I’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.