Interviewing A Special Woman In The “Real” Village

A few weeks ago I wrote an article about life here in my village, Magulilwa. Soon after, I got an email of my school founder, and native Magulilwan, Evaristo Sanga.

You wrote about the new part of Magulilwa, he said. If you want to see the “real village” you should visit my mother about 25 minutes outside of town.

I was surprised and amused.

You mean I flew for two dozen hours, road in a car for eight more, then on a rickety bus for two hours over dirt road, and I still didn’t reach a “real” village?!

All right. I best get to it.


After a late lunch on April 3rd, I met Mr. Changula, a young, thin man going about 5’9” with a faint-mustached face that sort of always wears a half-smile. The commerce and bookkeeping teacher at my school was standing in front of the administration building near the flagpole and had agreed to walk me to Mama Evaristo’s house today.

Darker skies loomed on the horizon, but they were spotty, so I held out hope for just a drizzle during our walk. I gave Mr. Changula my rain coat, and I took my broken umbrella that I had to hold near the top of the shaft for it to stay open.

A sprinkle began as we commenced.

We passed the last buildings of the school property, hopped over the log marking the border to the village, and walked into town along the red-brick buildings–the part Evaristo chided as not being “real” Magulilwa.

I wasn’t sure where this place was but knew it was a little hike. I just followed Mr. Changula along the village paths.

After about 15 minutes, we popped out onto the main road. This broad stretch in this rural region was the proverbial “walk in the park” even with the light rain. The roomy roadway breathed the lifestyles of cattle-driven plows and carts and people in ragged clothes in none too a hurry to greet us as we passed.

As hospitable as the people were, however, the weather did its part to counter the comfort. It started to pour. Thankfully, Mr. Changula indicated that Mama Evaristo’s place was just 100 feet up the road.

Approaching the country compound a good twenty-five minute walk from the village, we turned right through a wood gate just off the road. Inside the solid wood fence was the yard: an open dirt square about 25′ x 40′ which had a large pile of firewood at to the left and a sort of large wooden crate on stilts in the center. To the left were little buildings for the toilet, the kitchen, and storage units. But we didn’t have much time to notice these details because we headed straight across the yard through the rain and toward the living space.

Walking past a couple children on the front steps, we entered a small room where Mama Evaristo welcomed us.

The woman in her golden years indeed sparkled a smile at our arrival. Her clothing shone as well, the yellow-brown decorated cloth wrapped her thin frame from calf to neck with a bit of matching cloth wrapped around her hair.

The room, maybe 10’ x 15’ had a concrete floor and barren white walls except for a calendar and a picture of her with one of her grandsons.

She and Mr. Changula gathered stools for all to sit, and after welcomes and a few rain-escaping shivers, I got to know Mama Evaristo via Mr. Changula’s translation.

Her name is actually Jane Njeleka. (In Swahili, this is pronounced something like “Ja ne’  N ji le’ ka”.) I’ve referred to her as Mama Evaristo in this piece up until now because it’s custom—in this region at least—to call women who are mothers by “Mama” followed by one of their children’s names.

I wasn’t sure what Mama Evaristo preferred to be called. But referring to her as such also identifies my connection this woman: the mother of Evaristo Sanga, the founder of our school, the man now living in Minneapolis who I was introduced to about a year and a half ago, and whose connection made this whole opportunity for me to be out here possible.

Evaristo Sanga

Thus, with the rain letting up and within the dim space of this earthy room, I started by asking 68-year-old Mama Evaristo, this older rural Tanzanian woman, if she ever had the chance to visit her son in America.

Mr. Changula relayed the message and she spoke back to him. As she spoke, he answered,

“Yes. Twice.”

“What did you think?” I asked.

She told him, “It’s good. I want to go again”.

Looking around the room, at the life this woman leads, I then asked Mama Evaristo about Mama Evaristo.

“So how many children do you have?”

“Seven,” Changula said to me as she started to respond.

“But four have died,” he added.

Wow. I knew infant mortality to be much higher in other places in the world, but four of seven was a striking number. I waited a beat to continue.

“Do you live here alone?”

“Yes,” Changula said as she spoke.

“What about those children?” I asked pointing outside. (The ones we saw as we arrived.)

She said they were neighbors’ children. And later she’d state her appreciation for them being around as she likes the company.

“How long have you lived in this house?”

Mama Evaristo answered that she’s been here 30 years. She continued in reflection that her children grew up here, though some were born in their family’s previous home in the nearby city, Iringa. Her family moved here 30 years ago because she said “life in Iringa was hard.”

