motorcycle diaries: tanzania / shikamoo, mwalimu (a journey)

exclusive feature
Jamie Thomas
{East Lansing, MI}
The Liberator Magazine 8.1 #23, 2009


(Above: Closeup of Mount Kilimanjaro. I used a superzoom lense. We lived in Arusha, Tanzania which is basically 2.5 hours away from the mountain.)

(Above: We visited a Maasai Boma, where only one family lived. This was in Oldupai Gorge (The correct Maasai name). Only the father spoke Kiswahili, so it was difficult to communicate. He had two wives, they are pictured in the middle, and the elderly woman is his mother. He was very well-to-do because they owned many cattle and goats.)

(Above: We spent a week in Zanzibar, off the coast of the Tanzanian mainland. At night, on the coastline in Stone Town, you could walk along the coastline, called Forodhani, and there vendors lining both sides of the walk with tons of fresh seafood on skewers, with as much chapati as you desired. Also there were drinks like spiced tea and pressed sugar cane juice available, too.)

(Above: I made friends with one of our guards and she took me and a friend to her home where she showed us how they cook chapati (flat bread) and maandazi (deep fried pastry) the Zanzibari way. Afterwards we passed through the neighborhood behind her house and there were women manufacturing local pottery. Because coconuts are so abundant on the island, they use the husks of the empty coconuts as fuel for the fire that bakes their pots.)

(Above: When were at Paje Beach in Zanzibar, we went to beach side village to meet with a teacher who would show us how they farm seaweed. This teacher was a man, although only the women farm seaweed. We walked out into the ocean in knee deep water for about 30 minutes until we came to the seaweed farm. And after we came back to shore, there were so many children gathered around to greet us and see what we were about. I thought the contrast in this photo between their feet and the white sand was beautiful.)

(Above: This was arabic writing above a door to a Christian church, one of the two Christian churches of the Island. As the story goes, the missionaries at Bweni, had this church built back in the 19th century to attract the newly freed slave community on the island to Christianity.)

The sound of my feet patting against the gravelled walkway clashed with the lively songs of birds conversing with chattering monkeys. It was early yet. I had been awakened much earlier by the mwadhini’s lyrical call to prayer.

I looked north into the gray sky, where I knew Kilimanjaro was hiding behind its great nebulous cloud ring. I had woken up early because today would be the day I would put my language skills to the test and deliver a lesson to a classroom full of local 7th graders. Sure, I was nervous, but I was excited, too.

This was my third week in the Arumeru district of Arusha, Tanzania, and although I had been studying Swahili for the last four years, I was just now getting my first opportunity to live and work extensively in a community with native speakers.

There’s no real way to know when you are completely prepared until you put your skills to the test. When I stepped across the concrete threshold I was greeted by a classroom full of anxious students in their neatly pressed olive green school uniforms. They greeted me in unison: “Shikamoo, Mwalimu.”

“Marahaba,” I replied.

I walked to the blackboard and scrawled in large letters with a piece of white chalk: “anthropolojia.” I had decided to facilitate a discussion on anthropology from what I hoped would be a thought-provoking perspective. These students and their communities, so often the subject of many a Western anthropologist’s field study, would have the opportunity to talk about their perceptions and observations of Western culture and form investigative conclusions.

We started with celebrations. “How do you all celebrate important events?” I asked. After defining culture, I fully expected the students to respond with likely observations of some of the foods they ate or musical instruments they used -- like ngoma, or drums. It was difficult for me to grasp the exact meaning of their comments, since they spoke a more hurried Swahili than I was used to.

One boy stood and explained the different steps to making ngoma. I encouraged him to elaborate. Suddenly, the room erupted with stifled laughter. I turned away from the chalkboard. “Why are you laughing?” I implored, having no idea what was going on. Someone then told me that I had pronounced something incorrectly, giving the word a vulgar meaning. He taught me the correct pronunciation, and I attempted to say it again. There was more laughter, and eventually, I had to laugh at myself. Finally, the ice had been broken.

Later, I asked them if they had any questions for me. They were eager to know if I was in college, whether both of my parents were black, what my motivation was for coming to East Africa and how I had come to study Swahili back in the States.

Looking back, I felt as though a spotlight had been placed on me, and that, as probably one of the very few African Americans these African students would meet in person, I was pressured to accurately represent those of us who want so much to connect to communities like theirs throughout the Diaspora.

The last question I was asked before the end of the day came from one of the boys in the front row of small wooden benches and desks. He wanted to know how it came to be that God had divided early humans into two groups: some white and others black. He wasn’t blaming God for our differences. He just wanted to know why. I simply told him we all came from Africa.

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