I like to say I’m a teacher here, “Mimi ni mwalimu,” because the profession is admired in Tanzania — unlike where I come from. The father of the independent nation, Julius Nyerere, is sometimes referred to as “Mwalimu” — his profession prior to politics.
Ndekirwa is one of my teachers. He greets me every morning when I come to campus, and every evening when I leave he says, “Pole.” I didn’t know why he would say “Sorry,” so when I heard one of the Swahili teachers at school say to me today, “Pole na kazi,” I asked her what it meant. She said it is not exactly “I’m sorry,” but more of a polite way of showing compassion to someone who has been at work — “kazi.”
Yesterday Madalena and I walked our new housemate, Alfred, to campus, and Ndekirwa opened the gate. He started throwing Swahili at me, like a pitching machine gone haywire. I might’ve actually ducked. I did hear “mwalimu,” teacher, and an intonation suggesting question. I pointed to Alfred, a young and handsome 6’ 2” Ugandan/Italian/Englishman. In English I said “He’s a volunteer,” and in Swahili, I said, “He is called Alfred.” I pointed to Ndekirwa, and to Alfred and Madalena I said, in Swahili, “Ana mwalimu wangu.” “He is my teacher.” Ndekirwa laughed. We all exchanged a few asantes and karibus and went on our way.
On my way in this morning, Ndekirwa was on the phone, so I talked with Steven at the guard house, asking him his name and going through a little speech about what I had done over the weekend. “I walked to the river. I walked to Moshi Club. I walked to Woodlands and ate. I came back home.”
Walking around campus before heading home, I prepared a speech for Ndekirwa. I was going to ask him about his kids — “Your five children. They are happy? They are good?” — just to see if I could pull off third-person plural (prefix ‘wa’) and use happy, “furahi,” in a new way.
When I got to the gate, however, Ndekirwa beat me to the punch. He did not give me his usual “Pole,” but said a variation of “Habari mchama” — “Habari zmchana,” maybe? — followed by another long word. He told me to repeat it, and I tried. He laughed, and I asked what it meant, fearing I might be the butt of a joke. He spoke in Swahili to a gardener, who said something back. “It means ‘father’,” he said.
“You called me ‘father’?” I asked.
“Ndio,” he said. “Yes.”
I was touched, and he asked me in Swahili if I was going home. I said I was. He asked me if I was going to “kula chakula” (eat food) and I said I was. I told him in Swahili that this evening, “jioni,” I would go to Woodlands to eat and talk Swahili with my friend.
He proceeded to teach me the difference between one friend, “nirafiki yangu,” and “more than one,” “nirafiki zangu.” I said to him, “Asante sana. Unanisaidia.” “You help me.” (I was practicing the first person object: “ni” (me).
Ndekirwa smiled and repeated it, indicating that I got it right. As he opened the gate, he laughed and said, “Unajifunza Kiswahili kidogo, kidogo.” “You learn Swahili little by little.”
I thanked him and said I would see him tomorrow. As he closed the gate, I heard him say “Mwalimu” — teacher — and I turned back around. He smiled at me, patted himself in the chest, and said, “Mwalimu.”
“Ndio” — “yes” — I said. “Mwalimu wangu.” “You are my teacher.”