Cast of Characters 2

by zunguzungu

Monica is seldom far from Jackline’s side (or vice versa) and they make a striking pair; Jackline is tall and fierce looking, whereas Monica always has the kind of smile that is used to getting whatever it wants on the strength of doll-like adorableness. When we were taking the kids swimming, the two of them showed up dressed like they were going to a debutante affair, plus the hip waders they were wearing because it was raining like it hasn’t since the affair with Noah and the Ark. When I went to an outdoor revival meeting, she was there (in some pathetically adorable dress) and the next morning she asked me if I was a Christian; my response was “A salaam alaikum” and the look she gave me was priceless.

Gladson Good Luck… In a standard six classroom filled with braggarts, jokesters, and show-offs, it’s easy to forget Gladson is even there, and I wonder how many times his silence has made me overlook him.  His smile is charmingly crooked, but he only smiles when you’re looking at him and he knows it, and you sometimes feel he’s only smiling for your benefit. The other day, I saw him limp slowly to the sidelines of the football pitch and sit down, looking deeply hurt, like a martyr, but a real one.  He told me that Salimu had kicked him in the shins, yet from the look of him you’d think the pain was much deeper; he sat there for a long time staring over the heads of the players into the distance.  I sat next to him in silence for a while watching the game, and told him that tomorrow he would win (kesho utashinda).  He smiled a little, but only a little. If we had a class play of the passion of christ (and we might, frankly), he would get the starring role. Yesterday, Aurelia told me that I had once joked with him, calling him a thief (“mwizi”) after he borrowed my pen and forgot to return it–this, by the way, is a joke I play with the kids at least four times a week–but with Gladson it apparently backfired.  She said he was crying after class.  I never knew.

Aurelia is a force of nature.  She looks like a mama, more like her mama than most mamas who really are mamas (and they broke the mama mold when they made Aurelia’s mama), tough and heavy as a dumptruck. In class, she can be remarkably isolated, and though her work is usually good, she doesn’t really associate with the other kids, except to fight with them. She doesn’t take disappointment well, and when she feels that the unwritten code governing how much and what kind of work she’s supposed to do has been broken, she can be absolutely impossible, particularly if she doesn’t understand why an answer is wrong and refuses to take the time to understand.  But in the street around the house we both live in, she knocks and shouts smaller (but adoring) kids around like a mongol warlod holding court, then quietly frying cassava for one of the nearby mamas. There she knows how to behave and there she seems at ease; in the house, she’s never sure if she’s allowed to be a kid or if she’s supposed to be a woman. I’ve made her cry too many times when I’ve taken a joke too far, but it always takes me by surprise; she once kept her head in her hands for half an hour when I took shooshoo off of her head one day (this is where you pretend to grab an imaginary object that is floating above someone’s head to indicate that they are being grumpy, a transaction that occurs perhaps fifty times a day). And that’s a good way to describe Aurelia, some impenetrable combination of tender kid and furious warrior, but a combination that is volatile and unpredictable. It can’t be easy to live as a child in the household she lives in–Mama and Baba are their daughter’s parents, frighteningly formidable and, though not without humor and good spirit, they can be terrifying when angry and they’re often angry–so its not surprising that she spends so much time out in the neighborhood.  She loves playing cards on the kitchen table, though, and her deck of cards looks like its been through several tornados and the washing machine a few times for good measure; every night, she’ll be playing the one card game she knows with anyone who will play (she politely refused to learn the ones we tried to teach her). When I told her I was leaving, she said nothing (in fact, when these kids are silent and expressionless is when you know something big is going on), but has since tried to bargain with me, pointing out that I could easily stay until August like Anton and holding against me the fact that I had said I was leaving in June. When Denisi told her that I was going to stay with him at his house next time I came to Tanzania, I feared for his life; Denisi is not a small kid, but if I hadn’t told Aurelia that it wasn’t true, she might have broken his nose with a spatula.

Omari has trouble with tests, but he learns things about the English language that I never meant to teach him– if you say a phrase once, there’s a good chance he’ll have learned it and be able to use variations on it by the next time you ask. He’s one of the better football players and one of the boys who I find to be moving out of my control; along with Wisdom and Eligi, he’s starting to realize that the teacher isn’t really always right and doesn’t always understand what is going on. I’ve caught him trying to talk behind my back in swahili, but his mischief is always pretty good spirited (as opposed to Eligi, who makes fun of my American accent when I’m speaking swahili, for which I’ll never forgive him). Once he asked me what a gospel song was that the nearby church was blaring over its loudspeakers, but when I turned the question back on him, he cried out, indignantly, “No, that’s a christian song, teacher!” I explained American football to him one time by tackling him and now he runs away laughing when I ask him if he wants to play American football.

Eligi makes fun of my American accent when I’m speaking swahili. To heck with him.

Riziki is perhaps the slyest student, and he manages to slip under your radar by being extremely hard working: only after untangling a string of fights that suddenly break out will you discover that the RZA (as I call him to myself) was somehow at the bottom of it, though he will by then have put together a great alibi, finished his class work and homework, and be innocently reading a children’s book as if oblivious to all the mayhem. Once Aziza (Aziza!) hit him in the small of the back so hard that the whole class went silent, and as he stretched himself upright and grimaced in pain, he looked at me and said, seriously, “This one, she is always causing trouble.” Anton and I visited him at home one day and he refused to meet our eyes the whole time but had a sort of silly smile on his face as he asked us what kind of soda we wanted and pulled out stools for us to sit on. He wants us to come back very much; several times he’s visited me at home, and the last time, as I was walking him some few steps down the road, he took my hand and cradled my arm against his chest like a baby, trying to haul me along to his house with some bizarre combination of gentleness and force. When I finally went to visit him at his house, he was sitting under a pile of children on the front step, like an overworked mall Santa Claus, but he extricated himself to walk me home (carrying only the smallest child).

Wisdom. Mzee Kimaro’s son, and the sound of his name shouted by the old man as we would sit in his mosquito laden sitting room still rings in my memory. “Wisdom!” And Wisdom would walk in, the picture of obediant filial piety and bring us soda or whatever it was. These days, there’s a glide in his stride, a certain cock of the walk glee in the way he sidles through the school.  Prosper leaves the keys with him and will often call him out of class to attend to some task or run an errand, so he’s the king of the school and he knows it. I gave him some money to buy chapatis today and when he left them in the office instead of bringing them to me, I suggested that perhaps he had eaten the chapatis himself.  The class paid close attention to the exchange; only when I answered Salimu’s query and clarified that I was really joking did I realize how serious an accusation I had made. One does not question the king without putting the kingdom in peril! He’s effortlessly bright too, even if his boredom with the work the rest of the class can handle causes him to do things sloppily and make mistakes which he knows he can correct and therefore never does. But there’s also a darkness in him that I don’t remember seeing before.  Maybe he’s just becoming a teenager. But I wonder what its like looking out the window of your classroom and seeing your father’s grave, looking as brand new as it did when they put the old man in it a year ago. And although I saw the same swagger the other day in Wisdom’s uncle, a gnarled old man who pushes a wagon filled with cement blocks for a living, I wonder how much of that braggadicio is there to protect a wound still fresh and so deep.