“Zanzibar njema, atakaye aje” is a saying in Swahili that means something like “Zanzibar is great, come whoever wants to” in English. When I was living with a host family just over two years ago, my younger brother would say it often. Because of the hefty grammar, it was one of the things that I mostly pretended to understand for a long time. Both in grammatical and practical meaning, I think I get it now.
Walimu: The TeachersStory
- For the last three days of my Zanzibar visit, we went to Pemba, the second largest island in the archipelago. It’s a beautiful place: eternally green, with roads that wind through hills and valleys–drastically different from its big sister, Unguja. Fittingly, in Arabic it used to be known simply as “The Green Island,” or Al-Jazeera Al-KhaDraa’. I’ve been to Pemba once before, and loved it then, too.
- I could write twenty blog posts about Pemba, but for now I’ll focus on one topic. For this trip, it seemed like everyone we met there was introduced either as someone’s teacher or someone’s student.
- First, a great old friend who lives in Wete, the largest town by population, picked us up in a minivan from the airport near Chake Chake. He teaches secondary English nowadays. Currently, his students are reading a book about Ugandans living with HIV. We arrived at the airport exactly at prayer time, so we waited a few minutes until our friend’s own former teacher, turned boss, drove up. We took off down the road, and along the way picked up three more teachers.
- First, a man waved us down and then hopped into the back seat. Soon after, we saw two women and scooped them up, too. Everyone squeezed in, and the fatter of the ladies was given the spacious front seat (it was explicitly under these terms, I promise I’m not being rude). Among the teachers, topics of raucous, passionate discussion ensued; such as poetry, borrowing words from English, and the difference between enh-henh and eh-heh (I promise I’m not making any of that up, either). The next day we met half a dozen more teachers or former teachers. Even store owners introduced us to their former teachers, who happened to be passing by or just hanging out in the vicinity. I began to think that something was lost in translation, because there just could not be this many teachers all around us. In fact, being a teacher is so respected in Tanzania that I have heard friends or coworkers refer to each other as ‘teacher’ before (Mwalimu or Maalim), so I thought this might be going on in Pemba.
- Each time we ran into these teachers and their students the modus operandi was always respect and inclusion. Pembans are known jokesters, so conversation was never boring, but still thoughtful and tempered when teachers were around. Teachers hold sway there. For example, when we didn’t know the way to a certain part of town, but our Wete-based teacher friend was busy, he summoned up a former student who served as our guide for the day without asking for anything in return.
- Finally, on our last day in Pemba our friend’s father (who is also a retired teacher) explained the situation to us. He said that in Pemba there isn’t much employment, but there have always been schools and plenty of opportunities to teach. While everyone can agree that having a diversity of jobs–and lots of them–is better for many reasons, I have to say that having an abundance of teachers is not the worst of situations. In my opinion, a nation without a place for teachers is in a lot of trouble. These teachers initiated and facilitated discussions all around us in Pemba. Especially as such respected men and women, they build communities, and in turn a society.