I first met Harriet in 2015 when she was working at Cradle of Love, the babies orphanage where I spent my afternoons. She was kind and warm with a ready laugh. Then one day I ran into her at Tengeru Market, where I was buying socks and other items for my Save Africa kids. She helped me negotiate the prices, all the while reminding me to keep my bag close to me at all times…Some afternoons when I went to Cradle, she would walk with me to the dala dala and we’d ride back to town together if I weren’t with other volunteers.
Her friendship is one of the great blessings and marvels of finding my way to this land. The last time I was here staying in Kisongo, which was in the opposite direction from her home, she escorted me home every night to make sure I got there safely.
Now I am staying in her home. It’s two dala dalas to Save Africa, which can take more than two hours sometimes depending on traffic (she travels even farther to her job at a small group home for kids). But she is family. She and her sister Betty have given me the best room in their home, worry that I’ll skip lunch when I’m at the orphanage, greet me with huge hugs and smiling faces in the morning, and their kids adore me, as I do them.
Though I keep insisting that she not make a fuss, that she fold me into the everyday rhythm of her family’s life, Harriet dismisses all my simplifying efforts with comments like “Enjoy. You know when you’re in Tanzania, you need to enjoy. When you go back home, it’s work.”
She is one more reason I know I’m where I’m meant to be. Her strength, resourcefulness, faith, optimism and compassion in the face of all her hardships and worries and as the main provider for her family inspire me (she has taken a 17-year-old orphan from her village into her home because he was being abused where he was).
I see the joy and comfort she brings to so many, the steadiness they rely on, the way her goodness gives them a soft place to land, even if momentarily.
There isn’t a morning I wake up when neighbors aren’t trickling into Harriet’s home. There are friends and their kids, kids who wander in alone, people stopping by to sell water, buy milk, offer or ask for help.
We are of course on African time (or always going “pole pole” [“slowly slowly”], as the Tanzanians say) and we never leave the house when we say we will. This despite the “chap chap” allusions to haste she is fond of expressing.
I feel myself getting impatient sometimes, thinking of how short my days and how much I’d like to do. But this morning, I watch Harriet share half a Snickers bar with little Mary, who often appears from next door, Maurine, an orphan whose bright academic path has been cut short by the death of her parents, Tamaaeli, the orphan who lives here and Blejiani, a toddler whose mom is visiting with her sister Betty in her room. After all this, she saves a piece for her son An-wei and Betty’s daughter Esther.
And, suddenly I have all the time in the world. To cuddle Mary when she climbs onto my lap when I give her a cookie, to play with her and then Blejiani, who is apparently convinced her delighted squeals mean that he, too, must be scooped up and tossed in the air. To make Maurine laugh and smile though we can’t understand each other. To indulge Tamaaeli as he keeps speaking to me in Swahili, befuddled by my English replies, though Harriet has told him he must learn English.
At one point I run to the notebook where I’ve been jotting down Swahili phrases and return to ask him a question. We both beam when I speak his native tongue and he can finally understand me. I also produce a t-shirt I’d been saving for one of my Save Africa kids and give it to Maurine, who is briefly stunned by the offering before a grin lights up her face.
When Harriet goes to get ready, we migrate to Betty’s room, where she is breastfeeding her son Haiman and Mama B, Blejiani’s mom, is hand-washing clothes in a giant plastic tub. Betty hands me Haiman to hold when she is done. I begin to sway with him, as I always do, and she laughs, telling Mama B that I’m always dancing with him.
When I place him back in her arms with a rattle I’ve strapped to his foot, I continue to play with the kids, let Blejiani have the second rattle that came in a pair. Tamaaeli hovers in the doorway, all awkward goofy sweetness.
And we are all lightness and laughter, a ripple of easy affection. Caring for each other. Tending to the sorrows that also breathe among us. Allowing the day to unspool, shaped by what matters most.