TANZANIA, WEEK 1: Though it is a reluctant admission, I am disappointed. The awareness prickles uncomfortably, a barbed truth that I try to dodge for days. I have traveled so far, after all, to give myself to this dream and I wonder if I am overreacting or being unreasonable to feel such dissatisfaction. But when I am told by one of the volunteer program’s staff upon arrival in Arusha that I have been placed in a daycare center, the excitement that has been building for weeks crumbles just a little, my sails deflated before I have even begun.
I think of how long and how many times in the past year I’ve spoken the words, “I will be volunteering in an orphanage.” It’s the program I specifically signed up for, the desire that’s stitched every step of saving for and planning and envisioning this journey. Though I have not yet learned that Tanzania has more than 2 million orphans (a figure that’s on the rise, with 50 percent of the country’s population under age 18 and more than half of its children living in poverty), I do know the numbers are significant. And for as long as my dream has been taking shape, a place that offers these children shelter and some sense of security, fragile though it may be, due to the death or abandonment of one or both parents, is always where I’ve seen myself volunteering.
I think of the many back home supporting such an endeavor, the ones who’ve donated money to provide for the children, who understand the inevitable risk of heartbreak that comes with such a mission. To be placed in a daycare center seems to somehow let them down, as well, to have built my trip on false assumption. But mostly, I fear that what I have come here to give — a clamoring largess of love — will have lost its channel and chance, to flow unchecked, make an imprint in a space of arid alms.
Still, I vow to be open, trust in the unfolding of what is meant for me. And so when Tom takes me to Walk in Love on my first dala dala, the mini buses that most locals use as public transportation, I try to leave my disappointment at the door.
The daycare center has an admirable mission that fits a desperate need. There is in fact a moment when Neema, the coordinator at Walk in Love, is telling me about its history that tears sting my eyes. The center was founded by an American woman to empower families to stay together. A group of caregivers known as the “nannies” tend to toddlers and children averaging up to age 6 so their moms can work to be able to not only support them but keep them. The alternative, says Neema, would be to put these kids in an orphanage, and Tanzania, she adds, has too many orphanages. When a family cannot afford to take care of a child, abandonment is usually the first option. And Walk in Love offers an alternative.
Here, the kids get breakfast and lunch, a snack of fruit, the doting attention of a group of women who are just as happy to be gainfully employed, and pre-school classes when they are of age.
If there were more such centers throughout the country, there might be fewer orphans. But the work of running it remains a challenge, as does securing funding. Walk in Love runs with 13 staff, including Neema, a cook, Teacher Angel, the nannies, and the tailors who sew everything from quilts to laptop covers to raise money for the care the center so diligently provides.
It is an inspiring environment, and I immediately warm to Neema’s conviction and compassion, and so I resolve to settle in.
For a week, I try to convince myself I belong there. I take a dala dala every morning just around the corner from the volunteer house for the short ride to Moshono. I sit in the classroom with Megan, another volunteer, and Angel, a garrulous woman whose own 6-month-old is among the babies being watched by the nannies.
And I revel, despite finding myself in a place apart from my imaginings, in being with the children. Some, especially the ones
too young for the classroom, are shy at first and cry when I approach. But what I mostly find is a ready enchantment, a ballooning of seraphic smiles and giddy limbs eager to wrap their weight around me. Even with Swahili a knot on my tongue and language a dissonant bell between us, we fall for each other hard and fast. By day two, we are a tangle of laughter and dancing, my arms filled with their sweet warmth as I spin them around, swing them back and forth, entertain them endlessly with all the ways I endeavor to pick them up, hold them close, tether their joy fast to mine.
The classroom is a challenge for me. Though Teacher Angel is instructing them, for the most part, in English, the children still speak Swahili (they do greet me in English and have mastered the phrase “Teacher, may I go to the toilet?” even if some hastily drop the words “to the”). Trying to help them with their assignments or correct their mistakes frustrates me as I stare at their blank faces, pointing at their exercise books or the board, making my own markings with their pencils, struggling to convey an idea or explain why what they’ve done is wrong. Learning seems a lesson in repetition and copying from the board and I wonder how much of what is being taught sinks in, how much they truly grasp.
