This word “Fundi”

Michael Onsando
12 November ,2019


In many Bantu languages this word fundi exists. It usually means a master, a guru of some sort. Someone who has learned the art of whatever it is they are a fundi of (maybe if we had created the education system degrees would be called “fundi of medicine”).  The internet is a mess when it comes to finding the etymology of non English words. Urban dictionary guy says that the word fundi comes from the Turkish word funda, which translates to healthier. Other sources (also urban dictionary) on the internet tie it to the Nguni word umfundusi, meaning teacher – I prefer this definition.

What we can derive from the shape of the word itself shows the lineage of thought. One can easily see the progression from mtu anayeunda ni fundi. From mwanafunzi through to fundi via a process of kufunzwa. The word itself sounds something like “to make a fundi of” the process of kufunzwa has no other outcome other than the fundi.

The most natural meaning of the word fundi to me is “one who fixes.” That’s how I experienced its use in my life growing up. When something was broken we would take it to its corresponding fundi. Fundi wa mbao, fundi wa nguo, fundi wa viatu, fundi wa saa, fundi wa stima and so forth and so forth.

The fundi can only fix, however, because they are the master. They know how it works. And, in knowing how it works, they can identify what isn’t working as it should, like the mechanic in that story, the fundi is not charging for the moment of labour, but for the moments learning labour.

Nowadays, the most likely association of the term “fundi” is a car mechanic – and not any kind of car mechanic. Not the ones you find at autoexpress or DT Dobie, rather the kind of fundi you find on the side of the street with overgrown overalls. Where you make sure you don’t leave your car with a full tank of fuel or you might just be donating fuel to his errands. The type of fundi we look upon with distrust and a level of disdain. Who we are always in a tussle with about price.

But I like the classical definition more – an artisan or craftsperson. I like how the process mwanafunzi – funza – fundi – unda, speaks about a different way of organizing and seeing the world. I like the equality in dignity of labour that comes from knowing you can be fundi wa (whatever) (although kina daktari and wakili still stand outside for some reason). It is well known that culture hides in the breaths  between words  and this word fundi, for some reason, gives me hope that something else is possible.

Maybe this is why I have always loved watching fundis at work. When watching this work I am reminded of Gibran’s work is love made visible. Through their hands you can see years of repeated effort condensed into simple motion. And their approach to a often looks like how someone would approach a puzzle, not insurmountable but rather as something that needs patience and can be overcome.

In the greater glamourisation of things I see in the word fundi, the image of the mad genius. The person so fixated by their one problem (making the perfect, whatever) that everything else comes secondary. And in seeing this I go back to the dignity of labour, that every part is necessary and should  be seen and treated as necessary for the motion of the greater society. And that each of these masters, having dedicated themselves to one part of the larger picture are also people themselves dedicated to a larger goal. And because work is love, the larger goal is ultimately, a history of love. A history of love layered over hundreds and hundreds of generations. And to be a fundi is to add your layer, your thin layer of skin, over the top of whichever corner of the world ulifunzwa kuunda.

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