kisii, for example, everyone will suddenly be speaking in a higher register). As an observer you realise that, even if you learn the language, you’ll still be on the outside looking in.


In the 2007/2008 post election violence Eric Wainana’s “Daima mimi mkenya” became the social stopgap. It was used by the media to try and erase the notion of ethnicity and focus on nationalism. (We are all Kenyans, we should stop killing each other). It was played in two languages – English and Swahili.


Language moves in different ways. I know songs in several languages. I sing words whose meanings I do not know. I sing “Ndikhangela izulwana…. Lilelam” with Simphiwe Dana and “kuon wang e kendo” with Dela. In Soobax, Knaan talks about translating the vibe of a song.  When you don’t understand a language but just go with the flow.


“It is not our differences that divide us. It is our inability to recognize, accept, and celebrate those differences.”

–          Audre Lorde


The act of giving someone air could be seen as a life saving one. I sit silently as Asa breathes in the background “Orè ti mo mu bi aburo/ Orè, orè ti mo sé daara dara.” I inhale her pain and create my own worlds.


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