TANZANIA, WEEK 1: As soon as I began telling friends and acquaintances I’d booked my orphanage volunteer trip to Tanzania last year, the first response was often: “You’re going to come back with a baby.” Some variation of those words escaped even the mouths of those who knew how long and staunchly I’d refuted the role of traditional motherhood for myself. Yes, I had often said that should I ever one day surrender my stance against becoming a mom, I would go the route of adoption. But even as I reminded the insistent and hopeful that I wasn’t going to Africa in pursuit of a child or that bringing a baby back from another country wasn’t as easy as tucking one under my arm (or into my suitcase, I joked), visions of me with one or two little ones continued to dance in many a head. Even my mom half-teasingly planned for the two daughters I would bring home, and the life she’d have to rearrange to help me care for them.
I think about those reactions the first time I visit Cradle of Love. The orphanage, or babies home, as it is often referred to, is an interim care facility for newborns to toddlers. Some have been abandoned by single mothers, some by their fathers, when the mom doesn’t survive childbirth. Others, with a father absent and their mom having died, are brought by family members unable to care for them at the time, and are sometimes reunited with relatives. Some single fathers will place their infants there, unable to provide for them alone at such a young age with an expressed desire to parent when they are a little older. Some parents are too sick, or too crazy, or too drunk to raise a little one, while others, like the woman who walked for miles from her village to bring her Albino son to the orphanage, where she prayed he would be safe from the horrifying witchcraft practice that kills Albino children to harvest their body parts as lucky charms, believe they have no other option than to give up their baby.
Yet at Cradle, while the hope is that every child there will eventually be returned to a loving home or adopted into one, if neither happens by age 3, they are placed in another orphanage.
As soon as I walk in on that first day with two other volunteers, a little girl named Glory runs up to me, stretching out her arms to be picked up. I hold her as I stroll the playroom and she points to the toys on shelves typically well above her eye level. All the while, I can’t help thinking how effortlessly so many of these children trust, how easily they bend to love.
I saw this at the daycare center Walk in Love and will experience it again at Save Africa. Some of the younger kids, especially, are shy and scared, wary even and stubbornly resistant to being coaxed from their shells. But more often than not, a smile and soft touch are all they need to warm up, or a few minutes observing the more outgoing children laughing and at ease in the arms of a volunteer.
Glory is a winsome bundle of sweetness and confidence, aware somehow at her young age that who she is easily charms, that whatever space there is, it is hers to take up. She will approach any volunteer and take her hand in an invitation to meet her exactly where she is, whether playful or moody, mellow or energetic. I learn she has been adopted, and I am not surprised.
I have fun with the wobblers and toddlers, love the way they bounce into my arms, float their chatter and song around me.
But, to my astonishment, it is in the nursery that I choose to spend most of my time while volunteering at Cradle. Well before I’d arrived in Arusha, after learning about some of the options for various orphanage placements, I’d vowed I would not be with the babies. I wanted to spend my time interacting with the older kids, playing with them and caring for them in a way that allowed us to get to know more about each other. I like babies, beam at every one I see in public and marvel at the small wonders born to friends and family. There’s also no denying I was utterly captivated by my niece, in a way I never expected, from the first moment I held her at the hospital. But I’ve always preferred the four- to seven-year-old age group, and even a few years beyond that.
Yet when I walk into the nursery, I find myself wanting to hold every one of the seven babies there, including a preemie who spends most of her time sleeping. I want to pick them up from their cribs, coo to them, bathe them in an unending smile as I feel every cell in me open to a pure and tender joy. As Jessa and Abby, the volunteers I arrived with, play with two little girls in their laps, for long minutes I cuddle a chubby baby boy who gazes at me with dark, intense eyes. He is so somber that his smile, a slow, tugging crease, almost makes me catch my breath when it breaks out across his face.
I play with a baby girl, too, already so active that she’s rolling over on her own, reaching for the toy rattles, the caretakers’ cell phones, my mop of hair, anything she can get her fingers on.
These little ones are being well taken care of, at least compared to what I’ve already learned about some orphanages. When we arrive, they are being fed, and though the change doesn’t always happen immediately, dirty diapers do not go unnoticed or neglected here. One baby girl throws up on herself and within minutes is in fresh clothing.
