Tuesdays with Mori

It was a quiet morning in Zanzibar on the edge of Stone Town.

I sat along the wall that follows the curve of the white sandy beach, looking out at the ocean. Hours earlier, this very spot was alive with busy conversations and the ritual screams of nightly soccer matches. From around the corner, two twelve year old boys appeared and sat 20 feet away from me against the wall.

They reminded me of my students, and we shared a comfortable silence. They slowly scooted closer and closer to me, and I could begin to make out their hesitant English language whispers. I regarded this as a welcoming gesture and within a few minutes, we’d introduced ourselves and fashioned a makeshift beach game that involved knocking over a propped-up stick with small sand balls.

A young man walked up to us with a newspaper and asked me if he could sit down. He started to push the boys around in an affectionate manner.

Ndugus?” (your younger siblings?) I asked, pointing towards the boys.

“No,” he promptly replied in English, half-smiling at my poor pronunciation.

“But in Zanzibar, everybody loves each other. I know their families, and so I look out for them, because we are all one here.” His response made me smile.

It didn’t take long for the interview-like procession of questions to begin. Many of the Zanzibaris I’ve met possess a delightful contrast of being inquisitive about my life while also amusingly chatty about their own.

His name was Mori, he was twenty-four years old, and his father was a businessman living in Kenya. He loves his parents very much, and wants to take after his father one day and travel the world for work. One place that he would particularly like to visit is the United States, because he feels that there would be more opportunity there for him to become successful. I told him about the small town outside of Orlando where I now live, what the people are like, and how life there is both similar and different from Zanzibar.

It’s so natural for us to construct preconceived ideas about people in our heads. I understand that when most local people see me, they automatically assume that I am here on vacation and I spend most of my day at the beach, not in a classroom teaching English. I explained to Mori that I am here as an unofficial ambassador, teaching primary students at the English Speaking International Muslim School. I told him that I study international relations and religious studies, and I came here because I wanted to learn more about a culture that was foreign to me and that perhaps I have also come here in search of something that might give me a fresh perspective. He was intrigued by this thought.

“What is the most important thing I can do to make my English better?” he suddenly asked. My inner-teacher was burning with excitement at this question.

“That’s easy,” I replied slowly. “Speaking. Always speaking. Especially with someone whose first language is English.”

He looked somewhat dissatisfied at the simplicity of my answer, but I preach the same thing to my students every day.

“It’s the same with learning Kiswahili,” I tease them, “I will never know the language if I don’t speak it.” I’ve found that it’s much easier to make yourself vulnerable after watching the teacher struggle to piece together words that flow freely in your native tongue.

Despite the advice I dole out, I still have a slight hesitation when I’m speaking Kiswahili with Zanzibaris. I know all of the greetings and different responses by heart, but it still feels unnatural, almost inauthentic. I worry what my students think of me when I try to speak their language to them — do they find it pleasing or are they unhinged by it?

My biggest fear is not being able to distinguish myself from the sea of tourists that the locals call “mzungus” in Kiswahili. They purchase tacky scarves that read ‘Hakuna Matata,’ and some walk through the streets of Stone Town singing “We Will Rock You” to honor the Zanzibar-born Freddie Mercury (yes, that happened).

For the past month, I have tried my best to break down the preconceived ideas that the locals might have. I build relationships and engage in dialogue in hopes that I’ll be seen as a “good mzungu.” I play stick games in the sand with children and make the time to get to know people like Mori.

Perhaps most important in this citizen diplomacy quest, is that I seek to understand and value the ways in which Zanzibaris are different. My conversation with Mori epitomizes what I have most taken away from Zanzibar thus far. Hearing things like “we are all one” and “we must look out for one another” truly resonated with me.

While these aren’t new ideas, there is something fresh about them, and while I might be serving as a teacher, I’m understanding how much more I have more to learn from the people here.

Kate Knight is a junior at Rollins College, studying International Relations and Religious Studies. Her family is based in Savannah, Georgia. Kate volunteered as an English teacher at the English Speaking International Muslim School this past summer with America’s Unofficial Ambassadors.

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