Her name is Elizabeth. She’s about to turn 9, lives in the shadow of Mt. Kilimanjaro in Moshi, Tanzania, and wouldn’t know Maine from the back side of the moon.

But she knows Seth Diemond — by day a student at the University of Southern Maine and by night a cook at Binga’s Stadium Smokehouse and Sports Bar in Portland. In fact, she even has a special name for him.

“Mzungu Wangu,” Diemond, 22, said with his ever-present smile last week. “It means ‘my white person.’“

It might as well mean “savior.”

For the record, Diemond wanted very much for this story to not be all about him. He’d be much happier if from this point on, we focused solely on little Elizabeth and the countless other kids like her who live half a world away in mud-walled huts, rarely have enough to eat and consider a new pencil, let alone a decent education, nothing short of a gift from above.

“Really,” said Diemond, “my name is the least important part of this.”

Elizabeth might beg to differ.

It all started two years ago next month. Diemond, at the time a sophomore at Plymouth State College in New Hampshire, was heading home to Portland for the holidays when a close friend from his days at Deering High School asked what he had planned for winter break.

Snowboarding up at Sunday River topped Diemond’s list — at least until his friend told him she was headed to Africa for a three-week volunteering trip. Interested?

“Why not?” replied Diemond, ever the adventurer.

Working through Cross Cultural Solutions, an international volunteer placement organization, Diemond soon found himself standing alone at the entrance to the Faraja Orphan Center on the outskirts of Moshi.

He knew two, maybe three words of Kiswahili, the native language. The orphanage director, a kindly man who went by “Baba Masawe,” spoke little to no English.

“You teach,” Masawe said that morning, pointing to a nearby classroom. “You teach.” Right.

Kiswahili-English dictionary in one hand, chalk in the other, Diemond did what he could. From the English vocabulary to the rudimentary math to basic life skills like washing food and personal hygiene, he couldn’t help but wonder if any of these wide-eyed kids had a clue who he was, why he was there and what he was talking about.

Except, that is, for Elizabeth.

“She sat way in the back of the class — didn’t utter a word,” he said. “She was so shy, but I saw that she was paying attention. It was like she was hanging on every word.”

What’s more, Diemond would soon realize, she was brilliant.

Elizabeth lived with her mother and six siblings across a wide river from the orphanage — in some cases, children with one or even both parents are admitted to the school based on their need and motivation. She crossed the river each morning and afternoon with her books on her head, struggling against the swift current to avoid being swept downstream.

“I did it once,” Diemond said. “It’s scary.”

The three weeks flew by. Before he knew it, Diemond was scouring the rickety roadside marketplace to buy three dozen bottles of soda, a few bags of peanuts and even fewer pieces of candy — he figured if he had to say goodbye to his newfound friends, they should at least have a party.

But before Diemond left, he knew there was one other thing he had to do. With her mother’s heartfelt blessing, he enrolled Elizabeth in the nearby St. Louise English Medium Primary School — a major step up from the orphanage school that came with a relatively astronomical, $500-per-year price tag.

Diemond, who’s supported himself (including college loans) since high school, paid every cent. And no, it wasn’t easy.

To save on tuition, he transferred to the University of Southern Maine, where he double-majors in political science and international studies. To cover the rent on his Munjoy Hill apartment and pay his other bills, he started working 35 hours a week at Binga’s.

And to pay Elizabeth’s way, he thought twice whenever he felt the urge to head out for a night on the Old Port and asked himself, “How badly do I need to do this?”

He also looked beyond just Elizabeth — thanks to his family and a few close friends, three more kids from the Faraja Orphan Center now attend St. Louise’s. And thanks to a benefit art sale he organized last spring that raised almost $2,000, a college-educated, English-speaking teacher now instructs the kids at the orphanage.

Through it all, Diemond kept in touch with Elizabeth. They spoke by telephone every six months and she regularly wrote him letters in crayon and colored pencil — Masawe, the orphanage director, would scan them into his computer and e-mail them to Diemond.

But it wasn’t enough.

