FAREWELL, TANZANIA: It is my last morning.
I ride a piki piki to Save Africa, the Usa River orphanage where I’ve been volunteering, although I said goodbye to the children and staff the day before, was both broken and lifted by their parting serenade.
But as I take the dala dala to Cradle of Love, the babies home where I plan to spend a few hours before my flight to Addis Ababa, I decide to buy a few more supplies for Save Africa. And so I keep going past the stop at Danish to the Dik Dik Hotel, where after disembarking I head straight for the shops just down the road from the orphanage. Since I cannot carry all of my purchases on foot, the shopkeeper calls a piki piki driver, who bundles them onto the back of his bike. But I have vowed never to ride one of these ubiquitous motorcycles and so send him in the direction of Save Africa, while I begin to walk. Yet as I lag behind, juggling the bags I do carry from arm to arm, he finally stops and insists I get on. And because it is raining and the orphanage is in sight, I do.
Teacher Mary and the manager come out to greet me, smiling in surprise, while two of the mamas help the driver unload. I am not planning to stay long, and have no intentions of stepping into the classroom, where the children have already begun their lessons for the day, as I do not want to confuse or distract them, to draw out another tender goodbye. Already, I am behind schedule. I still have to finish packing and I want to get to Cradle to see Harriet, the social worker I’ve befriended there, and the babies I’ve held one last time.
But the manager is excited to have the opportunity to thank me with a volunteer certificate, as she’d been disappointed not to have it ready for me yesterday, thinking my departure was Saturday and today, Friday, would be my last full day at the orphanage. I tell her I do not have much time but she promises she will be quick and takes off at a clip.
I am left in the office, where I have already been spotted by some of the younger kids. Soon, little Angel is tottering toward me, piping “Teacher, teacher,” with all the charm she knows she possesses, and Steve and Glory are standing in the classroom doorway. I wave at them, and move forward, unable to keep the smile from my mouth, my hands from their faces. Three-year-old Glory raises her lips for a kiss, which I happily supply, while Steve tugs on my hand, trying to pull me into the classroom.
I let him get me just past the doorway, hoping to hover unobtrusively for a moment. But I am greeted by the billow of familiar words: “Good morning, teacher, how are you today?” I inch closer to respond: “I am fine, thank you. How are you?” And despite my hesitancy to engage them, I take the moment to let my eyes sweep hungrily over as many faces as I can. I am relieved, and saddened, when they return their attention to their books and exercises after assuring me that they, too, are fine.
I slip back out the door. And it is then I notice Jessica standing in the yard, having materialized from around the side of the building. She remains standing back with her observant eyes, so wary and hopeful, a bruising play of girlish light and shadow. I move toward her, and she takes my hands. She holds them, as she always does, with unbearable gentleness.
“You go?” she asks softly, and I can hear the sadness in her voice.
“Yes,” I say, pushing that single word through a gathering thickness. My chest is pinched as I gaze at her, this beautiful 9-year-old who has already taken on a nurturing role with so many of the children, who dotes on her sister Angel, who with such confidence struck a sassy pose for me one day when I asked if she wanted me to take her picture.
“I’m going home,” I tell her.
Her eyes well, and I pull her into my arms, as my own begin to fill. We stand locked together like this for long minutes, while I rock her, wishing I could give her some sense of something permanent and secure to come. After a while, I draw back, run my hands over her close-cropped hair, tell her I love her as I press kisses to her face. I am afraid I won’t stop crying if her own tears don’t subside, but as if embarrassed or perhaps unaccustomed to such emotional displays, she withdraws. She remains standing before me, and so I lightly take her arms, look into her bright, ebony eyes.
“You are so beautiful,” I say. “You are beautiful and smart and you have many gifts to offer the world. Don’t ever forget that.”
I don’t know if she’s understood all I’ve said, but she fights back more tears. I hug her one more time and let her go, as I sense she wants to be. She moves to stand a few feet away, by the chicken coop, with her back to me, but I can see her swiping at her eyes with the sleeve of her shirt.
I dash into the office and rustle through the bag of clothes I’ve brought with me. I know it isn’t wise to single out one child with a gift, and I was planning to give them all, items from the wardrobe I’d traveled with, to Harriet. But we are alone and because I’ve noticed how, more than the other girls, she is a reliable helping hand for the mamas, see her growing up faster than her 9 years, I want to spoil her — even if for a moment.
I think of my ludicrous internal debate earlier that morning, when I’d pondered keeping two of my favorite articles of clothing from the stack I planned to leave behind and now that they are in the bag, I’m immensely glad.
She turns, and as she comes toward me, I hold out my yellow and green shirt with a butterfly in the center and a brown t-shirt with the word “Joy” framed by embroidered flowers.
“Because joy is what you’ve brought me,” I tell her, my words tremulous once again.
She takes them, almost uncertainly. I have seen here that there is no such thing as an individual gift. What belongs to one belongs to all, and I cannot guarantee they will remain in her sole possession. But for now, I assure her they are hers, and before she carries them inside to the girls’ bedroom, I catch her tracing the butterfly lightly with her fingers. Our eyes meet briefly and we smile, though my heart aches to give her so much more, to weave some magic that will gift every one of these kids with the largeness of life they deserve.
