Harriet and I are going to see Clara, the little girl who burrowed her way into my heart with her somber, soulful eyes when I first held her at an orphanage for babies and toddlers in 2015. Not long after that, her grandmother brought her home to raise her alongside her older sister Vanessa. No one knows who the girls’ father is and their mother, rumored to be mentally unstable, has disappeared
Clara is now 5, Vanessa 8.
When I visited them at their home in 2017, I was devastated to discover the destitution in which they lived.
Now I am back, after two years during which Harriet has periodically checked up on them, as she promised she would. She has bought them food and clothing, taken the girls to the hospital when they’ve been sick, filled their prescriptions — all with money contributed by my best friend, her sister-in-law and me.
My search to find them a better living situation — preferably within a community that keeps families together and would provide for the girls’ education while helping their grandmother support them through microfinancing — has yielded little. I am a foreigner trying to navigate a complex, broken system, and there are thousands of impoverished families just like Clara’s living across Tanzania. Some might say the girls have a home and a grandmother who loves them, a situation that’s hardly dire.
Yet when I find Clara, I have to tamp down everything in me that wants to wail and rage at the neglect — through no fault of her grandmother’s —inherent to her circumstances.
Her grandmother, Bibi Clara, is not home when we arrive, and Vanessa is at school. (This at least is a blessing to learn, that a church which runs a school in the area has allowed the girls to attend for free. Clara, as her grandmother, will proudly share with me, is getting all A’s and B’s, and is number 2 in her class of 16.)
Harriet spots Clara playing with some other kids, and as she calls to her, I realize why I didn’t immediately notice her. She is so tiny, seeming barely to have grown at all since I last saw her, and that smallness chokes my breath.
She shuffles forward, a makeshift pinwheel in her hand, shy and uncertain, even though she knows Harriet. Has waved happily and beamed her impossibly bright smile in videos and photos Harriet sends me when she visits.
She is hesitant to approach me as I call her name, and Harriet explains who I am. She bows her head, looks up, nothing like the effervescent 3-year-old who giggled and chattered in my arms and didn’t want me to leave the last time I was here.
Harriet goes to the small shop just off the main road to buy her a pack of biscuits. I go to the pile we have left at the front door, bags of food we’ve bought, along with clothing and toys carried from the U.S. I pull out a pink Beanie Baby poodle, bring it to Clara. Her eyes widen, but she doesn’t reach for it, though her lips bear a hint of a smile when I make a show of the stuffed dog running toward her belly.
Harriet returns with a small pack of biscuits and a Fanta. She hands Clara the soda, gives me the biscuits to share with her, says she will go look for her grandmother, who is likely at the funeral taking place nearby.
Clara hastily eats the first biscuit I give her, takes a long swallow from the bottle, her small hand trembling as she holds it. A neighbor comes over with a stool and a bucket she turns over so we can both sit. I watch Clara eat and drink, eagerly reaching for each biscuit I hand her until the packet is finished. This time when I hand her the Beanie Baby she takes it.
But it isn’t until I bring out a coloring book, show her how the accompanying marker reveals a rainbow of colors, that she starts to relax, draws closer to me. I hold the book in my lap as she colors and then move it to the bucket she has abandoned. A neighbor walks by, asks if she can help me. When I tell her I’m waiting for Bibi Clara, she says she’s not far away and shouldn’t be long.
Harriet finally returns, Bibi Clara in tow. She claps her hands together, her face split wide in a smile. I give her a hug, Clara runs over to show off her new poodle and coloring book, and then Harriet and I scoop up the bags we’ve brought and follow her inside the door she unlocks.
I try not to gape. The one-room house with the dirt floor and single window is as I remember it, only this time it’s daylight and there are no shadows to cloak the dinginess, the chaotic stockpiles of clothing and buckets and bags stuffed with who knows what. There is barely any room on the bed, where I imagine the girls sleep, the air is heavy with a moldy odor, and when Clara accidentally knocks over her soda bottle on the floor, I watch the dirt turn to mud. I can’t imagine what it’s like when the heavy rains come.
Bibi Clara doesn’t speak any English and as Harriet talks with her, she translates some of what they are saying. Shares her gratitude, her refrain that I am her daughter, her mother, her everything, the only one who cares about her when her own kids have no interest in her life. Tears keep filling her eyes.
We offer her the food we’ve brought before I begin pulling out clothing and toys in what seems like an ostentatious display in the midst of such stark indigence. She is grateful for them all and Clara eagerly reaches for each bright new toy. But it isn’t until I withdraw a sparkly pink purse that she lets out an excited cry and turning to me, throws her arms around my neck. She then begins stuffing as many other gifts as she can into the bag.
Amidst all this, Vanessa returns from school and Clara eagerly shares the bounty they’ve received.
We learn both the girls have been sick with stomach aches, and my mind goes back to the previous year when Clara was diagnosed with malaria, typhoid fever and a UTI. What if they’ve contracted a serious illness?
Every now and then, Harriet turns to me, lamenting in English the disarray, the grime. When Bibi Clara isn’t looking, she tugs at a tub, visible from under the bed. Inside are half-rotted tomatoes. We watch Bibi Clara take a cup, wipe it with the edge of her kanga, pour tea from a flask sitting on the floor and hand it to Vanessa.
