TANZANIA, AN ANGEL AND A BROKEN SONG: I am riding a boda boda through the village of Sanawari with my face to the sky. I am half marveling at the expansive spray of stars spiking the darkness but mostly I am trying to wish on every one of them while fighting back tears that heedlessly spill down my cheeks.
Harriet, my friend who accompanied me here, is riding on a bike ahead of me and all around us dust swirls, more dust than I’ve ever seen, sweeping around and past us, leaving its grit in my eyes.
This will be my excuse, I think, if I can’t compose myself before we stop: my eyes are simply irritated.
But it is precisely because of the dust that Harriet detects my tears (as I will later note their stain on my coated cheeks when I look into the mirror at a local restaurant).
“You have been crying?” she asks, standing before me when we’ve both dismounted.
And though I am ready with my excuse, though I know Tanzanians aren’t emotionally expressive and I remember the story she told me about a sensitive ex-pat whose weepiness often confounded, and sometimes even irritated, the locals who witnessed it, I nod my head with a thick yes.
And the tears begin to fall again, faster and harder.
“But why? Because of Claira?”
I stammer another yes and then murmur how terrible I feel leaving her to the circumstances in which I’ve just seen her.
Harriet knows. She had already warned me about the stories she’d heard of how much of a struggle life is for her. But still, I wasn’t prepared for what greeted me.
Claira, or my Claira Bean, as I took to calling her when I visited her in the nursery at Cradle of Love babies home in 2015, was placed in the care of the orphanage because her mother was “crazy” and her grandmother couldn’t afford to care for her. I took to her with a lightning intensity that I didn’t expect, drawn to her small, serious face and wide, somber eyes filled with a knowing beyond her years. She was my blessing and my bruise, the one I wished to spin into a tender cocoon every time I saw her and all the other babies babbled happily, quieted too easily and she demanded more.
Last year, her grandmother, who was raising her older sister Vanessa, decided she wanted Claira home with her.
I remember how I sobbed, so unexpectedly, when Harriet wrote me the news, grateful she would be with family, devastated by the destitution that awaited her.
But this, when we arrive in Sanawari tonight after I leave Save Africa, is not what I envisioned.
The family lives in a one-room house with a dirt floor, a cramped space smaller than my bedroom with a single half-boarded-up window and a rusting door that is swung open against a scrap of billowing curtain. There is a single couch and what might be a bed but is for the most part an indistinguishable pile where the grandmother sits while Harriet and I occupy the couch. The floor is a sliver of emptiness in the midst of stacked buckets and items I can dimly make out in the shadows as there is no electricity and this path off the main dirt road is pitched in darkness.
The grandmother (Bibi in Swahili) is glad to see Harriet and I notice a little girl in a blanket on the couch who we learn is Vanessa. Claira I eventually see peeking around her grandmother’s kanga, shy and hesitant.
Happiness shoots through me at just the sight of her tiny face, tilted up at Harriet and me in guarded curiosity. As Bibi and Harriet begin speaking in Swahili, I hear Harriet mention my name and soon I am reaching for Claira as she is handed off to me, albeit reluctantly.
She seems unsure what to make of me as I chatter at her, whisper her name, run my hands all over her, lingering on her head, her heart, that slight and too-wise face. But it isn’t long before she is smiling and of course intrigued by my phone, which is an easy ice-breaker with children, and after a few photos and videos that I play back for her and Vanessa she is giggling wildly.
As the minutes stretch past an hour, while her grandmother and Harriet talk, she becomes a stream of laughter, electric and giddy as we play with each other. I tickle her, make funny faces and even funnier noises, toss her up and down on my lap, let her clamber all over me and arrange herself into whatever position ensures the most fun in her mind. She squeals and issues commands that I take to mean “more” or “again” in Swahili while Vanessa tries to talk to me, too. I include her in my hugs, kisses and playful squeezes but I am fixated on Claira, whose laughter washes over me like the brightest dessert song. I find myself hitting the record button on my camera multiple times and just letting it run in the darkness, wanting that sweet ringing to be more than a memory that fades.
When I first held Claira I felt the rush of tears but now there is only this, tendrils of pure joy floating on the night.
