TANZANIA, WANTING EVERYTHING AND NOTHING: It is Saturday, and I am taking five kids to the supermarket.
The day before, when Witness discovered I would come to the orphanage on Saturday (official volunteers use their weekends to travel and relax), she asked if we could go to the store. “Of course,” I said, never imagining the occasion this would turn out to be: as I leave that day, she is washing her favorite pants, and when I arrive on Saturday, all five girls who will be coming with me (Jesca, Angel, Agripina and Teresia, as well as Witness) are “dressed up.” They are in skirts and jeans — jeans apparently being the height of fashion as Jesca always tells me I look “smart” when I wear mine — spotless shirts and shoes that match.
Making our exit isn’t easy as more than a dozen other kids clamor to go with us, but Violet has agreed to a small group, with Elizabeth to accompany us. It would be impossible to take all 50 kids, but my heart is heavy knowing the disappointment we leave behind.
We walk the 15 minutes to the Leganga Supermarket, where I ask the girls what treat they’d like to have. Ice cream gets the unanimous vote and so we stand at the freezer counting out bar after bar as we fill my basket to the brim. Before returning, I buy each one of them a candy bar, a small, secret indulgence, which they hurry to finish along the walk back.
Our small adventure is bittersweet. It’s not just seeing their excitement over the seemingly routine but knowing how rare it is that they experience the world outside what it is they know — school, the orphanage and the church that sits across the road.
When we stroll through the yard at Save Africa, the disappointment of those who stayed behind evaporates … or perhaps has already found its place in the silent hollow where these things lay, the ghosts of “no” and “never,” the hopes that have folded their wings, the longing that will never know its shape.
Their happiness appears instant the moment I place the ice cream in their hands — and so is their gratitude.
This is how they teach and bless me, with appreciation and kindness, with a joy that keeps its copper glint.
They teach me when I arrive with laden arms and even the youngest rush to help, sometimes tottering with the weight of bags of milk or flour or cookies but insisting they can carry it.
They teach me in their ragtag wardrobe, the too big and too small, the blend of casual and formal, with mismatched shoes and tattered socks, missing buttons and broken zippers replaced with makeshift clasps. Many will wear the same stained or ripped clothes day after day, with their “finest” reserved for church.
Want is a fugitive flutter in their eyes, wistfulness a dark scent that rises from their skin. When I reach for a tissue and press it to a runny nose, there is a splay of hands before me, an exaggerated sniffling and feigned congestion in order to hold something that is theirs. This happened often on my first trip, and it stirs the same sad ache.
When I buy the girls earrings because they have been admiring mine and I’ve agreed to leave behind a pair each for Jesca and Witness, I fail to realize they don’t all have their ears pierced. Bitris touches her naked lobes, raises forlorn eyes to mine. I will return with a bracelet the next day but in that moment as I scrounge through my pocketbook, all I have is my hand lotion. When I make a dubious show of it to her, she reaches for the bottle, a wondrous smile on her face.
One day, I buy a soccer ball and jump ropes. The kids have no toys, though the other volunteers and I bought a few when I was here two years ago. I observe remnants of them, stashed on shelves in the office. It is hard, and expensive, to find well-made toys as most come from China and will never endure the wear and tear of 50-plus energetic kids. They also aren’t the wisest purchase, sparking jealousy and dejection when one toy can’t be gifted to every single child.
But mostly, they are good at sharing, which they do the day I arrive with the only five jump ropes available in the store. There are cries of “Teacher, me, me!” though soon several groups have games of double dutch going in the yard. The boys immediately take to the field behind Save Africa with the soccer ball, inviting me to join in.
Their play is otherwise a more fixed and simple routine. Every day after school and on weekends, the kids are in the yard, playing hopscotch using pieces of broken tile to sketch their steps, drawing each other repeatedly into hand-clapping and singing games, running, laughing, lazing on the ground in the swell of bright and aimless chatter.
Since my last stay, their lives have undeniably improved, thanks to the Australian nonprofit Arusha Kids Trust started by Kathy and Chris, who are making their annual visit when I arrive. It is because of them that so many of the kids are now in school, that they have their uniforms and books, backpacks and shoes and other supplies. That Save Africa receives a weekly food delivery including eggs and vegetables. That there is someone to check in on maintenance issues, stay on top of eye exams and other doctors’ visits — even if from afar.
Yet, will it ever be enough? I know there are still days when they go without meals. They still sleep three to four to a single bed. Glory has an oozing growth on her head that might have been ignored if we weren’t there to see it. In one of the rooms, a cracked window poses a security risk because there is always the question: what is the best use of these limited funds?
But just when I think their worlds are so small, their palms open to so little, their laughter is a bell that chimes, their bodies a rupture of radiance.
And I am reminded over and over again of what it is to be rich. Of how resilience feeds on our capacity for joy. And how wisdom finds few greater teachers than the budding, artless child.