TANZANIA, EVERY SWEETNESS: The first time I was here in 2015, more than one Tanzanian wondered aloud in my company how I could possibly be making a difference with the children at the Save Africa orphanage — what did it matter if I played with them, folded them into my arms with words of love they didn’t understand, wove my laughter and theirs into bright, skyward-bound strands? What did it matter when they needed food, clothing, access to health care, an education to help secure their future?
I have never denied those urgent needs. Never believed that love and affection could make up for the deficits in their lives, deliver them from the raw truth of their reality.
But I do know that children need loving connection and physical touch, that their well-being and happiness, their self-esteem and behavior and so many other aspects of their development depend on such heart presence. And I have seen how they blossom in the light of loving eyes, lean into gentle warmth, find joy and comfort in even the most casual of contact. That is the world that reared me, the circle that has enfolded my brother and me and now my niece, and my large extended family. That love is our foundation and anchor, for coming to know who we are and what we’re capable of, for allowing us to reach and try and fail and get back up, for steering us through the turning pages of our lives.
And at Save Africa, that is the world I want to create, no matter how fleeting it may be.
Day after day, I stitch together hugs and cuddles and high-fives. Throw open my arms. Make of my lips a tender, smacking joy. I tickle and give piggy-back rides, break into silly dances, swing little ones into the air. I sit in circles patting and slapping hands in games that never seem to bore no matter how often they’re played.
The kids and I giggle, endlessly. Their laughter rings ruby-bright. And, always, there is the press of an eager body against my hip, my shoulder, my back.
Annie tucks herself under my arm every time she’s near. Rose takes my hand, threads her fingers through mine, scrunching her entire face into an upturned smile. Bitris plants a hesitant kiss on my lips that she will soon divest of shyness.
And there is Hajirati, who slips her tiny frame onto my lap. Anuari, who remains as impish as ever, dangling from some part of my body whenever he can with his sprightly acrobatics. James, understandably reserved when I first met him two years ago as a new arrival, who tries to tickle me every chance he gets.
In all, there are 50 kids at the orphanage. I do not interact with every single one, and like most kids they are imaginative entertaining themselves. But I am aware that, with only four adults to care for them, these moments we spin are sparse. I notice the times when calls to “Mother,” Violet, the assistant manager, fall on weary or distracted ears. I can’t blame Teacher Mary and young Elizabeth for escaping to the occasional quiet of the girls’ room, and though the director Francis is a more affectionate and playful “Father” than I remember, his priority isn’t carving out time for his kids.
I try to acknowledge as many as I can as often as I can, even if it is just the brush of my hand on their backs as I walk by. Sooner or later, those who hang back or cede the space for fun and games to the younger kids begin to slide a little closer, turn into my smile. And I wish for all of them more than a sliver of sun in their lives.
Every day, I take a daladala (the colorful mini buses that serve as public transportation) from the village where I’m staying and hop on another in town, making my way to the orphanage just in time for the kids to return from school. Sometimes I meet them walking along the road, sometimes I hear them calling to me from the yard. The girls often launch themselves into my arms when they see me, and I pepper them with kisses and questions: “How was your day? What did you learn? What was the best part?”
I do not speak their native Swahili tongue, despite my attempts to learn before I arrived. But we manage. They tease me and try to teach me words and songs. They brush their hands through my hair, my sweat, as fascinated by both as they were two years ago. They sprawl themselves around me, and some of my favorite moments are just this: their breathing bodies close to mine as we lounge, content, on the ground.
When darkness begins to fall and it is time for me to leave, someone always asks: “Tomorrow, you come?”
And I return, with cookies and ice cream and milk. Words of marvel and adoration. I return with the scoop of my arms, the elated gusts of a heart pierced by 1,000 sweetnesses.
There are times when I am struck by the mystery of being here. For even though this part of Tanzania has laid its claim to me, my enthrallment can still baffle. This is a land that found me. That’s what I tell a friend who wonders if I’d stumbled upon an online guide he used to write for the region. I never did much research or exploration before deciding to come here — just pushed open the door on a restless, beckoning joy.
Yet every day as I walk or ride through the noise and colorful commotion, the swirl of vibrant colors and animated rush of conversation, the billowing dust that clouds the air, the clamor of all the urgent, inventive, hungry ways people try to make a living, it feels like I have been forever attuned to this place.
I am so much a foreigner. People stare at me wherever I go, curious, haughty, laughing, some with long, hard looks that border on impolite. There are just as many, however, who automatically start speaking Swahili to me, who appreciate the simple greetings and courtesies I have learned. The mantle of stranger slips with every laugh and warm exchange I share. And with each day, my body settles even more into an easy, humming fulfillment.
Everyone who asks cannot believe the brevity of my stay. You must come for a month, two months, three, they tell me.
I know 10 days is not enough. Never will be. But each one spent with these children is more than worth it and I would come for less just to breathe my love through their lives.