Our campus at the language school has several young men in their early 20’s that work in various positions around the grounds. Sylvester is the cleaning man; there are two or more landscape guys. We have a gate keeper named Erik, and the laundry man is Eliudi. All the fellows I know by name are ever ready to practice Swahili with me and are not shy about correcting my grammar or helping me find the right word. I don’t think this is very usual behavior for East Africans. I think they have learned to be extra helpers to the ever rotating language students here at the Lutheran Junior Seminary.
When I first arrived here two months ago by public transportation, the large bus dropped me at the end of the drive where I was met by Erik who welcomed the hot and weary traveler; carried my luggage and directed me to the office of the living quarters at the language school. I felt indebted for his help since I was so bewildered and actually sick with a bad cold at the time.
Eliudi has become a friend in the sense that he works just a few feet away from my room. I see him every morning on the way to school and we exchange greetings. Most days I see him at every break when I return from the classrooms. He has helped me when I need to wash the grime out of sandals or wring out a hand-washed piece of African kitenge fabric.
Some of the male teachers along with Eliudi live in a block of rooms not too far away from our area of school. Erik tends to be a bit of a joker, teasing by telling things that aren’t always true. Erik is suited to his job of greeting all those coming through the gates. I think Eliudi is the hardest worker here, his biceps would verify that.
Erik is often calling me mrembo. When I ask what it means (I’ve had a hard time remembering) he tells me queen. The other evening Erik and Eliudi took me for a walk over to the living quarters to show me the place. Its little dorm rooms in a row and a cooking room on the end. (Not a kitchen, just an extra room for cooking.) Both had taken to calling me mrembo and I kept trying to discern if it was a backhanded comment or what. I finally looked up the word in the handy online Swahili dictionary I found. Mrembo means beautiful or elegant person. I felt comforted that it really wasn’t queen they were calling me. I told my German friend, Sophia about this reference. Sophia is a one year volunteer here and she told me she gets called mrembo too by these young men. This satisfied my doubts of them possibly mocking me. And I actually felt complimented. But then the next day I got called ‘queeny’ by Eliudi. Now I am back to wondering…