Life was not always easy for Maria Nhambu. “At a young age, I realized I had to be my own best friend,” said Nhambu. Born of mixed race (Black and White) in Tanzania, East Africa she recalled, “At the time, people of mixed race were not very well accepted in African society or in the White colonist society.
“Very often we had very hard lives. Some of us were hidden. In the 1930s, they opened up an orphanage for mixed-race people. I was sent there when I was about three days old. The orphanage became my home.”
Nhambu noted that in the orphanage, the older girls took care of the younger girls. “Life in the orphanage was hard because the older girls who took care of some of us younger girls abused us a lot of the time. They were very tough and very cruel, and we were beaten almost every day.”
Nhambu attended school until the fourth grade. “I always knew that education would be my savior and get me out of the orphanage. I struggled and found it hard to finish the fourth grade with everyone else. After a while, I was chosen to go to another school outside of the orphanage. It was an all-African school.”
Life was hard for her at her new school, too. Although she was African, the children in the new school ostracized her because she was of mixed heritage. By 1959, she was chosen to go to the first secondary school for African girls run by Americans. The school was different than the orphanage. “They were very supportive of us, and this was something I was not used to.”
One of her high school teachers, Catherine Murray, whom she had for only one class, noticed that Nhambu was homeless. During winter and spring breaks and summer vacations, Nhambu returned to the orphanage.
Murray adopted Nhambu and took her to America, where Nhambu earned a scholarship and attended St. Katherine’s University in St. Paul. She graduated with a major in French and became a teacher at Washburn High School in South Minneapolis. She has now been living in the United States for 35 years.
Along her life’s journey, she developed an aerobics program called Aerobics with Soul.
She explained, “I used the dances I learned while growing up in Tanzania. I trained instructors to teach the program, which is based on African dance. I used African music, and we talked about the cultural and spiritual aspect of the culture and dances.”
Nhambu spends summers in Minnesota (about four months out of the year). During winter months she lives in Florida, where she is currently writing her third book, Drum Beats and Heart Beats. Her first book, Africa’s Child, is about her childhood growing up in the orphanage until age 19. The second book, America’s Daughter, documents her life in America, specifically in Minneapolis.
She said, “If you read my second book, and you are from Minneapolis, you will recognize some of the places.”
For those who are dealing with life’s obstacles and setbacks, Nhambu said she can only give recommendations from what she had learned in her own life. “When I was three years old, I realized that if I was to survive the orphanage, I really had to love myself more than anyone else. Very early, I learned to love myself unconditionally, to take care of myself. I created a twin, an alter ego. Her name was Fat Mary.”
Nhambu was bigger than other girls in the orphanage, so they named her Fat Mary. “I hated that name. So I took that name and created a twin — my inner soul. She was my counselor, my consoler; she gave me many ideas. She was the part of me that people did not see.
“So my advice to people is to just start loving themselves. Do something that you really enjoy. For me, it was education and dance.”
The girls in the orphanage were forbidden to dance. “But I had to do something physical to satisfy myself and make myself happy. I used to sneak out and go to the villages to dance with African tribal dancers.”
Katherine Mama, the American woman who helped her move to Minnesota, “really helped me. When you love yourself, you cannot lose. A lot of people have material things, but they do not love themselves and are not happy.”
Her overall message to readers is, “Even when things get tough, and you’re feeling all alone, if you love yourself, you can do anything.”
Brandi Phillips welcomes reader responses to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Brandi Phillips is a contributing writer at the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder.