The Word: Pole

“Po-le, po-le,” the wide-smiled women cry as they stride past me, their cheeks gleaming with obsidian sweat. They each balance a large bundle of canoe-length firewood branches atop their heads and churn their legs forward, gaining momentum to propel themselves up the hill. My sandals scrape up dry brown dust as I semi-stumble through the grassy savanna, kids-sized L.L. Bean backpack tight on my back and floor-length skirt swishing. It’s the daily walk home from school in Shistoni, a rural Tanzanian village, and these strangers are apologizing to me.

We learned about pole in Swahili class. Pronounced “po,” like the smallest Teletubby, and “lei,” like the type one would wear to a luau, pole was one of the first words my teacher etched on the chalky blackboard on day two of class. Between clapping hands and sing-song renditions of new vocabulary words, my teacher told us that pole meant sorry. “You’ll want to remember this one,” she advised.

Now, three weeks later, I am living in the village—a 20 minute walk from the nearest water pump and an hour from the closest electrical outlet—and pole is following me. “Pole,” my host mama chimes as I meander into the driveway after a long day of teaching. “Pole,” Baba repeats over and over again when he comes home after dark. Baba, my host father, knocks on the door of my room, shakes my hand, and then continues to shake my hand while his eyes stare me down. “Pole. Pole sana, dada. Pole,” Baba repeats.

People say pole to me all the time and in situations that don’t merit a sorry. In the market on Sunday, a chubby-cheeked four-year-old pulls on the hem of my skirt and motions to play tag. As I chase her around the open field, the adults shout out to me, “Pole. Pole, dada.” But I’m having fun, and so is she. Why is everyone so sorry about this innocent game of tag?

It happens again after I get out of teaching a class at school. Exiting the classroom I move into the central courtyard towards the other teachers, only to be met by a storm of profuse pole-ing. I feel confused—almost guilty—taken aback by their apologies. I shouldn’t deserve an apology more than any other teacher. But the poles keep coming.

Worrying that I might seem rude if I don’t conform to sprinkling at least a few poles into my stilted Swahili speech, I start inserting the term into my daily conversations. That night as Mama warms well water for my bucket shower, I decide to try it out. “Pole, Mama,” I utter, grinning as she walks towards me. “Pole, Ginny,” Mama corrects, speaking louder than I do and plopping the scalding bucket down at my feet. First attempt failed.

A few days later, I’m doing laundry, or trying to. With buckets of thick soapy water, thin rinse water, and powder detergent at my side, I violently rub the soap flakes into my browned polo. My oldest host sister Tumaini is doing laundry too, her stack of dirty clothes Tanzanian family-sized, nine times the size of my own small heap. With her newborn folded into the colorful kanga fabric tied around her back, Tuma trudges over towards me and forcefully pokes her finger into my shoulder. “Pole, Ginny. Pole, pole, Ginny.” She pulls the polo shirt out of my grasp and shows me how to stroke it against my forearm with enough force to erase the dirt wedged in the fabric. She knows I’m out of place, but appreciates that I’m trying.

More than sorry, pole is a recognition of unfamiliarity, of exertion, and of effort despite a foreign situation. Pole celebrates an honest attempt. It’s pity, something to be sorry for, but also admiration, laden with respect.

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