TANZANIA, WEEK 4: “We are good mamas.”
Alexandra makes the proclamation after the last slices of bread are sliced and smeared with peanut butter, though we are not at our usual lunch post — huddled around a plastic table donated by two volunteers in a spartan room at Save Africa, where the kids line up every day to receive their porridge and peanut butter sandwich.
Tonight we are at the table where our own meals are served, in our volunteer house, putting together their lunches before we go to bed in anticipation of the big surprise we have planned for the next day.
As Alexandra beams, surveying the empty tubs and halved sandwiches stuffed into plastic bags, my heart lifts. She is a new volunteer who has joined Emma, Jeorgia and me at our placement at Save Africa in the town of Usa River. While she has one more week to go, this is the last for our trio, and her fresh optimism and enthusiasm are balm for these bittersweet dwindling days.
Her declaration is also affirming, given the abject futility and frustration that have accompanied the last week, along with a miserable 24-hour bug that kept me home for a full day with vomiting and diarrhea, and forced me to cancel much-anticipated plans to visit Small Steps for Compassion, an orphanage for young girls, with its director, Juma.
As the days begin to fly by, I think often of the doctor back home who told me my time in Tanzania would be just enough: two weeks would cast my volunteer trip in an idealized light whereas four was just enough to carve a deeper authenticity. Though she assured me I’d be ready to return home by the end of my four weeks, every day I long for more time, another week, another month, a larger window to make a more meaningful impact. But I also have to admit the past week has been so wrenching, I experienced my first true bout of homesickness.
Still, I am aware of time slipping away every morning, especially the day I awake, feeling the greater emptiness and quiet of the house after the departure of four volunteers well before dawn. Two of them, Kirsty and Izzy, had been at our house in Arusha for months when I arrived and made me feel instantly welcome with their warmth and kindness. Our morning walks to catch the dala dala to our various destinations, our afternoon check-ins when we all arrived home for dinner, our movie nights and lounging on the patio sharing stories not only of our hardships and joys with our kids but of our lives back home were all imbued with their vibrant energy. Though there were moments I craved solitude, wanting some small, private space to hold the tenderness of my heart, and their boisterous twenty-something insouciance proved tiresome at times, I appreciated the steady presence of these bright, free spirits.
The day they leave, I am surprised by how keenly their absence strikes me, by the heavy stir of sadness. Two days later, the rest of us will send Rebecca off in a giant group hug, standing in the driveway waving and hollering until the jeep ferrying her to the airport, and ultimately her life back in England, disappears. Even with frequent new arrivals, these are days of endings and exits and with every one, I feel a sense of finality, the creep of fading minutes and hours, of goodbyes I am not prepared to make.
My imminent leave-taking is harder to bear, given the tumult of the past week at Save Africa, where we have watched contractors begin laying a foundation for new toilets some of us have agreed to pay for before we’ve shelled out a single shilling or drawn up any kind of agreement. Even when my volunteer coordinator visits the orphanage after we express our concerns over the founder’s haste and the estimates he shared, and those of us who plan to contribute funds for the project reiterate the need for a contract and second opinion, the work continues. Beyond that, we want to be sure the children will be the ones to use these new facilities, given the single shower and squat toilet shared by more than 50 of them inside the orphanage. The founder promises they will be for the kids.
But, as has become the norm, his English is more voluble when he is telling us something we want to hear, but halting and confused when confronted with any suspicions of dubious objectives or the intimation that he and his staff may not have the children’s best interests at heart. Yet it is difficult to believe he is fueled by pure altruism, painful to hear the children call him “Father” when some hidden agenda appears to lurk behind the intentions he professes to be for their care.
One day, I walk with him to the nearby village shop to purchase bulk foods: 10 kilos each of rice, beans, flour, and sugar, and 10 liters of cooking oil. I also buy 10 kilos of detergent. Later that afternoon, another volunteer from a different program tells me he will be escorting her to buy food. He has made no mention of our own shopping trip earlier, and though this aggravates us both, we think at least the children will have more to eat.
The following day, when they are served only lukewarm black tea for lunch (where at least is the cream from the two cows that are supposedly regularly milked?), I am devastated and furious. Not only has the food we bought gone untouched but the remaining week’s worth of bread and peanut butter purchased for their lunches was used for dinner the night before.
It is impossible for me to grasp, though I witness both repeatedly, such patent indifference and neglect. There are times when a film of anger makes a paper-thin layer of the joy that is my greater companion: on the days Teacher Mary is sick yet the manager spends more time chatting with her and the other mamas than lifting a single finger to help with the kids; when a young man shows up with a duffel bag full of used and gently new clothing that the founder encourages us to buy but the kids continue to be dressed in rags; when I make my own purchases of clothing and socks at the market, despite the insistence that I buy only from this mysterious purveyor, and then learn the children will only wear these items to church on Sunday, when they, and the orphanage’s reputation, are on display before the community.
The morning I see Lawrence in the same socks he has been wearing for weeks, socks with the heels and toes worn bare, I march into the bedroom and grab an orange pair from the stack I placed on the shelf with the rest of the children’s clothing just the day before. I walk up to him in the yard at recess and insist he take off the shoes he has since put on, and then his socks. He is hesitant at first, regarding me with puzzled eyes, but then he does what I ask, and I hand him the new pair of socks, balling up the dirty, useless pair he hands me as I turn away.
