Expedited Swahili Lessons: Time Well Spent At Nyumba Ya Bibi Sebastiana in Maji Ya Chai

Everything that could go wrong had certainly gone wrong at this point. My mind was conflicted. Should I just head back home? But that stubborn streak in me adapted and reached out to a friend in South Africa who helped me find practical solutions. When life is moving too fast, life tends to find ways to slow it down for you. Give you time and space to re evaluate and change course if need be. The short of it is that I ended up spending a glorious two weeks at Nyumba Ya Bibi Sebastiana.

Nyumba Ya Bibi Sebastiana is a non-governmental organization located in Maji ya Chai in Arusha, Tanzania. Nyumba ya bibi Sebastiana means Grandmother Sebastiana’s house. The house was funded and is run by philanthropist Ironi Ribeiro Cruz. Girls and young women from disadvantaged backgrounds stay in the house for long periods learning how to sew and sometimes learn English and Portuguese if there are volunteers who speak those languages.

Outside the kitchen and dining room

In a yellow, baby blue, green and black four-roomed house life moves in a structured manner. Everyone wakes up at around 7:00 am with the exception of the 8 year old girl and one or 2 older girls who help her get ready for school from about 05:45 am and walk her to the road to wait for the school bus. Between 8:00 am and 9:00 am a cup of millet porridge is served to all.Though I am a light sleeper, I am not really a morning person but I take porridge with everyone else and start the day. On some days there is a cup of ginger tea around 10:00 am or 11:00 am. Lunch is served between 12:00 pm and 14:00.The timing depends on when the day’s cook started preparing the food. Everyone takes turns cooking and washing dishes.

There was one fateful day when I was the lunch chef. I made beef stew with all the usual Southern African ingredients and some okra and the white aubergine (the girls at the home put the white aubergine in everything). It was applause all around. Really made my mama proud from miles away. It was my first time making a meal for 15 people. One thing that has been a culture shock is how Tanzanians add okra to their stew or soups. The okra is fried with onions and other vegetables. It has been an interesting mission going from being surprised to actually enjoying it. Southern Africans who enjoy okra often boil it on its own and sometimes add a tomato. I have grown accustomed to enjoying okra in my stew. At first it’s weird but you get used to it and grow to love it.

The girls making skirts

The girls live in perfect harmony. Eleven of them. From different families living in this house sharing chores and helping each other through sewing difficulties. The youngest is 8 and the oldest is 22. A sisterhood is formed. These young ladies really challenged me in ways I couldn’t have ever imagined. Because they didn’t speak English and I spoke very little Swahili our communication was very comical. I must say that my Swahili lessons were expedited because I wanted to know them better. And they also wanted to know me better. We wanted to share experiences. I started learning Swahili for myself, but now I keep it going for them because I want to know their individual stories and I want to share my story with them. We are not there yet but I love how we have built a family amongst ourselves. Next time I go there we will talk at length about our beings and connect as sisters. A bond that we established during our two weeks in June.

Of the four rooms, one room houses sewing machines, sewing fabrics, a big table used for measuring and cutting the materials used for making clothes. This room is where the girls spend most of their time making clothes for all ages and different kinds of bags. This is the room where I also spent a lot of time trying to learn how to sew. I did have one or two lessons learning how to sew in a straight line. A page from an exercise book was used and dear reader I was terrible but also almost perfect. Soon there will be a blog post about me having sewn my first pair of pants.

Religion is very important here. The girls being from different tribes has no bearing on how they interact with each other religious. After they have had a cup of porridge in the morning; they gather in the sewing room sitting next to their machines singing church songs. There after a short prayer follows and then they go about sewing that day’s designated items. Sometimes it’s bags, back packs, skirts, shirts and dresses. A much longer praise and worship session is reserved for the night; where they sing to their heart’s content, read the Bible, pray then head to bed in their separate bunk beds in different rooms.

One week into my stay at Bibi Sebastiana, I met a Brazilian volunteer called Rayane who is a great photographer and had spent a month volunteering at a village school in Kenya. We spent a week at Nyumba Ya Bibi Sebatsiana talking to the girls, getting to know them as much as language barriers would allow.

After church with Agnes

In Maji Ya Chai I attended my first church service at an Pentecostal church invited by one of the girls Sarah who is part of the praise and worship team. The service was in Kiswahili but the pastor was also nice enough to preach some segments in English. He was very inclusive.

At the soccer playground and learning how to sew

The most interesting and perhaps challenging part of my stay is the time I spent the girls English. I spent three days a week teaching them English. It was challenging for all of us because I had to explain what some English words mean but my Swahili is limited. But we largely had fun. Whatever I taught them is nothing compared to how much they taught me. Notably that I am a pretty great teacher.

A great teacher on a walk

Overall , I had the greatest of times with the girls. We went for walks, attended church and attempted to play soccer ( I mostly watched) but I played in spirit.


Published by Afrikan Princess

I am an avid traveler with a background in copywriting, social media management, art exhibition and music festival curation. I am a huge bookworm who not only enjoys getting lost in books, but I also enjoy writing on topics such as travel, art and fashion. I am interested in working in any projects relating to copywriting for small businesses, fiction writing, curating exhibitions for visual artists in Africa. I am also keen to work with small businesses in developing their social media strategies. Africa is my first love and I am currently having a great time exploring her.

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