Day 305: Assistant Teacher Casually Drops N-Word Before Class

The connotation of the N-Word is lost on an assistant teacher. Probably students as well. Photo: Isaac Stone Simonelli

Daily Updates are not edited and function more as daily journal entries – so if the plot seems to be all over the place or missing entirely and the tenses changes faster than a kaleidoscope, well, that's just the way it is.

LAST night, I was unsure if anyone was coming home. Joseph was off in another district sorting out some issue with stolen electronics. His wife was in their two-room house when I got back from Bagamoyo in the afternoon, but disappeared for awhile. However, she returned to make dinner for me.

This morning, the power was out, so she boiled water over the communal kitchen area outside for my tea and bought a couple chapati from down the road, solidifying my resolve about only giving them the 35 dollars. Given that I was eating about one meal a day at the house, it seems a little ridiculous to be paying 35 dollars for food.

Sitting on the couch, dipping my folded chapati into milk-less tea – in Kenya, you have to make a fuss to get tea without milk, while it's the opposite in Tanzania – I take an honest look at myself in the reflection on the surface of the dark tea.

I'm taking advantage of the situation as much as anyone else, if not more so. Do I really care about these kids' education? No. I don't like saying it. I don't like thinking it, because I should care and I know it's important. But do my actions right now back my general liberal, let's-support-the-local-community attitude? Not a chance. If I cared, I'd be spending hours preparing, hounding the school for a proper schedule and getting a better idea of the kids are with their English-language abilities. Most importantly, I'd be setting aside an entire semester to work with them.

This little venture into the school system is entirely self-serving. I need to save money. That's why I'm doing this: to save money, not to save a generation of kids through education – that would take a lifetime of commitment.

School starts at 8am Tanzanian time, which means there's no issue with me rolling up at 9:10am.

“Bring your motorcycle inside. If you leave it out there, someone maybe will pick it,” says Ben, the owner of the school.

It's hard to believe someone will steal Rafiki in broad daylight outside of the metal-gated school, but I don't argue.

With Rafiki safely inside, I pull up at a wooden desk next to one of the teachers and open my laptop.

The kids are taking tests. Apparently, the entire week is set aside for tests, though the headmaster is making room in the Form 1 student's schedule to allow me to teach.

I wonder if it's possible for me to sit her for the whole day without them asking me to teach a class? Not that I mind teaching, though I've not prepared anything. It's just that the place feels so unorganized that it seems entirely possible that I won't be asked to teach.

The round-faced head teacher approaches me.

“It's time for tea. So I need to go get tea,” he says as a roundabout way for asking me to help cover the costs.

“Of course, I'm not sure I have any small money though,” I say. After pulling out a handful of coins, I remember I have about 3,000 Shilling in bills in my wallet. I give it to him.

“Great, thank you.”

The money gets passed along with instructions to a Form 1 student, who runs off to a cluster of shops a few hundred meters away to bring us back fresh chapati.

The man who was grading papers next to me ushers me over to a larger wooden table for tea. None of the other teachers are there yet, but he insists that I sit. He pours water over my right hand as I wash it, then pours me a mug of tea.

I wait for the rest of the teachers to join before adding sugar to my tea and drinking it. A year ago, I wouldn't consider adding a grain of sugar to my coffee or tea. But this far into Dice Travels, I've given up on my healthy dietary choices; I am going with whatever keeps me smiling in the moment – which is always sugar.

The teachers, all young man, are chatting away in Swahili, all background sound to my mindless scrolling on my phone.

All but one of them leaves. He's younger than the rest and, in fact, not a teacher, but an assistant.

He explains in broken English that he hasn't gone to university yet and doesn't have the qualifications.

“I want to go to America one day. There are lots of niggers there,” he says. “Maybe 40-50 per cent.”


“There are lots of niggers there, right?” he asks in muffled English, completely unaware of the connotation of the word. “Who nature come from Africa.”

“Yeah, there are African Americans there. I hope you can come,” I say. I don't have a problem with the use of nigger under certain circumstances. However, I can't help but think of how terribly his muffled, stumbling voicing of the word would be received in the United States.

After tea, one of the student clangs a steel bar to call students back to class.

“Would you like to teach?” the headmaster asks me.

“Yes, of course.”

We're in one of the small partitions today. The small class of students attentively sit on four wooden benches.

“Good morning,” I say. “Okay, let's come closer.”

There's lots of shuffling and scooting as we empty the back rows of the classroom in order to get everyone close enough that I can hear their soft voices when they speak.

I pull two red foam balls out of my pockets and pass them around.

“Sponge,” one of the students says.

“Yes,” I concur, writing the word on the board.

I grab a volunteer and have him hold out his hand before placing one ball in my hand and one into his hand. I blow on my hand.

Slowly, I open my fist – the ball is gone.

