HARVARD SQUARE COMMENTARY

February 25, 2008
Musings in My Morris Chair

Mjambo!

Ernest Cassara


I never did learn how to spell in Swahili, but I believe this is an approximation of the word one uses to great more than one person.  One person would be greeted with the word “Jambo.”

Whenever I sit down in my Morris Chair, I admire the lovely embroidery that I have draped on the back cushion.  It was a present from the ladies at the adult education center of the branch of the University of Nairobi at Mombasa, on the Indian Ocean.  If memory serves, it would have been in 1984, when, accompanying my wife, who had set up an  exchange between her University of the District of Columbia and the University of Nairobi, I earned my keep by lecturing at the University and at five extra mural centers across the country. 

On this occasion, at Mombasa, however, I was on the stage with my wife, who would be speaking, not realizing that I would be called on to say a few words to the ladies.  But, I was called on.  I stood and began with the word “Mjambo!”  They went wild with joy!  I then improvised a few remarks - in English, not Swahili! - that also pleased them immensely, for I pointed out that, usually, it was the wife who accompanied her husband, who would be the speaker.  Whereas, on this occasion, I was the one tagging along.

As a reward for my few remarks, as I sat on the platform, one of the ladies reached up and presented me with a live chicken, with the poor thing’s legs tied together.  I attempted to comfort the little one, by petting it while my wife and the other dignitaries on the platform said their piece.

Now, our host and guide in Mombasa, one Dr. Gilbert, from that branch of the University, took hold of my chicken, promising to look after it.  The following day, we had occasion to stop at his house in his Range Rover.  I asked where my chicken was.  He answered, “Oh, it is wandering around somewhere.”  I had reason to doubt his word, for a saw a pot over a charcoal fire in the yard.  To this day, I am convinced that my little chicken was in that pot.

This comes to mind, because of the stories of turmoil in Kenya caused by the disputed presidential election.  As is true of many African countries, whose boundaries, were drawn by the imperial British, there are tensions among various tribal groups.

Having fallen in love with Kenya and its people, I fervently hope that trouble will subside, with a fair resolution of the problem.


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