Tuesday, September 15, 2015
“The elderly were once young, too. The young have not yet learned to appreciate those who have lived more life than they have. Young people must learn to appreciate the wisdom of the elderly and learn from their life experiences. It will make them better people.” ― Lailah Gifty Akita
Tanzanian society is not alone in its respect and admiration of anyone over the age of 60 years of age. The title “zee” means respected elder and acknowledges the additional wisdom and integrity that comes with age. There are other cultures that also recognize the value and worth of those who have experienced life, and, if it is an oral culture like this one, will have stories that will help others deal with disappointment, death, catastrophe, or just hurt feelings. I’ll have to admit it is also nice that extra weight is also seen as a good thing as it means you are healthy and have enough money to feed your family and yourself rather well. A bit of a change from cultures where you can’t be too young or too skinny. As another part of the culture that recognizes and reveres age, whenever you meet someone demonstrably older than you are, you are to greet them with the term “shikamo” which acknowledges that they are older and to be treated with respect. No one really knows where the term originated but the best accepted version is that it is an arabic word that roughly translates “I want to sit at your feet and learn.” It is culture wide and is considered a huge slight if you fail to greet an elder. Sometimes, depending on the tribe, a young girl will also curtsy when she says “shikamo” which always brings to mind my American slavery shame, but I’ve finally gotten used to it without feeling guilty. When some says “shikamo” to you, you are honor bound to respect that greeting and reply “marahaba” which is another term with a meaning lost in antiquity. In modern arabic, it means “hello,” but the term here comes from a time long ago. Swahili is full of arabic terms because of the centuries of spice and slave trade from Zanzibar and Eastern Tanzania. There are many Indian words as well because there has been a significant Indian population here for centuries. Even now, many of the textile mills and importers of modern technology are primarily Indian. Of course, English is full of thousands of words from other languages, so this is nothing new. Still, to be walking down the street or entering a duka (shop) and hearing “shikamo” is nice and feels good. To be called “mzee” is the same, and as it is a title as well as a word of respect, to many, many people, I am simple called “mzee” the way some are called by their former military rank. I am also called “Askofu” which is the word for bishop. When I first came here, I was given the Jita tribal name of “Magesa” and because I tease a lot and tell people I am not an American but a Tanzanian of the Wajita tribe with the name Magesa Mamba and everyone usually laughs. Actually, the name Magesa means someone born during the harvest (which fits my birthday) and also means someone from whom many blessings will come. It is not an uncommon name in this area as many Wajita tribe people live around here. I got the last name “Mamba” as a kind joke because mamba is Swahili for crocodile and it seems from my size that I eat everything, just like crocodiles do. More people know me as Magesa than anything else and besides they have difficulty saying Charles which usually comes out Char-less with the accent on the last syllable. This is a long way of getting around to the picture at the right. My doctor, Dr. Chris, insisted that I have a formal document to make sure the Tanzanian airline provided me with a wheel chair to get around the huge airport at Dar Es Salaam. He dropped this note off just yesterday, and we didn’t read it till after he had gone. It got a good laugh from Karen, John, and myself because in no way was the term “old man” meant to be offensive. It is simply the way that “zee” is translated into English and was meant as a term of respect. Still, I am an old man and don’t mind being reminded that my rock climbing days are long past. I am sharing it with you here as a reminder, that in a culture that idolizes youth, a lot is lost and many, many people who sacrificed to make America what it is today should not be slighted, pushed aside, or referred to as geezers or coots. Without the age and wisdom of the mzees of America, there would be little there worthy of respect. Americans have become very good about thanking service people for their service to their country. Maybe they need to become as good at thanking older people for what they contributed. And, if current statistics are to be believed, it will be the older people who will be making all the decisions before too long. I always respected my parents and grandparents and learned early on that everyone has a story and those of the older generation are well worth hearing. Remember, those folks got you through a depression and won a World War to give you what you take for granted these days. I like hearing “mzee” and “shikamo” and don’t mind a bit if a note from a Tanzanian doctor calls me an “old man” because I know what that means.