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Words to Bless the Day in Moshi

by Cheryl Wood Ruggiero

Kiswahili words fall onto my notebook like the jacaranda blossoms, maua, that drop in sweet purple drifts onto the red dirt road, barabara, making the way new, as words do.

Student, mwanafunzi. Teacher, mwalimu. Day, siku. Night, usiku.

I’m here with a colleague for two weeks in December 2012 for on-site instruction to enrich our online English program for a medical school in Moshi, Tanzania. The teaching days are intense and wonderful, the students bright with caring for what they’re learning.

One woman tells me she is here so the women in her hometown can have a physician, that in her community, a woman cannot be treated by a man. A young man tells me he will be the first doctor within two days’ travel by foot and bus from his village, and how he hopes in three years to be able to buy a car to travel home, raising a tail of dust along the road to show off his vehicle.

In town one day, I see a Maasai man in his traditional red toga, his rungu fighting stick clasped up under his arm, riding a bicyle, baiskeli, and talking into his cell phone. He passes a woman wearing a blue blouse with a red and yellow kanga, that length of brightly printed cloth that women wrap into a skirt, carrying a huge cluster of green bananas, ndizi, on her head.

As traffic stops, we move up behind a bicycle with two large black plastic crates strapped on the back, each holding a dozen plastic-bagged loaves of bread, with two dozen more tied on outside the bins, swaying as the rider tilts the bike to set down one foot for support. In front of this peddler sits a black SUV pumping rock music in Kiswahili from half-open silvered windows.

Nights, in one of the school’s houses, I sleep inside draped mosquito netting, the windows screened and fronted with iron scrollwork to let in cool night air. The dove, njiwa, calls all through the sleep hours. I hear kuu-RUU, kuuu-kuuu. The rhythm says to me, “I KNOW, you know!”

I don’t yet have the word for crickets, whose song fills the night like water, so I float in it. Voices ripple it, as if a bird, ndege, is dropping syllables on the surface. A young man calls to a friend out on the purpled road: “Mambo vipi?” What’s up? “Poa!” It’s cool!

Every dawn, I’m awakened by the call to prayer from the nearest mosque, the muezzin’s fine tenor voice boosted by loudspeakers, njiwa for the moment quiet. On Sunday mornings, I hear hymns sung in the church on the road to the school.

In the dusty mornings before class, I reach to pick up neighbors’ words like the ripe mangos I hear fall in the night, flapslithering down through smooth green leaves to drum onto grass, nyasi. Mayembe: mango or teardrop.

One morning, I gather words for the chickens who scratch in the grass all day and shelter in slatted coops all dark, when the dogs roam. Hen, kuku. Rooster, jogo-o. Those round o’s are deep, like saying “Joe, GO!” That night, all night, the dove knows, and I hear it calling not to me but to its cooped cousins: JoGO-O, Kuku!

On Thursday, as the sun sets behind the garden’s termite mound, its red lumpy slopes hosting marigolds and its peak bearing blue-flowered vines above my head, I try honoring the day’s work of the housekeeper, whose name in English is Blessing.

Pole kwa kazi,” I say, as she carries dry laundry from the line into the house: Sorry for work. The school’s driver, Aaron, has taught me that this is a polite way to speak sympathy, to acknowledge that someone has had a long day. Blessing pauses, smiles, and says words I don’t know except for one. “Salama.” It means well-being, peace.

The next day, on the radio in the school’s car, I hear nyota, which I know is the word for a star. I didn’t hear the words for moon, mwezi, or sun, jua, or rocket, roketi, so I ask Aaron if this news is about the sky. He says it’s about football. A soccer star.

I learn rain, mvua. Smoke, moshi. So the city of Moshi is Smoketown, because of the smoke from thousands of charcoal cookfires held among Kilimanjaro’s foothills. Charcoal, mkaa. Car, gari. Car exhaust, moshi wa gari.

And the creatures I saw on excursion! Tembo, elephant. Twiga, giraffe. Pumba, warthog. Punda, donkey. Nyani, monkey. Mbuni, ostrich. Mamba, crocodile. Kiboko, hippo. So many more that the columns of their names fill three notebook pages.

I learn Polisi, police, from Aaron as we pass them standing at corners, armed, with bright white helmets above their dark, stern faces.

Blessing asks me one evening, “Umechoka?” My mind leaps up because I understand her! She’s asked me: “Are you tired?” I say, “Nimechoka”: “I am tired.” Then I smile, because I can also say I am happy: “Nina furaha.

When usiku comes, all night, out by barabara, the red dirt road, njiwa coos salama.

Copyright © 2020 by Cheryl Wood Ruggiero

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