Last May, just hours after his final exam at USM, Diemond boarded a plane for a nine-week trip back to Tanzania. The moment she saw him waiting outside St. Louise’s on his first day back in Moshi, Elizabeth dropped everything, sprinted across the schoolyard and launched herself into his arms.

“I see this girl as my daughter and she sees me in a lot of ways as her father,” Diemond said. Touching his heart, he added, “Regardless of skin color, biology — it doesn’t matter. It’s that connection we built in here.”

One afternoon last summer, Diemond took Elizabeth into Moshi for her first-ever cheeseburger — actually, two cheeseburgers with a double order of fries.

“Elizabeth, you’re doing tremendously well,” he told her. “I’m so proud of you. Your mother is so proud of you. And your teachers love you. You’re the angel of their classroom — they all say you come in, you do your work and you go home and you study.”

“I wish it was like that,” lamented Elizabeth, fluent in English after little more than a year. “I go to class and I do my work and I pay attention. But I go home and I have to help my mother, I have to do chores, I have to tend the field and do the laundry and take care of my little brother and sister.”

“But you have so much potential,” Diemond said. “Couldn’t your time be better spent studying?”

“Yes!” Elizabeth replied. “I want to study! I want to study!”

It was, for Diemond, a pivotal moment.

“You just don’t see that in many little kids,” he recalled. “It was like, ‘Holy crap! This is something special!’“

Well aware that the best of intentions can sometimes backfire, Diemond sat down the next day with Elizabeth’s mother. Speaking in Kiswahili, he gently asked how she’d feel if Elizabeth, her pride and joy and the only one of her seven children to ever set foot inside a classroom, were to go to a full-time boarding school.

Her mother, who speaks no English, almost fainted.

“Please!” she told Diemond.

A few days later, Diemond and a very nervous Elizabeth walked into the Ebenezer Education Trust Nursery and Primary School, nestled among the cornfields against the backdrop of majestic Mt. Kilimanjaro.

“They stood her up in front of a class and they just started rattling questions at her — ‘Spell this word,’ ‘What’s three times 12,’ ‘Read this page out loud’ ” Diemond said. “She was very nervous, she looked off to the side rather than look at the other kids. But she aced every question.”

Four months later, Elizabeth ranks among the top five in her third-grade class.

What once cost Diemond $500 a year now tops out around $1,200 — not counting the sleeping bag and mat, clothes, toiletries and school supplies that he lugged into Elizabeth’s new dormitory before he headed home. He even left money with Masawe so Elizabeth’s mother and siblings can afford the 20-minute bus ride to the boarding school’s monthly family weekends.

In other words, Diemond isn’t exactly wallowing in beer bucks these days. But if Elizabeth can make it work over there, he figures, he can certainly make it work over here.

This Wednesday, you might see Diemond at the Portland Farmers Market in Monument Square selling greeting cards to raise money for the kids at Faraja.

On the front of each card is a pen-and-ink drawing of a child from the orphanage — Charles Jackson, a local artist who cooks alongside Diemond at Binga’s, adapted the images (at no charge) from the many photographs Diemond has brought home from Tanzania.

Diemond will also be on Congress Street selling the cards during the First Friday Art Walk on Dec. 3. (Or you can order a set of cards directly by contacting him at [email protected])

Then on Dec. 15, as soon as he wraps up his last exam at USM, Diemond will fly back to Moshi for yet another six-week volunteer mission at Faraja — and, of course, to check up on Elizabeth.

So how does a little African girl get this lucky? What are the odds that an erstwhile snowboarder from faraway Maine would one day appear and, just like that, become her “mzungu wangu”? Her very own white person?

Diemond smiled and shook his head.

“You know what? I’m the lucky one,” he said. “She’s transformed my life more than I think I could ever transform hers.”

How so?

Diemond thought about it for a few seconds.

“She gave me an opportunity to find something I’m passionate about, something I love from the bottom of my heart,” he said. “And at the same time, even if it’s in this one small way, an opportunity to make a difference.”

Mission accomplished.

Columnist Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at:

[email protected]