Later, he sails over to me, and points to his feet. His shoes are back on but I see the flash of orange below his too-short pants, take in his grinning face. He is standing a little bit taller and prouder, and I hug him to me with a smile.
Yet I cannot shake my despair and exasperation over how much we are providing and how little is being used. I tell myself the food is being stockpiled, saved for leaner days when the volunteer season hits its inevitable dip and there is little means of providing for the kids. I remind myself of how exhausted the mamas must be, caring for so many on their own in the long hours between our placement shifts that just the thought of cooking for all those mouths can overwhelm them.
But this is what they have signed on for, to be responsible for these vulnerable young lives, and I am crestfallen, even as I wonder about their own stories, that doing so does not seem to be their top priority.
Before I arrived in Tanzania, I was cautioned about the kind of generosity we as volunteers are tempted to lavish on the children. While no one will ever deter fundraising to provide for the kids, there is often concern that we will set up the expectation to support them financially for the duration of our placement, when the time we are giving is an equally valuable resource.
The more I feel taken advantage of at Save Africa, the more I have to wonder if so much giving results in the scarcity I see, if we are constantly being manipulated, the daily deprivation there not only brandished to tug on our heart strings but amplified to compel our monetary donations. Yet if we walk away, disgusted and fed up, the children are the ones who suffer.
In the days that remain, it becomes more challenging to know if I’ve made a difference, to see any real impact from my presence, which is how Emma, Alexandra and I come to be making sandwiches at the dining table two nights before I leave.
The next morning, a tour bus I have rented for the day picks us up, along with Jeorgia, to drive us to Save Africa. We stop before we get there to buy fruit, milk and juice to supplement our sandwiches. And as we pull up along the fence on the familiar dirt road, and the manager runs out with unbridled curiosity to greet us, I will retract every accusation of laziness and negligence I’ve made against her when I see the joy wash over her features after I announce we are taking the children on a surprise trip to the park. She whoops with excitement, and then, as if overcome, runs into the office and back out, beaming and flailing her arms, crying out elatedly to Teacher Mary.
The founder appears, too, having been alerted to this change in the kids’ routine by my volunteer coordinator, and though he at first seems concerned, wanting to know every detail of where we will be, he is soon reduced to only one word, “Wow,” as he clasps and squeezes my hand. By the time we walk into the classroom, news has spread, and the children are giddy, electrified and radiant as they reach for our hands, search our faces as if disbelieving this rare opportunity to leave the orphanage purely for fun.
Today, many of them are wearing the clothes we have bought them, after a Swahili-speaking volunteer coordinator arrived one day to address our concerns about wanting to see all we were providing put to use. Others are hastily swept into the bedrooms to change. They are all rambunctious — save poor Carolina, who is not feeling well but does not want to miss out — as they jostle for our attention to claim seats beside us on the bus.
When we are all aboard, including Teacher Mary, the manager, the founder and all nine of us volunteers, Edina, one of the mamas, briefly steps up to offer a prayer. Then she is on the road, beside the bus, waving as it pulls away and the children wave back, calling affectionately to her.
And thus we are off for what I know will forever remain one of the happiest days of my life. As the children cavort at Ngurdoto Mountain Lodge, where they have the sprawling playground all to themselves, we are gifting them with a palpable expression of our caring.
I know they have many other, very real needs, and the founder of Save Africa has himself shared with me a list of all he would like to accomplish at the orphanage, no doubt with the financial contributions of volunteers. But on this, my last day with the kids, I’ve chosen to spend my money directly on them by organizing and funding this outing.
When we push them on the swings, spin them on the merry-go-round, and chase them as they clamber across the monkey bars and tumble down the slides, their laughter sings to me, a soundtrack sure to echo through the days to come. I want to imprint upon them a sense that their happiness matters to us, that they matter. And while toilets and doors that lock and even all the kitchenware Alexandra and I purchased at the market the weekend before are all necessary, so, too, is a tangible connection to joy, to comfort, to love.
We feed them a picnic lunch and later watch as they stand in awe observing the zebras, porcupines and other animals at a nearby game lodge — our second surprise stop before we return to the orphanage. There, we hand out lollipops and, led by Teacher Mary, they sing for Jeorgia and me the heartbreaking goodbye that is their farewell to all volunteers, as I struggle not to dissolve into tears. I do not succeed and throw open my arms, following their last note, to hug and kiss as many as I can.
I want to take each individual face in my palms, especially the ones I never got to call by name because I want them to know I saw them, too, that their light has blessed me more than they can ever imagine. I want to feel the press of each hand, burrow into the warmth of every smile, to carry that crescent of hope.
But it has been a longer day than usual for them, our bus is waiting, and I prefer to leave them basking still in waves of gladness, in a happy kind of exhaustion from all of our unexpected activity. So I am backing out the door, teary-eyed amid my flurry of blown kisses and high-fives and the repetition of the Swahili phrase I am most grateful to have learned.
I love you very much.
I do, dear hearts, I do.