Faces of Mambegu: Madame Mwanga Nuru

NuruI’ve never had need to use the phrase “Good things come in small Packages” until I met my good friend Nuru. Standing at about 5 feet tall, Nuru is a ball of fire and energy, commanding any room she walks into, never afraid to go after what she wants, and always getting things done. I first met Nuru during my first week in the village. I had gotten lost looking for my counterpart’s house (the houses all look the same!) and so continuously walked up and down the main road as people stared at me. Just as I finally admitted defeat and turned to go home, I heard someone say “Mikaela!” After four days in the village, I couldn’t believe someone knew my name, so I greeted the woman that boldly came up to me when no one else would, grabbed my hand, and assertively engaged me in the local handshake of two middle finger snaps.

She asked where I was going and I told her I was looking for Neema’s house. She said in slow and clear Swahili, purely for my benefit, that Neema was her neighbor but that she wasn’t home. If I wanted, I could go to her house and wait for Neema to return. Peace Corps had drilled into us to never turn down an invitation into someone’s house (a far cry from the “stranger danger” lesson we’re all taught as children), so I enthusiastically said yes and began following her down the street. As we were walking, panic started to set in that I was going to be with this woman with an indefinite period of time, and my Swahili was incredibly limited. That worry was quelled as she told me to grab a seat, and started teaching me words for everything in both Swahili and the local language Kibena. She also taught me how to cook ugali (stiff corn porridge), and fed it to me with boiled greens and beans. I knew I had found a good friend in Nuru, then 26, but because we lived so far apart and I became busy with work, I didn’t make an effort to continue the friendship.

In February I began to hear rumors that Nuru had started a chekechea, or a preschool. In June, the rumors were confirmed when I received a “Hodi!” (what people say when they show up at your house, rather than knocking.) I opened my courtyard door to find Nuru, all five feet of her. I greeted her and the first question she asked me was “Do you know who I am?” I said “yes, you’re Nuru, you taught me to cook ugali. You are Neema’s neighbor.” She smiled at the recognition and we began talking about the chekechea she opened in January. One thing led to another, and I was showing up to my first day of school in September with art supplies in tow. As I walked into her house (where she holds classes), I was greeted by her standing tall and proud in a perfectly tailored pant suit (it is really frowned upon for women to wear pants in the village). She asked the children if they knew who I was and in a chorus they all said “Mzungu!” meaning a foreigner. She quickly shut that down and told them I was “Mikaela.” Hilariously, they all think all foreigners are called “Mikaela” now, no matter the gender.

Every week I continue to go to the chekechea, and I get to know Nuru better. It is refreshing to have a friend around my own age (not a common opportunity for me in the village as most women my age are busy with at least two children), as well as someone who understands that women do not need to wear skirts and bear children to be valued; there is value in our intelligence and ability as well. Finding Nuru, as progressive as she is for a Tanzanian woman, has been like finding gold in my village. We can talk about anything from relationship issues to the best teaching strategies for children. She is a fabulous teacher, compassionate with children but also not afraid to teach them right from wrong. She teaches them in three languages: Swahili, English, and they already know Kibena. They are far ahead of their peers at other chekecheas, knowing more English and already able to read and write full sentences at 3-5 years old.

Nuru decided to open a school all on her own. She only has a high school education, but she went through all the necessary steps to open the school with the help of her younger sister, Grace. She currently has forty students attending and has big dreams to expand the school. I have no doubt that she will be able to accomplish all she wants to because of her drive. She truly is an exemplary person, and a fabulous friend. The name “Nuru” means light, and it is so fitting for her. Never have I met someone who truly resembles the sun as much as Nuru.

Advertisements

Faces of Mambegu: Mama Kaliyakoo

IMG_5080If you take a left onto the main path by my house, follow the path to the end, and take another left, the first house you see, next to the pit where they make bricks, is Mama Kaliyakoo’s house, my favorite hangout spot in the village. I first met Mama Kaliyakoo during my second day in my village. My counterpart Neema took me to her house, where she operates a little “duka,” and told me that’s where I could go if I wanted maandazi or whatever fruits were in season, which were bananas and avocados at the time. I was overwhelmed when I walked into the duka, because there were eight women crowded in the small room, all staring at the foreigner who landed in their village for two years. But Mama Kaliyakoo was so warm and welcoming, always smiling, and I instantly knew I had a safe haven in her house.

The next time I went to her house, I was in search of eggs to buy. She only had two left for her family, and no extras to sell, but she cooked those two eggs for me and sat with me sipping tea. That’s very characteristic of her: always giving. It was one of the first times I had gone to someone’s house just to chat, without my dictionaries or a work-related agenda, and I was nervous. But she simply sat with me and talked the entire time. She talked so fast and switched from Kiswahili to our tribal language, kibena, on and off frequently, so I was really intimidated. But she is a talker, which I soon learned about her, which is one of the reasons I love spending time with her. She can talk at me for hours, and never expect me to respond.

Now that my language is better, I understand that she’s usually giving me her life story or all of the village gossip, which is always amusing. But I never get nervous about not understanding something around her because she has the world’s friendliest faces.

Mama Kaliyakoo isn’t only smiles and chit-chat, she’s also an incredible business woman. She operates a little shop out of her house and is currently building another at a different location in our village. Her house is the perfect location for a shop because it’s right next to the primary school. Every time I’m sitting in there, school children come by for various items: homemade maandazi (like an old fashioned doughnut), pens, notebooks, bananas, candy, tomatoes to bring home to mom, soda…you name it she has it. She loves to help the kids out, always letting them have an extra piece of candy and telling them to say hi to their mom for her. Sometimes I find the school cook sitting in Mama Kaliyakoo’s house, cooking the evening meal for the boarding students over Mama Kaliyakoo’s fire, chatting with her 23 year old daughter.

In order to operate her shop, she has people importing things from various towns for her. Today, I went to her house to share some cookies I had baked, but she wasn’t there. I went to another part of the village where men usually hang out and the bus stops, and there she was, hovering by the road, cell phone in hand. She immediately greeted me and started telling me that she’s waiting for things from a town called “Chimala” but the bus is late and the man who’s moving the bags for her won’t answer her calls. She apologized, and said she would deal with it later, and we walked back to her house together. She raises her prices just enough to make a profit after paying for the items she imports from town and transport, but not too much that people won’t go to her shop. And every time I visit her, her house is full of people. It’s not only where people go to buy what they need, but where women can go to take a break from the household chores and just gossip together; Mama Kaliyakoo is always cooking something for all of her visitors. Today, in a span of three hours, she fed me three bowls of “Kande” which is a stew-like mix of corn and beans, half of a pumpkin, an ear of grilled corn, and half of an avocado. Everyone in the shop was eating. Her hang-out atmosphere of her shop is what makes it work so well, and actually helps her build a profit.

As I left today, she walked me partway to my house before having to turn back to help children who were just getting out of school. She told me she loves when I come and that the other mamas love it too. “Tunaongea, tunacheka, tumefurahi sana.” We talk, we laugh, we’re all happy. That just about sums up every visit with Mama Kaliyakoo.

IMG_5087