Cast of Characters

by zunguzungu

Saidi met me in town one day and walked me home to my doorstep, going quite far out of his way. He took me around the back side of the fence that closes off a big hunk of land adjoining the main road. On the back side it is quiet and dark from overhanging trees. “Most people they are afraid,” he said. “But me I like this way.” He didn’t like the road with all the noise and cars and people. He pointed out to me the place where people catch snakes to sell to Chinese people, as he put it. A few days ago, Saidi cut his head on an overhanging window (though he still had a smile) and from that point on he wears a hood, because the scar gets cold, he said. He looks ridiculous. And one night, when I was half asleep, I got a phone call from him, though it wasn’t clear to me that it was him. He asked me if it was my number and read the numbers out to me. And when I said yes, he hung up. The next morning, he told me he had called to see if the number I gave him was real.

My memories of Salimu from my last visit are an unending stream of mucus and inevitably filthy head and hands. We didn’t really like to get too close to him in those days. He still seems to have a runny nose a lot of the time, but I’ve been discovering that he’s actually one of the kindest and most mature kids at the school. At McMoodies, he was one of the few children to make overtures to the street kid that joined us, and at school he’s attentive and gregarious without being self-centred; its hard to describe, but he has a way of never making trouble because he’s never thinking about himself, always mediating or just doing what he’s asked with such a lack of fuss that you almost forget he’s there.

Christopher is always elusive, always half where he is and and half somewhere else. He’s one of the oldest kids in the school, and sometimes he’ll surprise you with the answer to a difficult question, but more often he just fades into the background. I try to involve him, but he’s unnassertive to such a degree that sometimes he won’t even turn in his work; he’ll do it, he just isn’t interested in having me look at it. And he’s a loner, occasionally following in the wake of the more loud and gregarious boys, but always quietly and without more than an occasional, secretive smile; yet he never seems shut out as much as shutting the world out. He was one of the two students that Aurelia invited to her birthday party (and her choice totally surprised me), but he seemed not to know what to do with his body while we were cooking. The girls stepped right into their roles of cooking and serving up food, but Christopher just sat quietly eating, perhaps also surprised to have been invited.

Aziza was the other student invited, and the second to last student I would have expected a social typhoon like Aurelia to be friends with. Aziza speaks so quietly I have to literally put me ear close to her face to hear her sometimes; she is shy to the point of making conversation unbearable, yet always with a smile. I often sit next to Aziza when I’m correcting other students papers, so she can hear the comments I’m making and perhaps learn from them. Her test scores are pretty low, but it’s so difficult to even talk with her that its as close as I can get to one on one interaction without driving her into peals of embarassment.

Betty is nine, making her younger than some of the students two grades below her. She’s bright enough to do the work, but she doesn’t have the kind of academic skills that the older kids have long mastered, things like basic neatness, arranging answers in a legible and orderly way on the page, figuring out new assignments, and so forth. I can’t decide if she’s being left behind or if sh’e unusually advanced, but I suppose that will work itself out; I’ve asked Wisdom to look out for her at home, maybe help to explain things, and he agreed, but I doubt he actually has. She’s the youngest daughter, adorable to an almost comical degree, and banks on this charm to get out of doing work she doesn’t want to do. She can be shy, but she can also fly into rages the likes of which you’ve never seen; when I refused to give her credit for having gotten the right answer quicker than Salimu, she folded her arms, clenched her face into a rictus of indignant rage, and sat down on the floor.

Betty’s older sister Mary is the middle of the three, and she has the kind of demeanor that seems to be common of many middle children who are often lost in the crowd: outward looking, rarely self-centered, and with a real seriousness of purpose. She makes expressions that defy description, eyebrows that crinkle as if she’s enraged while her mouth is smiling, and has a flinty assertiveness that make bigger and older children fear her wrath. When I first came to the Shinda school, I stopped at the Kimaro house and Mary was the one who first greeted me, though she didn’t recognize me at first. She first held the door open about a foot, telling me sternly that her mother would come and then slammed it in my face. When she realized who I was and remembered me, she was mortified.

Jacklyn, or Jack, as the other students call her, is the only standard six student who wasn’t in the standard four when I taught here before, and there was something vaguely antagonistic about our relationhip from the start. It didn’t help that I misunderstood her name and called her “Jakuba” for almost a week, until one day, overflowing with frustration, she started shouting that that was not her name. I apologized but there’s no way she was convinced. But at some point she accepted me; I now tease her every time I catch her fetching a soda for Teacher Sia at lunch time, claiming that she’s actually brought the soda for me and demanding that she hand it over. One time I told her that if she wasn’t going to give me the soda, she needed to give me the money I gave her to buy it, and after a quick exclamation of “Teacher!” she turned her back and screamed once, before turning about again and walking past me with a serene and unhurried carriage of the most utter and complete dismissal.