TANZANIA, ARRIVAL: I expect tears to fill my eyes when the car pulls up to Save Africa. That my first words will lurch thickly from my throat or be lost to the silent choke of too many emotions.
I am, after all, less than an hour off the plane when I ask the driver who picked me up at the airport if we can make a stop. It is two years since I have been here, two years since I clasped a dream of vague promise and haunting insistence to make my way to this land.
Then, I arrived as a volunteer, certain only of the yearning to love, to surrender to this beckoning.
For three weeks, after initially being assigned in my first week to a daycare center, I spent the better part of my days at Save Africa, an orphanage in the Usa River village outside of Arusha. Ostensibly there to help teach the children, I relished every opportunity to play and laugh with them, to press them close, run my fingers along their skin, their hair, their shards of soundless dreams.
By the time I had to return to the U.S., I was in love, having opened my heart to these kids with a swiftness and depth I never knew was possible. Tanzania didn’t just slip inside of me with the spellbinding sweetness that stains so many on their first visit to an African country. It wove itself into bone and fiber, claiming me with a belonging that would remain a constant echo another world away.
Now, I am back. I am not a volunteer. I do not have the cocoon of an organization or house of fellow pilgrims to enfold me. I am staying at the home of a friend I made in 2015, even though he is out of the country and I am not familiar with the area where he lives. But Harriet, whom I also befriended then, is here, and I am excited to see her.
But it is the children of Save Africa who have too long lingered on the other side of my longing. And my arms are aching to hold them.
So as we drive through Usa River on the way from the airport, I ask the taxi driver if he doesn’t mind making a stop. Something in me catches at the sight of the Dik Dik Hotel, always my landmark on dala dala (minibus) rides to the orphanage. It rises as he turns into the cluster of shops that will spill us onto the dirt road that runs its way to the green-painted building abutting an open field. I feel a fluttering warmth in my throat with every turn of the wheel until we pull past the stone fence and into the yard and I step out of the car.
I see Francis, the founder and director, and he gives an excited shout as I whoop “Surprise!” He moves to clasp my hands, then to hug me, which he will do at least 10 times during my very brief visit. Violet, who manages the orphanage, and Teacher Mary, whose class I helped out with the last time, approach with wide eyes and wider smiles and we hug as they repeatedly exclaim “Karibu sana” (“You’re most welcome.”)
I am happy to see them and yet my eyes want only to devour the children who turn to me with memory in their eyes. I take in their faces, seeking out familiar planes and lines, notice the curious glances of those who are new, the absence of others I imagine I’ll later see. And where I thought I would cry, carry a sodden unraveling into this reunion, I suddenly feel impossibly light. At ease. As if it were only yesterday that I walked through the door.
I swing children into my arms — Angel, Teresia, Agnes, Annie, Witness, Agripina — cup their faces, float my hands along their arms, their close-cropped hair, and I am swollen with elation — quiet and steady, a robust rooting sprawl. Children I do not know press close and I sweep them in, having always been struck by this bittersweet openness, to affection, to tenderness, to the tide that washes in and out of their lives, depositing scraps of love.
I do not realize I am looking for Jesca until I see her — Jesca who was 9 when I met her and already a caretaker to so many of the children and a helping hand with the cooking and cleaning. Jesca who told me, so matter-of-fact, “I have no mother.” Who refrained from the others’ practice of calling me “teacher” to use my name and cried the day I left.
She has been hanging back all this time, as if waiting to be noticed, a small smile on her face. I go to her, pull her into my arms, remember the last time I held her with welling eyes, struggling to swallow the loneliness of goodbye.
When I draw back, she takes my hand, stares at our clasped palms and then my face. But before we can speak, Francis is by my side, wanting to give me a tour, to show me the changes and improvements around the building.
I go reluctantly, and at one point when we walk past Jesca as he escorts me to see the completed toilets I helped fund with several other volunteers, I brush my hand against her cheek, whisper “I’ve missed this face so much.”
I’ve missed them all, the sharpness of that ache coming back to me as I stand in the place that birthed it.
For months after I returned home the last time, I wanted nothing more than to catch the next plane back. There was no writing to the children, no way to communicate with them save the occasional email from Francis in sparse and halting English.
Eventually, I fell into the rhythms of my life, familiar and yet forever changed. I worked, spent time with family and friends, went on vacation, pursued the hobbies I loved and found myself some new ones. I talked about returning to Tanzania and talked myself out of it. Airline tickets were too expensive. It was too far. I didn’t have the luxury of taking off for an extended period of time.
And, what did I have to offer? I had no grand plan or project to better these young lives, no visionary dream, little of substance to invest. But then I connected with a woman from Australia who after visiting Save Africa had started Arusha Kids Trust, a nonprofit to support the ongoing care of the children and maintenance of the building. She was also committed to finding sponsors to get each child in school. I took on the responsibility of providing for the education of the smart and effervescent Dorcas.
And I started to convince myself once more that it was time for my return. Though I still had yet to grasp what originally called me to Tanzania, didn’t know why this siren song of longing still burned through my chest, once I decided to go back, I knew I was always meant to.
And I knew, too, that love would be my offering and it would be enough.
Looking into all those shining eyes in my first moments there, before I get back into the taxi, it doesn’t feel as if I have just arrived from across 7,000 miles — but am coming home to them, to myself, to a waiting bloom of truth.