I know Cradle of Love prides itself on the care it provides. Still, I think about the moments and days when there aren’t volunteers to hold the babies. We are a trio on that first day but without us, I see only two women to tend to all seven tiny tots, and I know frequent and balanced one-on-one attention must be scarce. (Later, as I fall into a regular routine of volunteering in the nursery, there may be three staff at a time there, or employees who will drift in and out to offer support as needed. But still I know it is never enough, see the fatigue on the staff’s faces some days, cringe inwardly with dismay and heartache every time a baby cries unattended in its crib.)
Yet it is obvious these women care, and I love watching when they play with the children, rocking them close, plastering kisses all over their faces, blowing raspberries against their necks and bellies.
The nursery somehow is soothing to me, a restorative to a heart that while immersed in joy every day, carries, too, an inevitable sadness. It is painful to think about what lays ahead for these fresh, young souls, about what happens after age 3 and beyond and even in between.
Even with so many orphanages in this country, adoption is not culturally accepted. Attitudes are changing, I am told, and more families are willing to take in children born outside of their bonds. Still, it’s a slow transition, foster care isn’t a popular option either, and international adoptions have becoming increasingly challenging and restrictive.
I wonder, constantly, what becomes of these children who remain orphans, many of them sheltered in subpar facilities with only a few “nannies” or “mamas” to dole out the love and attention they need — if they aren’t too exhausted and defeated by the staid smallness of their own lives to give it — and us volunteers swinging in to fill a gap that is never permanently closed.
Who will love them forever, be the ones who stay, become an unwavering, nurturing force in their lives?
As I share photos on Facebook, friends still tease me that I will be bringing one of these children home. But the truth is, until I am home, and missing them daily with a haunting ache, wanting in many a moment nothing more than to feel the pliancy of their small bodies in my arms, the urge to make one mine is always a fleeting impulse. It is a tug that presses me close to some bright possibility each time I feel the yielding softness of one of the babies settling against me, or wrap my arms around one of the older children at Save Africa, aware of the way some of their eyes follow me with a shy and shadowed longing. For a moment, I grasp a vision of togetherness, of a more that never quite solidifies, any yearning to build my own forever family vanishing in the flutter of echoes that have long drowned out the notions of me playing such a role.
I want to love them here and now, to laugh with them, rub their backs and shoulders, feel the trusting length of them curled against my side — and to somehow keep weaving more and more of these moments, without having to choose one to be my heart’s orbiting light. I want to string these whispers of love together like beads, a hope they can hold onto, to find some way to churn all this lavished affection into a grand assurance that better will, and can, be theirs.
But what do they know of better, these children who have been born into so little, many of them stripped even of such paucity.
They are happy, these bright and darling boys and girls. They play and fight and tease each other like children do. They can be unfailingly kind and considerate, sharing sandwiches and porridge with those hungrier than they are even if food has been a scarcity; waiting their turn in line for whatever is being offered at any given time; picking up the younger ones who cry or bruise themselves; drawing smiles from the sullen or reserved. They crave attention and can vie for it aggressively but are also content to wander in their own universe, lost in roles and realms of their imagining, whether they’re scooping dirt into their hands, or scribbling furiously in wild, untutored strokes across scraps of paper.
Do they know what it is to be an orphan? When Jessica, one of the older girls at Save Africa, says to me one day “I have no mother,” do the words touch a hollow inside, wind their way to a detached sorrow that can never truly be sutured?
Are they aware of their aloneness, despite being surrounded by friends and mamas and other adults who supply them with a threadbare comfort? Do they know of the heartbreak others carry on their behalf, of the toil and determination that fuels so many efforts to save them, and the hopelessness that can slash them all down?
When the babies cry and no one comes to pick them up and the children at Save Africa cram themselves into bed at night, sleeping three or more to a mattress, when meals are nothing more than black tea from a bucket and the hours run long and slow between nourishment, when the odor of urine and feces drifts from a single toilet in the classroom, I wonder if they ever imagine that something else, something more exists — and hope that it may be possible for their lives.
I do not know.
What I see is that they soak up love, however it comes to them, for however long it stays. And maybe, just maybe, that is a memory of deepening layers, a blessing that seeps into sinew and bone, so that even with all that’s broken and barren in their lives, with every heart that opens to them, the light of their own worth is a kindling reignited, a spark of pure resilience to carry them through the familiar we know to be unspeakable — but is all that they’ve held in this world.