Every now and then Bibi looks at us and laughs or smiles and Harriet leans in to play with Claira, too. I see her grandmother wiping tears from her eyes at one point and Harriet tells me she has shared she begs for food.
I tell Harriet we will buy her some, which she agrees is better than giving her money.
But we sit with her for a while longer. She asks to be photographed and when I hand Claira to her, she gets upset, squirming and crying in her lap. I take several photos and the moment Claira is back in my arms, she is all laughter and smiles.
Vanessa reaches into the darkness before returning to the couch and a carrot emerges, which she breaks in half and shares, unpeeled, with Claira.
Their grandmother lights the stub of a candle.
I have no idea what time it is, yet I know it must be getting late so Harriet and I decide we will walk to one of the local shops to see what we can find. I swing Claira into my arms and take her with me. Vanessa comes, too.
I buy rice, corn flour, sugar, salt and bread and some boxed juice for the girls. The shopkeeper gives each one of them a small piece of cake. I want to buy the whole shop, spartan purveyor of nourishment that it is, to find the butcher, search for eggs, vegetables, deliver them all to a restaurant and say “Here, eat whatever you want.”
I have noticed both girls have distended bellies I’m sure are signs of malnutrition and it terrifies me. At 3 years old, Claira doesn’t seem much bigger than when I first held her at Cradle.
But we walk back to the house where Bibi falls into a fervor of gratitude that moves me to tears. “God bless you a thousand times,” Harriet translates on her behalf as she directs a stream of words toward me.
She is abundantly grateful and Harriet tells me Bibi has said I will be blessed with two boys. I am surprised by this prediction but I learn in Tanzanian culture there is prophecy in the blessings of an elder and it is an immense gift to receive her prayers.
I laugh and thank her and tell her, via Harriet, that her happiness makes me so glad.
She asks if I would also buy some moisturizer for the children and I also agree to some cooking oil. Harriet goes back out with Vanessa while I remain playing with Claira. Her grandmother keeps talking to me though she knows I don’t speak Swahili but her face is lit with joy and I soak up the falling warmth of her words.
When it is time to leave, a deliberately laggard leave-taking on my part though it is late and Harriet and I are both tired, Bibi makes one more request, that I find a sponsor back in America to send Claira to school. I would love for both girls to get an education but I don’t promise anything. In my days in Arusha, I have discovered many believe foreigners will sponsor any child, not just the orphaned, and though these children whose families are struggling are so deserving, trying to explain the more formalized sponsorship process has been tricky.
I simply assure Bibi I will visit again when I return to Tanzania.
When I place Claira on the couch and stand up to gather my bags, she starts sulking. She doesn’t want to hug or kiss me goodbye. Apparently, she believed I was staying the night. Learning this is when I feel the break, a loosened sorrow rattling through my blood.
But I don’t cry, just press myself to Claira with a silent prayer, hug Vanessa and Bibi, and then we are walking away…through the blowing curtain, into the small tenement yard, through the inky shadows, the rising dust…
Walking and then riding…
Until Harriet is standing before me with her hands on my arms, murmuring, “Pole (sorry), life is hard, what can we do?”
She brushes my tears away, hugging me while I feel a sob catch in my throat and try to swallow it. “I will go check on her every week,” she promises, “twice a week.”
Considerate, kind, generous Harriet. Harriet, who worked at Cradle when Claira was there, who wonders, like me, why her grandmother would take her back to such abject conditions though we both understand her longing to be with her, felt her love for the girls.
“Thank you,” I tell her, talking her down to once a week since she works seven days, carries her own burdens and barely has time to see her son. She insists on two.
What I really want is now, folding itself into moment after moment. Now, and then forever. Forever to be wrapped in that chiming laughter, to feel her fingers curling against mine, her head on my chest, my lap, to know that a river of happiness carries her. That she and 6-year-old Vanessa will grow to be healthy and strong with their future a bold shimmer in their palms.
I hope the stars spin my wishes into bloom, that the odds take a tumble.
And I pray my Claira Bean will know herself as beloved, always, that this night will be a song of hope for she who is sunlight and gold.