A week or two ago, I didn’t believe an afternoon like this was possible. After a morning at class and an afternoon of reading and writing, I walked east down a new road, exchanging greetings with everyone I met. I passed some sort of poultry production facility, and then came to an open field with a dramatic view of Kilimanjaro — if it hadn’t been covered in clouds. Some morning I’ll go there again with my camera.
As I turned south toward Shanty Town Road, I saw a gray-haired man and an even older woman walking together, and I greeted them. The old woman said, “Say, ‘mama’,” pointing to herself. I said “Shikamoo, mama,” to which she replied “Marahaba.”
The man looked at me with curiosity and began asking me questions. Unable to understand, I just started talking Swahili to him, running through my usual spiel. “I come from America. I am a teacher. I teach English at the International School. I am trying to learn Swahili. I have been here eight days.” He said I speak good Swahili and used the word “wezo.” I asked him what it meant, and I thought he said “old man,” but when I typed it into Google translate, it said it means “supernatural ability.” (“Old men” translates as “wezee,” so I might have misunderstood. “Nwezo” means “ability,” so he may have just been paying me a compliment, not calling me “Magic Mzungu.”)
He had a spring in his step, and he took my hand, chattering away, saying, “nyumbani,” “home.” I said “ndio,” and he led me around a corner and down a couple houses. We crossed a ditch on a few rough-hewn boards, worn smooth by use, and passed through a small dirt yard, and into a 10×10 dwelling. It was fairly dark, but light came through openings between the walls and the metal roof. There was electricity, but the clock was stopped. The TV wasn’t on, and looked more like a piece of furniture. On the TV was a poster of a toddler pushing a plastic lawnmower, with a caption in English I can’t remember, something like “It is exciting to be with you.”
One a bed in the corner was a young woman who didn’t look terribly happy to see a stranger in her home. Sleeping beside her was a baby. A young man came in and sat down. He didn’t look terribly happy either as he played with his phone.
The old guy’s name was Manuel, and he was a policeman. He told the young man, his son, to get me a beer (and wouldn’t accept payment). We spoke Swahili together for a good 20 minutes, with a few English words thrown in when necessary. He told me his wife was in another town, where the chief of his people lives. He said he’d like me to come back and meet her tomorrow. I’m busy tomorrow (kesho), but I don’t know how to say “the day after tomorrow,” so I said I would come “kesho, kesho, kesho” (accidentally translating Shakespeare.)
As we were talking, a little boy crawled in, followed by a girl in a pink dress, who was just learning to walk. Manuel picked her up and held her on his lap, and she seemed fascinated with me. The little boy was more fascinated with the curtain.
I told them all more about myself and said I needed to go to Woodlands to see my friends. Manuel said he’d be right back and disappeared.
I spoke in broken Swahili and English with his son, who told me they are from the Hehe tribe that lives many hours west, toward Lake Victoria. After about 10 minutes of silence, I asked the son if Manuel was coming back. He went to check, returned, and said he would be back soon.
In a few minutes, he came in dressed to the nines in a matching tan shirt and pants. Dress shoes had replaced the laceless tennies he’d been wearing. I asked if he was coming with me to Woodlands, and he said he was.
We talked most of the way there. He told me he had two sons who were policemen, one in Dar es Salaam and one here in Moshi. A third son is in school to become a policeman. When the conversation flagged, I would say something inane in Swahili, like “Two old men walking. Manuel and Brett,” which in my version translates, “two supernatural ability walking, Manuel and Brett.” If only I knew how to say, “Makin’ copies. Manuel transmission. The Manuelator.” (That’s an olde tyme SNL reference, for you kids.)
As we walked on, more and more English words started coming out of Manuel’s mouth, and I learned he had studied some English in school back in the ‘60s.
At Woodlands, I ordered two beers and we talked about the food. I asked him what he liked, and he said, “nyama mchoma,” barbecued meat. I asked him if he liked chicken or goat, and he said something I couldn’t understand. When I said “sielwi” (I don’t understand) for the 20th time in the last hour, he pointed to the beer, and his knees and elbows, and the word “mbuzi,” “goat,” on the menu. He made a pained expression, and I heard the words “kila siku,” “every day.”
I thought I was getting the gist, but I called to Naima for help in Swahili to make sure. She came, and I asked her to explain what Manuel was saying. She said he was telling me that if you eat goat and drink beer every day, it’s bad for your knees and elbows. I thanked him for the advice and told Naima to ask him what he wanted. He ordered the goat, which we shared, eating with toothpicks after washing our hands over a bowl, with water brought by Pasco, one of the waiters. We repeated the ritual after eating. (The same thing happened yesterday, but I had no idea what to do, so he eventually went away.)
Manuel also invited me to church, and I said I’d go with him. (Probably all that talk about “supernatural ability” made him think I’m a religious man.) He said something to the effect that church makes someone a “good man.” He had to switch to English, because I still can’t remember the word for “man” — which goes to show you how little language you need to get a lot of communicating done.
We agreed that we didn’t like the music that was playing. He told me that old men (“supernatural abilities”) like us don’t use the greeting “Mambo.” That’s for young people. It’s not good Swahili. At one point he said, “nirafiki yangu,” “my friend.”
He got a phone call from his daughter and said he had to go home. We shared a hand shake and a few “asantes” and “karibus.”
Afterwards I said hello to a man at the bar, who turned out to be the owner of Woodlands. He was very nice but didn’t speak a lot of English, surprisingly, so I did my best in Swahili. I also met his son, who I’ve seen around quite a bit.
I reckon I’ll be the Woodlands equivalent of Norm before long. I guess I better go easy on the goat.