I visit the group home in Meru where Harriet works one day. It is beautiful — clean, organized, warm. It truly feels like a home, even though she refers to it as a center, like the many orphanages in Arusha.
It was founded by a German couple to take in no more than 10 kids. As the deinstitutionalization movement to shut down orphanages around the world grows, this is the preferred model of care where family reunifications aren’t possible.
In smaller homes, kids can receive more personal attention, be cared for by individuals who provide a consistent, loving presence and be raised in an environment that feels more secure and stable.
Here, there are three mamas to care for 8 kids, while Harriet oversees the day-to-day running of the home. But when I walk with her to pick some of the kids up from school, it’s obvious they adore her. She tells me they always ask her to stay when she has to go home at the end of the day.
As we walk back to their home under the blazing sun — Harriet assured me Meru is always cold but the day I’m there it’s uncharacteristically hot — one little girl hands me her sweater and backpack to carry when Harriet offers to carry the same for another child.
They want to give me a gift and start picking flowers along the way, bringing their small bounty to me with eagerness.
As we continue to walk and they chatter while casting sidelong curious glances my way, Harriet tells me that Sharon, the newest arrival, lost both her parents. Her sweet little face is solemn when she looks at me with the smallest hint of a smile.
Elia was being raised by his grandmother, who physically abused him, before he came to the orphanage. One day she hit him so hard, he lost some of his teeth.
My heart twists as I listen to her stories.
The truth is, there are moments like this every day. Yes, I have been scooping up every joy, swinging myself from one bright moment to the next. But there is no joy here, no matter its incandescence, without sorrow and sometimes despair.
I am reminded time and again of how hard life is. How many struggle to survive. How rising above poverty is a futile hope. How many kids lose their parents to HIV, other illness and abandonment. That not being able to provide for them is all the reason they need to disappear.
I think of Maurine, less than 10, who asks “What will my future be?” She was doing incredibly well at school in Dar es Salaam, until her parents died and she had to return to Arusha. Taken in by one of Harriet’s neighbors, she is now their “house girl.”
Many of the women I meet, so warm and vibrant, are married to alcoholics or men who otherwise do nothing to support their families — proving how misguided the popular hope that marriage will better their lives.
Harriet points out a woman carrying a basket of bunched greens on her head one day. She will sell them, and likely not all, for 100 shillings each, which is less than a penny. It’s nothing to live on, yet there are versions of her everywhere, in the teens trying to press bags of salt into my hands as I walk through the market, the men who tap the dala dala windows with their packets of gum, the man who approaches my friend Ben and I at lunch with his faded plastic rosaries, the women roasting corn on street corners late into the night. Even the dala dala conductors who fiercely jostle for customers at each stop, sometimes getting into heated arguments with each other, need to secure a worthwhile take after the day’s fares are split with the driver and sometimes the owner of the bus.
This is of course my perspective of a small corner of this vast and beautiful country. There are also pockets of wealth and those who make a decent living. The innovative and enterprising can have a real shot at success.
I am aware, too, that poverty and suffering are a reality in America, but there is no sanitizing, denying or escaping it here. It’s in my face every day — giving me perspective, putting any worries and inconveniences I may ever be tempted to complain about firmly in their place.