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July 2003

Man of His Word

A Swahili teacher who is bridging the German/African cultural divide

Reginald Temu has come a long way since leaving the East African village where he spent his childhood. Trained as an engineer and currently a lecturer of Swahili at Munich’s Ludwig-Maximilian-University, he not only helped establish the Munich Africa Center (Afrika Zentrum München), an organization with which he is still very much involved, he is also one of the founders and an active board member of the German-Tanzanian Friendship Society (Deutsch-Tanzanischer Freundeskreis e.V.). Despite having lived in Germany for more than 30 years and having enjoyed an international education, during which he earned multiple degrees, Temu’s aim in life, indeed it can be said his passion, is to promote tolerance and understanding between races and nations, a principle he had absorbed as boy living in Marangu, a village in the foothills of Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania.

Temu is one of ten siblings, the son of small coffee and banana farmers. While he was still a youngster these commodities fetched relatively high prices on the world markets. So his parents, who believed in the value of a good education, managed to send every one of their children to school. Today most of them are based in the Tanzanian capital of Dar es Salaam and travel the world as agroengineers, chemical engineers and economists. Temu’s upbringing was both traditional and carefree—community life played a central role in Marangu. “I grew up with nature and the older people in our village taught us the importance of tending our animals, and the value of plants, which either provided us with food, were used for fire or for building huts. People lived together and helped one another. If there was a road to be built, a day would be designated and everyone would pitch in. Our homes and our doors were always open. Our mothers never knew where we had eaten our last meal because we were fed in whichever home we happened to be at mealtimes!”

Although many tribal languages are spoken in Tanzania—there are 120 in all—the common language is Swahili, though in school from the age of ten onwards, Temu and his fellow pupils were taught English. Once students had reached the age of 16 all subjects were taught in English. Later a handful of lucky teenagers went on to study in one of the few universities, founded by the British in Tanzania. “I call this lucky,” says Temu thoughtfully, “because there were plenty of capable candidates, there just weren’t enough resources or university places available for everyone who was qualified to go there.” The rest of the students learned a trade, such as carpentry.

In 1961, after independence, Tanzania became a socialist state, and allied itself to the socialist countries, such as the Soviet Union, China and the Eastern European states. As a result, when in 1969 it was time for young Reginald to go to university, he was first sent to the University of Leipzig for a year to learn German and then to the University of Dresden, where he studied engineering for another four and a half years. Of his first impressions upon arriving in Europe, Temu remembers that the strongest feeling was one of expectations not met. “In Tanzania we believed that all of Europe would be full of big houses, that the Europeans did not work, were all very wealthy and intelligent. This was our impression, gleaned from the British colonizers who always had clean clothes on. We had no idea about ‘office work’—we got all dirty and dusty from working in the fields and thought they had nothing to do all day! When we arrived in Leipzig, we saw people dressed shabbily, running to work, living mediocre lives and were truly taken aback. But the most awful part of our arrival was the snow. It was so terribly cold and the winter stretched on all the way till April. It was unbearable!”

In 1974 he returned to Tanzania, but the political situation was unstable and the university in Dar es Salaam was not set up or advanced enough to offer the course of study he had intended to pursue. In 1975 he returned to Germany—this time to Munich, where he has stayed ever since. At that point, Temu was offered a job in a German engineering firm, but was trapped in a catch-22 situation: the firm could not procure his work permit without a residence permit, and he would not be offered a residence permit without a work permit. One way out of this impasse was to go back to university. So Temu decided to study economic engineering at the Technical University of Munich. In 1981 he married a German student of economics whom he met at university. It was upon the advice of faculty members at the LMU that Temu decided to teach Swahili, a position he took up in 1985 and continues to hold.

“Language is the basis of communication. That is why I have continued to teach Swahili over the years. I have had wonderful students, and I teach them not only the language but also about the culture of Tanzania. I want to give them a true picture—not only the good sides, but also the reality, so that it provides the basis for a real discussion.” As a result, most of his students have opted to go and see Tanzania first hand, and several have gone on to work there. Reginald Temu is, needless to say, proud of this. “Because I fight for us to understand one another. We need to open our eyes and minds to see how others live. I never judge but first ask why. I am convinced that the Germans need us as much as we need them. But it is important to work within existing cultures instead of eradicating them. I believe in letting multiculturalism prevail.”

Hence the German-Tanzanian Friendship Society, whose aim is not to make Germans understand people like Temu at an individual level, but as Africans and foreigners in their country. At present there are about 10,000 Africans living in Munich. “Africa was divided essentially into Francophone and Anglophone countries by the colonizers,” explains Temu. “We are trying to bridge this colonial divide and to bring in members from all over the continent, which has not really been done before.”

Temu returns often to Tanzania and feels at home in both countries. He is involved in a number of businesses with his family in Dar-es-Salaam, and his teenage children, who otherwise prefer to spend their holidays with friends, make an exception when it comes to visiting Tanzania with their father. “There is no end to my journey,” the personable Temu admits. He is optimistic and has faith in a better world and a more multicultural Germany. “It is something I started a long time ago in Leipzig, where I belonged to the Union of East Africans in Germany. I have always tried to understand the people where I live and to give them a chance to understand me.” It’s comforting to see that someone who has come from a community of open doors has not forgotten his origins: in fact, they form the very basis of his quest. “You can realize a lot of potential amongst human beings if you leave your door open,” says Temu. “As they say in Swahili, ‘Asiyekujua hakuthamini’: He who doesn’t know you, doesn’t value you.”

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