Perhaps she also welcomed the move to Magulilwa because it was a homecoming. This was the village where she was born. And when Jane came into the world, Tanzania wasn’t even Tanzania. It was just after WWII and it would be another 15 years until the then-British colonized region known as Tanganyika would gain independence. Further, it would be another three years after that–1964–when a small island off the east coast, Zanzibar, would join the country, the addition seeing the name of the nation change to what we know it as today.

I asked what the country was like when it was yet a colony. Mama Evaristo started speaking and pointed up and out to her left. Mr. Changula relayed that colonists then lived near the location where Magulilwa’s primary school is today.

“Did you like them being here?” I asked about the colonists.

She said she did, actually. They “helped her” by paying her for farm work.

Moving up an era, I asked about the socialism enacted soon after Tanzanian independence. The president of Tanzania, the much-lauded Julius Nyerere,  was an ideological brother to Communist China and North Korea. Mr. Mgongolwa, our school headmaster, once shared with me with a sweeping gesture while we stood outside, that the fields all around our school were, in the not-too-distance past, plowed by North Korean laborers.

Recalling this, I asked Mama Evaristo about these workers. She remembered them, all right, but only said that they were here during the day to work and left at night.

Today, Tanzania is a democracy with a liberalized economy. I asked if she likes the Tanzania of today. She said she does. Then again, she also said she liked life here when she was little, prompting me to express out loud that Mama Evaristo is just a happy person!

Obviously, though, her life has been hard. I asked how four of her seven children passed.

“Was it accidents or illness?”

Mr. Changula asked, listened, and then said that they died from illnesses. I didn’t ask which illness.

I asked if she was proud of her son, Evaristo, for making such a good life for himself in America. (He lives in a pleasant neighborhood in Minneapolis with his wife and two sons working as a software developer.) So many Tanzanians I have talked to—students and adults—say they want to go to America.

She said she is proud of her children, two of which now live in Minnesota and one here in town. However, the pride does come as a potent bitter-sweet as she added in the next sentence that she still aches form the loss of four children.

Asked what she does during her day, she says she does farm work. She likes life here, but says the distance to Iringa can be inconvenient when having to get certain foods that aren’t in the village.

I asked her how Magulilwa has changed since her childhood. She said that there are “more people, more buildings” now.

I ended the interview by asking about her favorite part of coming to the U.S. She said she “liked the environment.”

“You mean the neighborhoods? I asked. “Or the lakes and parks?”

She responded that she liked the land and the homes.

“And what foods did you like?”

“Everything”, she responded.

By this time, my clothes had dried and the rain had stopped. I thanked her for sharing, and we all rose and went outside to enjoy the part of her home that Mr. Changula and I had to run through on the way in.

She walked across to the kitchen and tended a small fire inside with a pot atop. Meanwhile, Mr. Changula explained to me that the wooden structure in the yard–the “crate on stilts”–was for corn cobs this harvest time of year.

View of yard from where we spoke

Mama Evaristo then came out from the kitchen and conversed with Mr. Changula. Meanwhile, I explored a bit by walking into the little smoke-filled room to see eggs boiling in the pot.

And after a few more minutes of light banter (turns out Mr. Changula also grew up in Magulilwa), the vibe in the air indicated it was time to say goodbye. But hold on there, cowboy. Mama Evaristo had something to give me, Mr. Changula said. A chicken.

Evaristo would later write to me: “You must be very special guest by her tradition to give you a live chicken.”

With chicken in arms, Mama Evaristo walked Mr. Changula and I out and down the road a ways, greeting neighbors who were out with a post-rain energy probably finishing what they had been doing pre-rain.

After several paces, our escort reached her end. I held her hands, smiled, and gave her the best “asante sana” I could.


At one point during our interview Mama Evaristo turned the tables on me. Having asked her about the U.S., she then asked me what I thought of Tanzania.

I was a bit taken aback, not expected her curiosity. But after a pause I said I do miss things from home, but that I liked the pace of life here, the fact that everyone greets you as you walk past them in the village, and that the stars shine bright at night.

I’ve realized living here how I appreciate how easygoing the people here are, how if the electricity goes out, they just chill and grab the flashlight. No biggie. Me? I still haven’t learned to let go of my frustration that accompanies technical difficulties.

There’s a presence about people, an appreciation. I like how someone gives you a chicken just for stopping in for a visit.

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