I walk around to the hut, where Alexandra, a fellow volunteer, squats before the wood fire, making the kids a pasta lunch, and spend some time with her before returning to the office to wait for the manager, while Angel and Teacher Mary keep me company and sing to me. When the manager returns, after I’ve been at Save Africa for at least 45 minutes, she is out of breath — and without a certificate, which apparently was not ready. The founder has appeared by now and before he escorts me out, she hugs me repeatedly, telling me I must come back.
I assure her I will, a promise I imagine she’s heard from many a volunteer. But I cannot fathom never seeing those faces again.
The founder escorts me all the way to get a dala dala. Though I planned to walk to Cradle of Africa, as I’ve been doing every day for the last three weeks, I do not object because the gesture seems important to him. He is his usual mixture of business and breezy gratitude as we walk, though he asks, too, about my time in Tanzania and whether I will return. He is grateful for my affirmative response, and after some comical and profuse haggling between two dala dala conductors for my passage on their too-empty buses, he gives me a big hug, pumps my hand, and I am off to Cradle.
There, I find the babies asleep and struggle to release my disappointment.
Normally, a volunteer would be asked to return another time when the babies are napping but when I tell the mama on duty that this is my last day, she lets me stay. And I spend long, delicious moments at each crib, staring at their faces in quiet repose, feeling a rush of sadness, of hope, of gratitude that I get to be here, that I’ve had the gift of holding each one during my afternoons in the nursery.
Claira and Costancia are in a crib together, Costancia’s hand lightly resting on Claira’s head. Richard and Happygod sleep hand to feet. Laureen has a thumb close to her mouth and a rattle near her blanket, as if she needed some exertion or distraction before giving into sleep. Ndanini dozes in her tiny crib, flawlessly peaceful, while Mlihati, the preemie, is nothing more than a pinched, precious face peeking through a thick swaddle of blankets.
As I move from crib to crib with silent reverence, my eyes begin to swim. Torn from so much, these tiny souls still know nothing but trust. I have never seen a single one squirm away from arms that reach for them, have noticed the way they turn to the door from their cribs when someone new walks in, as if to ask, “Who has come to love me now?”
Making my way around the room, I begin to pray for each one, that now will one day be forever, that they will know the comfort of a stable and secure family life, the joy of seeing their light in a steadfast gaze.
At some point, as I repeat my steps and my silent words, Happygod awakes. His eyes find me and I stop and smile down at him, waggling my fingers, unsure if this is an unwelcome interruption to his nap or if he’s slept long enough. I keep making my way around the room, keeping my fervent goodbye vigil.
But then the mama indicates I can pick him up and my chest is a flutter of happiness. He reaches for my arms as I reach for his and I press his weight close one last time, kiss the curves of his face, always so relaxed, as he grins and puts a hand on my collarbone. I walk with him for a bit, inhaling the milky, sleep-damp scent of him. He laughs when I lightly toss him into the air, make soft, blowing sounds against his belly. And I think how much I will miss this, such simple comfort, such aching gladness.
After a while, I take him to the couch and cradle him in my arms with a slow, rocking motion in the dim room, where all the curtains have been drawn. And I am content to rest like this, just me and him and our curious and tender colliding glances, while he sucks his thumb and I stroke his soft skin and home feels like a future impossibly far away.
Then Harriet comes in search of me, leads me back to the front office where I found her earlier, while Happygod watches my slow exit from the lap of the mama, who thanks me for my time at Cradle.
In the office, Harriet and I chat briefly, as I feel the afternoon bearing down upon me. I want to linger, to have more time with this dear, dear woman. I think of how she insisted on paying my way on the dala dala when we traveled together, the way she’d put out her hand to keep me from walking into traffic, the compassion she expressed toward the patients when we toured Tengeru Hospital, stopping at every single bed to talk with the sick and their visiting families. She is undeniably genuine. Harriet, who slaps my hand with an easy affection when she laughs, who sends me texts wishing me good night at the end of every day, who talks of the necessity of hope. She tells me she loves me as if I were her sister.
I offer her the clothing I pared down at Save Africa, along with a few items for the little ones’ care and a gift for her son, and she presents me with my first kanga, the colorful garb that adorns so many of the women here. With the help of another staff member, she cuts the fabric in two, shows me how to wrap one half across my shoulders, tie the other around my waist.
And this is how I leave Tanzania, wrapped in my kanga, layered in love, with every hearty goodbye a breath away from sorrow. Before I am driven to the airport I stand barefoot in the yard at the volunteer house, wanting the soil beneath me, seeking a rooting that cannot be erased. But as I step onto the plane, letting the tears roll, unchecked, down my face, I know I will always be here. Because this is not only where I gave my heart, it is where I found it, vigorous and vast beyond what I could ever grasp, refusing nothing to bloom in untamable truth.