Learning When to Say Asante

“Excuse me, teacher?” I looked up to see an eager student, a girl named Dhalhat, standing before me. My biology class had just completed a nutrition review, and class was ready to end.

Dhalhat, straight-faced, continued on, “You say asante.” I looked at her in confusion, acknowledging that yes, I have mumbled the word asante before. She giggled and explained, “When you are done teaching us, you say asante.”

I smiled to myself, and thanked her. As I packed my things (a chalk covered lesson-planning notebook, biology textbook, and crumbled attendance sheet) I took a moment to appreciate the pure sweetness of my students. I strolled towards the door and cheerfully said “Asante!” My students practically swooned with excitement, putting their hands over their hearts and singing asante sana in return.

Dalhat teaches Christina when to say Asante.
Christina & Dalhat

Asante means thank you in Kiswahili. Adding sana emphasizes the gratitude. Asante rolls off the tongue and asante sana sounds even more irresistible. It’s as if the words themselves want to be said.

Say it to yourself: ah-sahn-tay sahn-ah. Smooth, isn’t it?

Gratitude has been a daily practice since childhood when my family and I would gather to say the highlight of the day before bedtime. This habit turned into writing a short gratitude list each day. As a volunteer with America’s Unofficial Ambassadors – a citizen diplomacy initiative that builds relationships between Americans and their counterparts throughout the Muslim World – I have only lived in Zanzibar for two short weeks. Yet, I have formed deep connections with Zanzibaris over our expressions of gratitude.

I am a volunteer teacher of nearly 200 high school students, ranging from ages 14 to 18, at Tumekuja Secondary School. From the start, I have been contemplating my teaching philosophy, or at least what I think my philosophy is, given that I have been teaching secondary school for about, oh you know, two weeks. To me, teaching is not only about forming a relationship between teacher and student, but also between teaching and learning. So, I told my students they need to help me learn Swahili, while I will help teach them biology and English. We discuss my home, they tell me about theirs. I will share family stories and listen to their family stories. The most exciting part about teaching is learning from my students and reciprocating. I am immensely grateful for those moments of connection. 

Christina says Asante to her classroom full of students in Zanzibar.
Christina & her class

Gratitude has nestled into my Zanzibari life. From grinning shopkeepers to energetic children, the nature of being thankful is ever-present. On a recent trip to explore Jozani National Forest, I started a lively question session with our mild-mannered driver, Ali. He answered my questions softly and simply. “What’s your favorite place in Zanzibar?” I asked.

Amused by my friendly interrogation, he let out a bellowing laugh and answered, “Everywhere in Zanzibar is my favorite place.”

Curious, I inquired further. Ali explained that all places are his favorite because if he is somewhere, anywhere, that means he is driving. If he is driving that means he is working. If he is working then he is taking care of his family. Ali beamed when he talked about his three daughters, all under the age of six. For Ali, driving is a blessing and a curse: it allows him to support his family, but takes precious time away them.

Exploring Stone Town one day, I stopped to say hello to my new friend, Majda, a local artist with a goofy laugh and gentle smile. Although that was our first meeting, we quickly bonded. I was fond of how Majda spoke about her family, especially her great aunt who lives in the USA. She told me about an upcoming trip to California, where she will be featured in an exhibition. “I say asante for the surprise!” She exclaimed.

Majda shows her painting, saying Asante for the opportunity it brings.

Majda was selected to travel after winning an art competition. She nearly danced around me as she described packing her bags and making dresses for the event. Her excitement – explosive and contagious – was intensified by her bright floral paintings, which served as a backdrop to the display. She is overjoyed for the opportunity to see her great aunt and proud because painting, her love, is getting her there. She concluded with, “I say, asante, asante, I’m so very excited!” The more I listen, the more I internalize the meaning of asante. I hear myself saying it, answering locals who greet me with, “Karibu!”

Saying asante isn’t just a way for me to express thanks, but it’s another way for me to feel my gratitude.

Gratitude is ubiquitous, and those who are willing to open their eyes to the humanity in each other, can form deep connections. By growing up in a family of gratitude, I am connecting to a new home here. Through my work as a citizen diplomat, I am learning how Zanzibaris experience life’s struggles and triumphs. The way we see may be different, the way we look may be different, but the way we share our vision of positivity connects us.

The words are different across languages, but the feeling is universal. And so at the end of each day, I say asante.

Featured author Christina DeJoseph is a junior at McDaniel College. She is studying Exercise Science and Spanish, combining her love for language and movement. She taught biology and English in the summer of 2016 at Tumekuja Secondary School of Zanzibar, Tanzania with America’s Unofficial Ambassadors. DeJoseph is an avid traveler and adventurer. She loves dogsledding and plans to hike Mount Everest one day. She has many goals for the future, but knows that rehabilitation, whether physical or diplomatic, will be a part of her life.

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