It is obvious some are more advanced than others and Angel tries to cater to their varying capacities, but she also doesn’t seem to mind when they stray from what’s required or when a particular exercise dissolves into a game or other form of play. Sometimes she leaves the classroom to check on her daughter, whose cries she is always listening for. She looks at her cell phone. On more than one occasion, she ignores the demands of “Teacher, teacher” coming from one group of students as she works with another.
The afternoon reading time is a baffling affair, as she pulls down multiple children’s books from the shelf in a room in the other house that also doubles as the lunch room. She passes them out randomly, many of them missing covers or pages, without any attention to what may be age-appropriate. And then the children simply sit and flip through the pages, sometimes with the books upside down, without being able to read a single word or having any read to them.
Yet despite my frustration and puzzlement, and my own sense of inadequacy being able to offer little in the way of educational assistance, Angel and I find an easy camaraderie with each other. She is curious about my life back home and peppers me with questions. And when she learns that, at my age, I have neither children nor a husband — a fact that seems to baffle the nannies, as well — she announces she has just the man for me. “A driver,” she says. “A very good driver. And so handsome. No sweater,” she adds, tugging at the fleece sweatshirt she has on. “White shirt, black trousers — so nice.” It turns out her Robert was once happily married to a woman he loved deeply until she was whisked away by a bank manager, leaving him to raise their child on his own (or this at least is what I can decipher from the drama she spins). He is kind and smart, Angels assures me, and would make a good partner.
Given that she’s already warned me about the dubious intentions of most Tanzanian men when it comes to relationships, suggesting that many are only after a woman’s money, I give little credence to the portrait she paints. Even when she asks one day, “So will you live here with him or take him to America?” I only laugh and shake my head.
As she fantasizes about being our housekeeper in Philadelphia, and taking care of the babies she is sure I will have, I am well aware that to her I hail from a land of untold riches and promise, one many are desperate to reach, even if they have to manipulate their way to get there. (A few days later, when in response to her query, I tell Vicky, one of the nannies, that I love being in Arusha, she eyes me quizzically. “Americans all love Tanzania. Tanzanians all love America,” she says.)
After Angel starts scrolling through my phone one day when I show her a picture of my family, I know her exclamations of “Oh, sweetie, wow!” are an interpretation of wealth. But the truth is, my life appears decadent compared to what she and the other women know. I look at the kids I cavort with and cuddle, see some of them wearing the same tattered clothing several days in a row, their socks torn and mismatched, their shoes a second-hand parade of pink galoshes, purple flowered Birkenstocks, sandals with broken straps, ripped sneakers — colors and styles worn without regard to gender. (One afternoon, a man who looked to be in his early 20s arrived to pick up one of the girls wearing pink ladies’ flip flops that were half the size of his feet.)
The children play with runny noses and food-stained mouths, the nannies every now and then using their colorful kangas to wipe their faces. The little ones who need it don’t get changed as soon as they’ve wet or soiled themselves, and even if lunch is a full serving of traditional dishes such as ugali (a starchy “stiff” corn porridge) and pilau (a flavored rice and meat dish), the afternoon fruit snack is usually just a sliver of orange, a half or quarter of a banana. The center operates from two houses right next to each other, with a full kitchen, bedrooms for the babies and toddlers to nap in, an office and play area, and designated classrooms. But the furnishings are still relatively sparse, the staff minimally (and sometimes irregularly) paid, the running of such an operation neither smooth nor guaranteed.
Yet even in the midst of deprivation, happiness rings out, and it is infectious. The eight-month-old Joshua is reaching for me without a fuss. Sahala, who first screamed whenever I came near, now giggles when I tease her, and Ima, who ran at my every approach, is tossing wide smiles my way and even letting me tickle him. When I walk in one morning, three little girls throw themselves into my arms. Every day, with Megan, my fellow volunteer, out most of that week, I am melting into them more, growing increasingly enraptured by their incandescent affection.
One morning, the rain keeps us all inside during playtime. I am on the floor with one little boy on my lap pretending to be a train, chugging along, moving my legs up and down, encouraging him to “choo-choo” along with me. It isn’t long before four others have tumbled onto my lap and soon all of the kids are waiting for their turn on the train. It is like this often, the
glomming on of one, followed by a surging attachment. If I gather them in a circle, some will shove others aside to be the one holding my hand, and if I pick one up, I will be pelted with a chorus of “me, me, me” as those watching clutch my legs, squirming until I reach for them, too.
