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Pole - pronounced 'po-lay'

When empathy is everywhere

I was born in a town called Moshi, on the foothills of Kilimanjaro a few hundred meters off the Arusha-Moshi road. If you have climbed Kilimanjaro, you will have driven through the town of Moshi and up to Marangu, where the main park gates are.The rubble that remains of the small house where I grew up is still there.  We lived in Tanzania because my father grew up there and became a coffee farmer, and met my mother who was a schoolteacher in nearby Arusha. We lived in Tanzania until I was almost 6, when we moved away to Sudan and beyond.  Later in life I was lucky enough to return to Tanzania with my own young family and to live there for a few years working as an educator.

My first home on the Arusha Moshi road

My first home on the Arusha Moshi road.  photo: Aldo Biagini

Living in East Africa (and later in the Middle East) introduced me to 'greeting cultures' (my own nomenclature, don't look it up).  In both Tanzania and Oman (which have very interlaced histories and cultures), the act of greeting a person is a long and almost ceremonial process.  How are you? How is your home? Your work? What about your family? Are you healthy these days? Your children are well? And on and on.  Often whilst holding the hand of the other in a protracted and gentle handshake and replying with an interminable series of “God willing“. Only after this long stream of empathy finally tapers off does the actual conversation (if there is indeed one to be had) begin. And it tends to be quick and to the point. 

The Chagga, on Kilimanjaro, take this daily and ritualistic exercise in empathy to a higher level still.  In the Chagga culture their standard greeting to a passer by is “Pole na kazi”, which translates to “I am sorry for your work”. Often it will just be a simple “Pole”. Sorry. An acknowledgement that life is hard, that everyone has days filled with challenges and struggles that can only be overcome by working hard. And that most challenges suck.  

Bananas to market   photo: Aldo Biagini

Most Chagga are agricultural people, they have small plots and grow crops, raise cattle, and often have a day job as well.  They will walk to the public water faucet to collect their water for the day, and then haul it back to their home.  They will walk their crop, balanced on their head, across town to the market. Their day is a list of tasks that would be considered back-breaking by western standards. But every day a Chagga lady with 15 kilos of bananas on her head, or a wiry old villager leading seven cows up the hill would greet me with a "pole na kazi" as I walked baby Sofia through the village in a BabyBjörn.  Our kazi was hardly comparable.  But everything merits empathy.

Once I was talking with Mama Ngao, who worked at school with me. A Tanzanian person is known often by the name of their first born, with the prefix of Mama or Baba. I was Baba Sofia.  Ngao means Shield in Swahili. That was her son’s name. So I was talking to Mama Ngao, and I had a pencil behind my ear, as any kindergarten teacher worth his salt has. The pencil shifted and slipped to the floor. I bent to pick it up, and Mama Ngao remarked quietly “Eh, pole.” and we carried on. Just a quick shot of empathy.  A few months later Mama Ngao’s mother died, and we all made a point of visiting her. And the way to express condolence in Swahili?  Pole. Or perhaps, in this case pole sana, which translates to very sorry. Pole fits both of those extremes, and everywhere in between. I found it most powerful when I hurt myself (stubbed toe, jammed finger) and someone could just tell me that they know that it must really hurt, that there is nothing that anyone can do, that I just have to ride it out, and that they are sorry that such a crappy thing had to happen to me. All with one word. Pole.

After we left Tanzania and settled into a new life in a new country, our family missed many things. The people of Tanzania especially, but the climate, the beauty of the landscapes, and of course the undefinable yearning that Africa can settle deep into your soul. But around the house my wife and I would talk about how we missed pole. Being able to to express empathy simply, elegantly and without incurring alarm.  Still today, I will notice that the signal that I am becoming closer to a new acquaintance or friend is when I decide that it is time to teach them pole.  You can empathize all the time, it is not a thing for special occasions. The pencil slipping off your ear is plenty. 

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