A year ago today, I stepped off the plane in Tanzania, after three connections, almost 24 hours in the air and countless years of dreaming about such a moment.
My time in Arusha, volunteering at two orphanages, changed me indelibly, in ways I’m sure are still unraveling. Some things I can sense — the fuller, taller way I carry myself, the burnished vigor with which I give myself to joy and the deeper mindfulness with which I clear a space for sorrow. I am so in love with my family the awareness of my immense fortune sometimes moves me to tears. Life’s little catastrophes are quickly downgraded and complaints often ring with a false significance. Being surrounded by “stuff” can exhaust me, though I have taken to purchasing only what feels like happiness in my hands rather than empty indulgence. Solitude has become a cherished friend.
Yet for all those changes and more, life can still feel glaringly familiar. Besides a new job, the surface looks very much like it did before I departed last May.
As painful as my re-entry was, as I floundered in search of next steps and new directions, longing to be with the kids I’d left to uncertain futures, it didn’t spark the seismic shifts I once imagined. I am not working for the U.N. or UNICEF or engaged in another kind of child advocacy. I haven’t launched major fundraisers or campaigns on behalf of Cradle of Love and Save Africa, or tapped into a predestined purpose I once believed to be tucked into my fervid dreams of volunteering with children on that vast, alluring continent. And though I think about it every time I hear or read of the work someone else is doing to make a sustainable difference there, even the thought of exploring how to start my own nonprofit intimidates me.
But that doesn’t mean I’ve forgotten. Those little ones live with me, in a place that can still feel surprisingly tender and bruised, carved from as much heartache as it was love. I keep their photos on my phone, hear their voices calling “teacher, teacher,” feel the brush of small hands against my cheek.
I keep Lawrence’s socks, the ones worn uselessly thin that he handed me in the yard one day when I presented him with a new pair, in a drawer next to my bed.
The day I learn that Claira has gone to live with her grandmother, I break down sobbing. My “Claira Bean,” the serious, soulful little one I often held in the nursery at Cradle, will now know the steadfast love of family — and the continued diminishing of all she deserves. Her grandmother, who is also taking care of Claira’s older sister, lives in poverty and can barely afford to eat. I know I should feel relief, even gratitude, but I am crushed and heartsore.
I keep in touch with the director of Save Africa through sporadic emails, and he even calls me once just before the holidays, but his sparse English makes communication difficult. And when I inquire about some of the kids by name, I get a blanket affirmation of wellness and missing me. He requests money, too, but I do not feel comfortable sending it without some oversight, though I yearn to know that Jessica and Agnes, Angel and Anuary, Steve and Serafina and all the others are being cared for.
Harriet, the social worker I befriended at Cradle, is now a Facebook friend. We message often, but again language is a barrier. She tells me she misses me and loves me, that I am in her prayers, and I do the same because writing at length or seeking to know more proves frustrating. She, too, asks for financial support — for a nonprofit she has started with a friend to take care of young children and elderly women. It was a goal she shared when I was in Arusha, and I admire her heart and generous spirit, but I cannot in good conscience raise money for what cannot be seen or known.
And so I keep thinking, when I go back…I will help her with her vision, try to create a better structure for support. She will take me to see my Claira Bean, and I will leave the nursery at Cradle of Love behind for the crawlers and the wobblers, in search of the other babies I held every afternoon who have transitioned to another level of care.
I will walk into the yard at Save Africa, smiling and fighting back tears as I scan for familiar faces. I know not every child who greeted me daily with “Good morning, teacher” and clamored to high-five me at the end of the day will be there. I will pray they are in homes where love enfolds them. And I will scoop close those who remain, who have grown up a little but perhaps, just maybe, still hold something of me, and us, in their eyes.
In all honesty, I thought I would have been back by now or at least imminently on my way. When I came home last summer, it was all I could think about. I even priced tickets to travel in January, talked of a return pilgrimage this July. I couldn’t imagine waiting any longer to see those sweet faces again, to feel the dirt of small-town life beneath my feet, the stretch of skin and bones into bright, awakened song.
Tanzania was everything my heart wanted and more than I imagined it could hold.
Once in an unguarded moment last fall, I spilled my longing for all it gave me into a tale of leaving everything I knew here for a life at the edge of the world. But the more distance there is between my journey last summer and the ever-unfolding now, the more making a home in Arusha seems unlikely.
Still, I think of Sarah, a medical volunteer I met there who fell so deeply into the arms of belonging, she knew even before she returned to the U.S. that she would be calling Arusha home within a few months. The vibrant otherness of the land, the “pole pole” way of living, the connections she’d made — they had all reshaped her. She got a job with a medical NGO before I left and offered to put in a good word for me with the staff, who also happened to have a communications position open. I was tempted — even back home, the possibilities floated on the fringes of many a day — but I told myself she was young and unfettered, free of the responsibilities that rooted me. And knowing nothing about what it would entail, I convinced myself such a job was not for me.
Sometimes I wonder if that decision was all cowardice and easy comfort, if I bent too quickly to the same voice that is putting off the trip I initially burned to take this year. It wasn’t that long ago that I’d insisted one week and a few thousand dollars would be well worth even one hug that slit open the story of being forgotten, one moment that spoke of joys retrieved.
Yet despite the best intentions to honor my truth, the frequent exclamations of such a long, expensive flight for so little time have built their restraints.
It would be easy to be disappointed in myself were it not for a piece of advice I received just two months ago from a woman who commended my volunteer experience but also noted the emotional toll it took. Having spent most of her adulthood in careers of service to others, she acknowledged that the very real sense of fulfillment and purpose that comes with such work can also be attended by an unconscious neglect. Individuals who give generously of themselves often struggle, she said, with their own self-care.
In my case, she pointed to my decision, following three years of painful losses, to give from a place so freshly depleted, to show up in the midst of hardship bearing light and love to those in need. I countered that Tanzania filled me up, opened my heart immeasurably. But even as I rushed to refute her wisdom, I could feel myself exhaling, the length of my body settling into something soft and reassuring.
She suggested taking this time to be restored, by the things that bring me joy, in the company of the people who nurture me: “Allow yourself to receive care and tenderness from others. The need for rest and a practice of filling the well is real. Honor that space.”
Whatever called me to Tanzania is still there. Just this week, I received an email from the director of Save Africa asking if I were returning this summer. On Cradle of Love’s Facebook page, I saw a smiling photo of Richard, the first baby I held in the nursery, now among the crawlers. And while putting together some promotional material at work, I connected with a journalist who also volunteered in Tanzania and is writing a book on his experience.
The whispers are always around me. The pull will make itself known. But there are steps I can take on these shores to help me find not only my way back, but my why back — that more encompassing yet elusive piece that delivered me to this dream.
It doesn’t feel as if a full year has passed since I stumbled from customs into the bright sunlight at Kilimanjaro Airport, exhausted and elated. But I think time in Tanzania will always be this way, a heartbeat between worlds — a resonance ringing deeper than what my mind can hold.