When the student opens his hand, there are two balls. The class erupts with sounds of amazement.

Everybody loves the foam ball trick. I don't know why, but it always gets a good reaction.

With the ice broken, we start in on today's lesson, which I'm make up as we go.

It's a rough start with trying to talk about football, as it was one of the items they mentioned liking on Friday. The goal, in general, is to get them comfortable talking about things they like, as that's most likely what they'll want to talk about with other people.

However, after a false start with football, I turn to food.

“Okay, give me a word that has to do with food or a kind of food,” I say holding up a piece of chalk like a little magic wand.

One by one, I'm able to pull answers out of the students.

“Apple, is that a verb or a noun?” I ask.

The most confident of the students, the girl who is wearing the same pink sweater and white hajib from Friday, mouths the word “noun”.

“Yes, it's a noun,” I say.

By the time we run through the whole class, we've got almost entirely nouns on one side of the board and only one verb – cook – on the other side of the board.

One of the students calls out “banana”, I sloppy write it at the bottom of the board so I don't have to worry about whether or not I spelled it right.

Another student calls out “pork”.

“Yes, excellent!” I say, writing it up on the board. “So what animal is pork?”

There's silence.

“Okay, so chicken is chicken,” I say writing it up on the board twice, connecting the words with an arrow.

“What about pork?” I ask again.

I start loudly grunting through my nose.

“What animal is this?”

The kids smile, eager for an answer.

“Pig,” I say.

We go over beef and cow, before someone mentions mutton.

I don't understand her at first, so have her come up and write it on the board. The kids are surprisingly confident when it comes to spelling words on the board.

Though the school is relatively cool for a building in this part of the world, I can smell the kids' sweat, and can only imagine that the classes with those who have already gone through puberty are worse. Later in the day, I'll no doubt smell like sweaty crouch – a smell nobody wants to be hit with when they spread their legs to cool off their loins.

“Now, we need to put all these words to use in sentences with a few more verbs, such as drink, eat and order,” I explain.

I pair up the students and write some dialogue on the board. It reads as if they are taking someone's order.

The general confusion waiters have in Tanzania when you try to order food from them is a personal pet peeve. However, not wanting to reinforce some subservient, colonial attitude into a situation where they might only be talking to muzungu as waiters, I adjust the scenario.

“Okay, so imagine you go to a restaurant in America,” I say. “Do you know McDonald's?” They don't seem to know McDonald's, which is unbelievable, but probably a good thing.

“When you go into the restaurant you say 'hello' and then order food,” I explain.

I select one of the students, a boy in the back row, to come up front to demonstrate with me. I sit him down in a plastic red chair and pretend to be his waiter.

Now that the students are paired up for the dialogue, I go through it with them, couple by couple, encouraging others to practice before I arrive at their seat.

The dialogue isn't composed on the board in the best possible way, but it's working. The key, at least in my mind, is not providing the answers for them. They need to think about what they will order. Most stick to the basics: rice and water or rice and Coca-Cola.

Someone orders “meaty”, which is meat.

The hard “e” sound at the end of words has already come up a few times in class. It's a pronunciation error that plagues Tanzania inside and outside of the classroom.

Honing in on this specific pronunciation issue, I write several words on the board: colde, meate, foode, eate and so on.

We say them together as a class.

“Yes, but how do we say in English?” I ask.

I slash through the final “e” in each of the words and we say them again, but this time in proper English. Though it's ambitious and idealistic, I'm hopeful that this small, but persistent issue, is something I can shake out for these students before I leave.

It's been nearly an hour since class started.

“Any questions?” I ask.

I'm sure I could teach for another hour and nobody would stop me or I could have wrapped up the lesson 30 minutes ago. However, an hour seems appropriate, so that's what I'm doing.

There are no questions, but there's something lingering in the air.


They want to see the foam ball trick again. I bring another student up. Despite having seen it once already, there's a gleeful burst of sound as both red foam balls appear in the student's hands.

“Since I am here only a little bit, I think pronunciation is one of the best things I can show them,” I explain to the headmaster and the assistant teacher when they ask me what my lesson was about.

The assistant points out that pronunciation between American English and British English is different.

“Yes, but in this case, it's the wrong way to say it,” I explain.

“What about this?” the headmaster says, writing “colour” and “color”. At first, I misread it thinking he wrote “cooler” and color”. However, once we are on the same page, I explain that like “traveler” and “traveller” the difference is only in the way it is written. The word is pronounced the exact same way, even though one is American English and the other is British English.

There's little explanation of what' next. However, I eventually find out that the students are almost done with their tests. It's only 12:30pm, but the school day is nearly finished

Without asking permission, I decided to wrap it up for the day and start running errands: welding the pannier frame on Rafiki, giving her her first path and then holing up at the KCC for a couple cups of coffee.

#Dailyupdates #DailyUpdate #Tanzania

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