The First Class

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Memoir  |  House: Footsteps, yarns and little fibs
Some background, a little philosophy and a bunch of kids. A bit long but.

Submitted: December 20, 2016

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Submitted: December 20, 2016



 I had the lofty title ‘Environmental Co-ordinator’ and had started work with Hifadhi, which was an environmental NGO but really a two-man band. The director at least, I found out was siphoning project funds that were supposed to be used for the work I was to carry out! My co-worker, who was to be paid out of the project funds was away learning French, because as it unfolded, he didn’t trust the director, so thought the lessons might help him find a job with a safari company.

In the meantime, I started a tree nursery, with few resources and the help of my wife, Mags and a young American woman who was volunteering for a year. By the time I had made my own arrangements to source funds and a vehicle to run the project, I had trees ready for outplanting and my co-worker, Joshia had arrived back. So it was time to get on with my ‘Environmental Co-ordinating’!

The Agency had provided thirty hours of language training from Mr. Kimaro, a learned Swahili teacher whose lessons I enjoyed well enough. The thing was though, the thirty hours happened during the time we moved into our accommodation and the setting up of the nursery – sourcing materials and seed without language which was all just a bit taxing. So to keep awake during the lessons, I became adept at side-tracking Mr. Kimaro into discussing things that interested me about Arusha, but did little for my Swahili.

I had my own philosophy in those early days, and it didn’t change. We were living in the outskirts of Arusha where just about everyone was Tanzanian. While Africa is used similar to Europe in a generic way, the last time I looked, Africa comprises fifty four countries, so I try to use the country of origin when I talk about people. There were few people of my Kiwi ethnicity in the area and none in the rural villages where we were working, and I have to say I was quite comfortable in those places. For me, it doesn’t feel right to call Africans ‘black’, because they are not black, any more that I’m white! Pedantic maybe but we often use black in a negative way. To prove the point, I used to compare my suntanned, ethnically European arm against various Tanzanian arms and most often, mine was the darker. The Swahili term for European people is mzungu, plural, wazungu, which does not mean ‘white’ but refers to someone who (travels) around or perhaps the other meaning, ‘strange’. So I might fit the bill there! If you want to live successfully within another culture, you need to adopt their ways – not their culture, their ways.

My co-worker Joshia was the guy the Agency expected me to train up according to their ‘sustainable’ ethos. So he would be expected to take over when my contract ended – in a perfect world. Joshia is a Maasai and studied at the local forestry school and I soon figured out I wasn’t going to teach him much when it came to trees. Well I did, and he reciprocated but not in a textbook way. The difference between us was that he was not that very long out of school while I had a lot of experience both in the forest industry, the tree nursery industry and managing people. In my previous roles we needed to be resourceful and make use of what we had available and this was going to be no different. Joshia and I are still good mates.

Hifadhi was a vehicle for the director and the secretary to make some money and in the process, assist some village people. Their success depends on your point of view, but because I had become project-financially-independent, we were able to carry out our work but still under the umbrella of Hifadhi, so they basked in some kudos, which was ok by me. Had it not been for Hifadhi, I would not have embarked on a seven year adventure! But of course we had our moments, relating to funds from New Zealand and completing works that Hifadhi had undertaken and made promises to the village people.

Under Hifadhi’s leadership, we had carried out just two village seminars, held at village primary schools when there were no kids present. Those seminars went off quite well, even though I had no inkling of what was being said. But I understood the diagrams and the gist. When I wrote up the proposals for our funding, I used some of what I saw in those seminars but I had to make it up as I went along. I proposed carrying out environmental seminars at primary schools with the idea of suppling trees for planting out around school grounds and student’s homes. I had done similar work in New Zealand so was starting from a known point.

Engorora primary school was bursting at the seams with just over six hundred students. The old part of the school was weatherboard, unpainted and suffering from the ravages of termite infestation. There were three concrete block classrooms that had never been completed, all windows without glass. There were two classrooms of mabanzi which are the slabs from the outside of logs, when timber is being sawn. It is the cheapest form of building. The other classrooms had desks, where kids sat three to a desk built for two, but in the mabanzi classes, kids sat on rocks or in some cases on a board stretched between rocks or broken bricks.

My idea was to target the three senior classes, Std V, VI and VII. But as it turned out with most of my work in schools, the arrival the mzungu or wazungu (if the team came) meant excitement for the whole school, which was so disruptive that we had to involve the whole school! So gradually we had to alter things to cater for the wide range of age groups but that came later.

The whole school crowded into one of the weatherboard classrooms. It was quite dark in there because huge Eucalyptus trees shaded the whole area. A table and chair was set up for me in front of the class and Joshia was to stand. Six hundred-odd pairs of eyes were focused on me as the head teacher introduced Joshia who greeted them. The Swahili was spoken too quickly for me at the time but the usual is:

‘Good morning students, how are you?’

The students stood up in unison and remained standing.

‘We are fine teacher, Shikamoo!’ The respectful greeting that demands the equally respectful reply.


Joshia then introduced me, not as mzungu but as mzee, respected elder, from New Zealand.

‘Good morning teacher!’ They called out in English.

‘Good morning students.’ I replied in English, ‘How are you?’ In Swahili.

‘We are fine teacher!’ was the unison-reply in Swahili.

Already I had learned that Tanzanian student were responsive. Of course Joshia was aware of this, although he probably hadn’t thought about it. So working with the responses was the way he carried out the lesson, which like those previous seminars, was pretty much over my head. But the kids knew stuff! Later, I used to tell environmental related stories and there is a traditional ritual with storytelling. The storyteller says, ‘Hadithi, hadithi.’ Which means, A story, a story. But I used to say it quietly and the kids were surprised that I knew such a thing, so a few would give the response quietly. I would then repeat the two words and cup my hand to my ear. There is immediate excitement, and in unison comes the reply at about a thousand decibels, ‘Hadith, hadithi, hadithi njoo, uwongo njoo, utamu kolea!’ A story, a story, come a story, come a lie, enhance the sweetness! The kids would then settle down to listen.

In this first class, I was the curiosity so for most of the time all eyes were on me. In that darkened room, the whites of the students’ eyes shone at me and when I made eye contact shyness made them look away, except of the younger kids who were casually sussing me out. Right then I knew if I was to partake in this new episode in my life, I must learn to use the language. The other thing I learned was that the students struggled with speaking English because it is so natural for them to use a vowel at the end of nouns and some other words. But they were aware they were not speaking good English so were a little embarrassed. On the other hand, nobody laughed at my attempts at Swahili; there was encouragement and delight that I was at least trying. So I reciprocated.

To become useful at the language I sat with a dictionary and a coffee at 5:30 each morning for around an hour. Recalling phrases I had heard the previous day, finding the meaning and practicing using them. It didn’t happen overnight! The only way was to use the language and if people failed to understand me, I would ask Joshia why.

That first class remains in my memory because while the kids had their eyes on me, Joshia held them in the palm of his hand, and I wanted to emulate that!

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