TANZANIA, WEEK 2 (June 5): Today, I have officially been here for two weeks. I am aware of how incredibly fortunate I am, witnessing staggering deprivation on a daily basis. Yet though I am reminded of an enviable status every time a local asks how much my iPhone cost, or whether I live on my own back home, or finger a shirt sleeve or pant leg, telling me how much they like my clothing, it takes a morning shower for my privilege to strike with such acuteness, it borders on discomfort.
I awake the day after my fellow house volunteers and I have all gone out dancing on barely four hours of sleep. Though I had showered before we left for ViaVia the night before, I am now coated in stale sweat from hours of non-stop dancing. I feel grimy and despite my intention to throw on some clothes, eat a quick breakfast and go to my placement, I head for the shower instead.
We are lucky in our volunteer house. Water, like in much of Tanzania, is precious here in Arusha. In rural villages, families often share their supply with cattle, and that comes from the paltry store they have walked miles to collect and carried home in buckets on their heads. Their showers, if they have the facilities to take them, are cold and irregular. So, too, it is with many locals in and around town, who fill a small bucket with cold water, using a scoop or cup to pour it over their bodies as they bathe. Those who can afford to heat their water tend to do so over charcoal.
Here, at our house on Kanisa Road, we have a water heater. Showers are encouraged to be no longer than five minutes, yet having a full spray of hot water — even if it can be sporadic — to hit my body after a long day is a luxury for which I am immensely grateful.
But this morning, as I lather up, it occurs to me that I am being both extravagant — and ridiculous. Yes, I may have awakened with the scent of cigarette smoke and sweat perfuming my skin — when I rub the back of my neck, I even feel dirty — but I am about to walk down a dusty road with several volunteers to catch a dala dala. For the 30-plus minute ride to Save Africa, the orphanage where I spend the first half of my day, we will be pressed up against people who may not have washed in days. There will be men and women with smudged trousers and skirts, their bare mud-crusted feet stepping over our shoes, their hands gripping the same bars we do with blackened fingernails.
I may be pushed under an armpit, my knees jammed up against the person sitting across from me. The conductor will lean over me, his breath a blustery puff on my face, as he asks the passengers behind me for their fare. Inevitably, though some are carefully dressed and coifed, body odor will assail my nostrils (later, on this day, one volunteer will share a story of being on a dala dala with goats shoved under her seat).
I will get off the mini bus to traverse a muddy side road in Usa River that leads to Save Africa. There, the stench from the single squat toilet for 50 kids strikes my nose as soon as I walk in since it is immediately to the right of the entrance. Sometimes, the kids relieve themselves with the door open. There are times they miss the hole where they should be aiming, and they often forget to flush. There is no soap in this bathroom, no toilet paper that I can see. The kids do not wash their hands. I have no idea when was the last time they bathed or what their ritual of cleanliness even looks like with one shower for all of them.
I have seen many in the same clothing all week. Sweaters with multiple spatters down the front and unraveling cuffs. Brown-rimmed shirt collars. Skirts barely held together with broken zippers. Pants they have worn sitting in the mud and dirt outside. Socks where the feet and heels have worn away to nothing. I see one of the mamas doing laundry every day. It is in fact all I will see her do while I am there, but what she washes is already worn and often irreversibly soiled to begin with.
Some of the children greet us with dried porridge dusting their lips and cheeks or maybe the remnants of their morning tea. I do not know if they brush their teeth or have ever seen toothpaste, as the toothbrushes I gave to the founder still sit in the office, unopened. Tissues are such a rarity, the first day I give one to Teresia to blow her nose, the children who observe start sniffling, trying to force a runny nose so they may get one, too.
Cuts and other skin irritations rarely get treated. Underneath one girl’s nose has been rubbed raw, the flesh a scaly pink on her dark skin and another has a blister or bump that keeps growing and may require a trip to the hospital.
But even unkempt, these children shine, strike me as possessing a dignity and grace that no amount of preening could imbue.
And every day, I hold their hands. I run my own along their scalps, their backs, their arms. I kiss their foreheads and cheeks. When they hug me or want to be picked up, my heart is a kite that soars.
During play time, they clamber over me, sit on my lap, loop their arms around my neck. They especially love touching my hair, pushing the bangs back from my forehead, as if they’ve been misplaced, given their own closely cropped, unisex hair styles. The girls and boys will stroke my face, wipe the sweat from my neck and forehead when I’ve been swinging them around or tossing them into the air.
Ours is a feast of physical contact.
When I leave them, I will walk for 15 minutes along the major highway that will take me to Cradle of Love. Trucks and dala dalas hurtle by, and piki pikis come up right behind me. I walk along billowing clouds of dust, smoke, and exhaust — to hold babies with wet diapers, and leaky noses, and spit-up on their shirts.
Lucky me to wash it all away every night, after a hot meal, knowing a bed awaits only me. There, after brushing my teeth and figuring out the clothes I will wear the next day, I will burrow under a fleece blanket with a mosquito net draped overhead.
This morning, I am scrubbing off a night of revelry. But there is an Africa I want to remain on my skin, a heartache and destitution I want to cling to my pores. For it will help me to peel back and pare back, to sift what is essential from the plenitude that is for millions here and elsewhere a ravenous dream.
And then there is hope. Flinty and fragile, expanding and evanescent. Mixed in with all that grit. The stain I pray these children never get washed way.