I wish I could hold them all at once, wrap us in an unbroken sweetness. The afternoon I become the ringleader in an impromptu dance party, all of the children turning to me to teach them a routine simply because I’ve been moving around the room with goofy abandon, becomes a memory I will always cherish. I am reluctant at first, never expecting such a request but I throw myself into the role of choreographer and teacher with gusto and soon we are all peals of laughter as we twirl and jump and shake our hips, while the nannies look on in amusement. After, when I collapse on the floor, sweaty and breathless, one little girl who has been by my side all morning touches my damp forehead. Suddenly, countless little hands are reaching for me, wiping my brow and my face, cradling my cheeks and smiling with such tenderness, I am torn between tears and the urge to kiss every last one of them.
I rejoice to be with them, but I remain unsettled, still question every morning my purpose in being here. I enjoy Angel’s company, even with her wildly careening hopes, and feel an easy comfort being with the nannies, listening to them banter and tease each other while they try to make me feel welcome in a barebones, fragmented English. They even share their meals with me, and Vicky, who it turns out is a singer, asks if I will show her some dance moves one day.
I am content here. But I didn’t come to Tanzania to be content. It is not that Walk in Love is without need. But its founder is off in the U.S. on a fund-raising trip, a Swedish couple is there donating time and resources, and a Canadian volunteer who speaks Swahili is helping Neema with several projects. In addition to Megan’s and my presence, several other volunteers are expected to arrive in the next few weeks.
No matter how quickly I bond with the kids, which Megan assured me would happen, given her similar resistance to being here when she first started, it doesn’t feel like where I am meant to be. Though I know their lives are far from ideal, I watch them leave with their loved ones at the end of the day, see even the most reserved of faces light up when the gate swings open and a family member strolls through, ready to take them home.
Home. Somewhere they are wanted, a haven they can return to, to pass mornings and nights and weekends and all the other in betweens. A place where someone cares enough to hold onto them, to do whatever it takes to raise them.
The orphans come to know a more tenebrous and brittle security.
I talk to Zion, one of the staff with my local volunteer organization, about my restlessness. She seems both concerned and perplexed, wondering what it is I expected to find at an orphanage that I haven’t at Walk in Love. I do not know for sure, realize my own naivete when she tells me that children who are in orphanages still go to school and that my vision of spending entire days simply caring for them was an unlikely one, as they would be gone during most of my daily volunteer shift there.
Yet some orphanages also run schools, as well, for the children they shelter and others from within the community, and she throws out one where two other volunteers have been sent as a possibility.
“But, do you want to teach?” she asks.
I have to admit I don’t. After my experience at Walk in Love, I doubt it is something for which I am well-equipped.
Yet how do I explain to her the longing that propelled me here when I don’t fully understand it myself? How do I say that what I do know is I am simply here to love, to answer my heart’s calling, in a way that doesn’t sound saccharine or foolish or, worse, ignorant and dismissive of the realities these orphanages face?
I can feel the immensity of that love, have carried it for so long, and am aching to release it to its belonging. I fumble for the words to express this, to somehow convey that this is about more than a “volunteer experience,” goes beyond the novelty of chasing something different.
All I finally hear myself say is “I am not a mother, but I have a lot of love to give,” as tears course down my cheeks.
I hear a brokenness in those words or perhaps it is my assumption of what she must be thinking: that I have tried to have children and failed, that marriage and family have eluded me, that somehow the mother I was meant to be is a dashed dream I carry.
But what I mean, what I have long known is there are countless ways to mother and this, this being here, even with all that is still shrouded from me, is a yielding to a deep maternal expression.
Zion apologizes, perhaps because she thinks our conversation has been too upsetting, or believes I am mourning the losses from which I will find temporary reprieve here. (I have yet to learn that open displays of emotion are against the cultural norm in Tanzania.)
Whatever her reasons, she assures me that she will look into another placement, perhaps with a woman who recently opened a new orphanage. In the meantime, she will arrange for me to visit Save Africa, the orphanage and school in Usa River where the other two volunteers she mentioned are on their final week, and Cradle of Love, a home for babies where she was reluctant to assign me in the first place for fear I would be bored.
Two days later, I take myself to Cradle and Save Africa, the former founded by an American couple, the latter by a Tanzanian. They are starkly different: one a large, fairly modern, well-run facility with a caring and committed staff, the other a seemingly slap-dash operation of patent destitution and dismal conditions.
Love blooms brightly in both. And when I begin volunteering there, so do I.