My Kiswahili Teachers

It’s becoming harder to get out of bed each morning as fatigue culminates from each preceding night. More and more my mosquito net serves as a blockade between me and the rest of the infected world; lifting the treated net from the crevice between the mattress (foam) and the wooden bed frame is exhausting. Today is my twelfth day in Dar es Salaam. I am slowly coming to understand and adjust to the routine of life here, which for me centers on Kiswahili lessons everyday, from 8:00 am to 1:00 pm/4:00pm. From Monday to Friday, Rachel and I meet at Ngeka’s bungalow each morning for chai, where, if time permits, we indulge in a piece of white bread slathered with peanut butter and/or jam. Further down the compound, close to the highway and the main gate, is our classroom: a miniature wooden straw-roofed gazebo, under which we find our two plastic chairs spotted with dried bird droppings and our heavy wooden table.

Muna is our teacher for the first half. He is stocky, but definitely not fat, with a slightly maintained beer gut. He looks like a Muna, with a strong face, a sly grin, and an unmistakable prolonged “uh-heeeeh” which he utters constantly in reply. He is a teacher, an instructor, a businessman, and a well-off man.

“Yeah, I don’t know these things [the prices of cooking items]. I don’t cook because I don’t have the time.”

He is a busy man, naturally, being a businessman. And perhaps this might explain the disinterest he exudes during our two hours with him each morning. He stares off in the distance, a million other thoughts to entertain him.

He is a player, it appears; a lady’s man, a motorcyclist, a frequenter of licensed establishments. Last Friday we drank at the bar at the Swiss Movenpick Hotel after watching a cultural dance show, and would have continued onto another club had I not been experiencing a relapse of all the symptoms of malaria that I had initially felt in my first encounter with the parasite.

But he is a fine teacher and comes across as a nice man, and Rachel and I learn.

After a chai break, John, born in the same year as me, is our instructor. Younger, skinnier, and admittedly poorer, John is clearly not a Muna. He makes sure that the latter point is known to us, eager to emphasize his perceptions of the differences between us.

“Rachel, una tajiri [are you rich]?” he asks, for the third time during an exercise.

“Hapana, nina maskini [No, I am poor].” Rachel replies, peeved.

Michael hails from Sigida, a town where onions and sunflowers are grown in vast quantities. John’s family has a sunflower shamba (farm) that produces sunflower oil. Having finished his O-levels, he is currently applying to various universities in the hopes of becoming a doctor, or completing a bachelor of commerce, whichever one he is accepted into. He also wants to be an MP for his region, with plans to introduce the animal plough to increase efficiency, develop an irrigation system as a buffer against common periods of drought, and encourage the exportation of onions to Dar, which is currently compromised due to the fear of the big (small) city. This is what he tells us during our lessons.

John is also a hip hop dancer and a singer, and is not shy to demonstrate his “moves” and “lyrics”.

This is John, the man who brought us to King’s restaurant for good biriani, who mistook the date of his birth by two years, who heard that America was making bombs and was going to bomb North America (not knowing that the former was actually in the latter), who stayed with us an extra two hours in the heat of Kariokoo to help us make our purchases, who is a fan of Ja Rule, who loves kuku [chicken] and chips mayai [eggs]; this is our teacher in the second half of the day.

[Note: Pseudonyms used]


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