A one point, Clara turns to me, wants me to tickle her and for a while, the silvery, giddy laughter I remember fills the room.
It is what I want to hold onto, to believe in, that joy is a kind of resilience, a flourishing that defies, and maybe even triumphs over, circumstance. But when we leave, after walking to a local restaurant with Bibi Clara to buy them dinner, I am heartbroken and haunted.
This is the life they know. And I can’t bear to accept it.
One night, Patrick, a university student from Save Africa who helped Harriet get the girls to the hospital last year, joins us as we ride the dala dala into town. He and Harriet hatch a plan to go to Bibi Clara’s one weekend and help her clean the house from top to bottom.
“That’s the closest to hope we have,” Patrick says.
I smile wanly, despondency thick in my throat.
We return a few days later to take the girls to the hospital, and a woman who claims to be related to Bibi Clara is there. The girls’ grandmother has apparently gone on one of her foraging stints to gather banana peels to sell to pig farmers, as well as cow bones, which are apparently used to make dishware. She could be gone most of the day.
We announce we’re taking the girls to see a doctor, which seems to confuse their temporary guardian. But she helps us find something for them to wear (all the new clothes I brought are nowhere to be found and we later learn Bibi Clara has washed them all because they have been “traveling.”). The girls have no underwear that we can see, the toothbrushes I gave them are in a dirty plastic container, and when Harriet instructs Vanessa to go get cleaned up, she returns with only her ankles and feet washed. Harriet takes Clara outside to a pipe with running water. When she returns, I see the bones protruding from her naked body.
At the hospital, the girls are solemn, wary and openly curious. They get their blood drawn. Clara screams and cries, and I am grateful for the Play-Doh in my bag that I use to distract her from the pain. A doctor sees us, asks a few preliminary questions. We tell him about their living conditions. I feel him questioning my presence, no doubt deeming my involvement misguided and presumptuous.
He will need urine and stool samples to accompany the blood work and because neither girl is ready for the latter, Harriet and I take them to lunch. Vanessa shovels the meat we buy into her mouth, reaching for more to fill her plate before it’s even empty. Clara eats just as voraciously. She goes to the bathroom before we leave but Vanessa waits until we’re back at the hospital.
By then, the day has become an adventure to them. They laugh and run up and down the hallway of the front lobby, make Play-doh chapatis that Clara offers me to eat. She giggles at my fake chomping, molds different shapes that I marvel at, streams her joy into the marrow of me.
When we are called back to the doctor’s office, a different physician is there. He tells us both girls have food poisoning and Vanessa also has a UTI. I ask if he’s sure that’s all there is. “Look at how thin they are, and so small for their ages. Clara is all bones!”
Of course I know they are malnourished, which is what he says. Their poor hygiene and unsanitary environment, he adds, make them prone to illness and disease. He prescribes something for their stomachs and an antibiotic for Vanessa. But his main suggestion is that another family member take the girls. When we tell him there’s no one, he asks if they can stay with us, at least until they’ve finished their round of medication.
I am seared by the impossibility of what he asks. What am I even doing here, trying to rescue one family from poverty? Am I making even the smallest difference or simply gilding a painful truth?
I ask him whether there’s some kind of community outreach program to teach people about proper hygiene and sanitation. There is, he says, but there’s no value in bringing it to places like Sanawari.
We gather the girls, get their prescription filled and pay the hospital bill. As we’re about to leave, a man slips Harriet a note with his number, telling her he wants to marry me. I watched him try to coax a smile from Vanessa earlier, thought it was sweet of him to play with her. And for one brief moment, I wonder if someone like him could help, open a door I can’t even find.
But we brush past him and out into the sunlight to find a bajaji. On the ride back to Sanawari, I cuddle Clara close, make her laugh with silly noises and faces. If Vanessa has been more subdued even in her playfulness than I remember her to be, I now know it’s because she’s in extreme discomfort. I place my hand on her head, smooth my fingers against her scalp. How long has she been suffering with a UTI?
We stop along Sanawari Road to buy roasted corn, break one into two pieces for the girls.
Back at Bibi Clara’s, Harriet is frank and stern with her, recounting everything the doctor said, insisting she clean up the house, throw out what she’s been needlessly hoarding, use soap, encourage the girls to wash their hands before they eat. Bibi Clara keeps nodding her head, looking earnest and remorseful, and near tears, the love she has for her granddaughters etched plainly on her face.
The woman who was there that morning when we arrived stands beside her, says she will try to help.
Before we leave, we take Bibi Clara to the local butcher to order three weeks’ worth of meat. The girls are coloring when we walk back to the house. I swing Clara into my arms, breathe a ribbon of blessings against her skin as I hold her, give Vanessa a hug. They go back to their books. Clara doesn’t look up when I say a final farewell, simply chirps “Bye” with her head still down.
Which is as it should be.
I think of her voice floating past the window flap in the bajaji as we trundled up the rutted, bumpy hill earlier, rounded the corner.
It’s all she knows, while I cling to my desperate hopes and dreams, and she is comfortable, happy, companioned and cared for by the only ones she loves.