TANZANIA, KWAHERI (GOODBYE): This is the hardest part, though I haven’t had time to contemplate it even with the encroaching hours and slipping away of time. But when I arrive in Usa River on my last day and stop at the Leganga Supermarket, where I fill a basket with 55 ice cream bars and a man behind me at the checkout marvels at the quantity, leaving is still a formless moment, distant and dim.
Never mind that my suitcase is in the taxi, that I have spent the morning cleaning and packing and trying not to forget anything, which I do anyway. Or that Harriet and Betty and their kids are accompanying me to the airport and Harriet’s son An-wei is having the grandest adventure, having never been to the place that symbolizes his dreams of becoming a pilot one day.
When the car pulls down the dirt road and into the yard at Save Africa and I climb out, I have either numbed myself to what’s ahead or embraced it as utterly surreal.
I walk into the room where the children are gathered around an old computer with fuzzy images on the screen. I see tiny faces erupting into smiles, feel the brush of hands on my skin, reach instinctively for the curve of a face, the clasp of eager fingers.
I hear my voice: “I have come to say goodbye.”
Understanding washes across several faces. Many have known. In the days before, I’d talked with some of them about this day being my last.
But before I can grasp the full weight of that single word, there is ice cream to share. The children file into rows in the seats used for the pre-school classes, as they always do (a practice that never fails to slightly sadden me — the methodical gathering, the upturned expectant faces, the only way to make sure no one gets left out).
And I begin, one by one, handing out the bars to a soft stream of “Thank you, teacher.”
Then it is time to go. The driver is waiting. Harriet seems restless. An-wei is curiously wandering the room.
I walk over to Violet, the children’s “mother” who runs the orphanage with Francis, and Elizabeth, a young caretaker, to tell them goodbye. I ask for Francis, who is in the office and go to him. He pumps my hand, pats my back, hugs me and says thanks for all I’ve done with his usual wide smile.
When I return to the main room, the kids are so absorbed in eating their ice cream, I think maybe I should leave them like this: sweetly preoccupied, lost in a simple moment that brings them joy.
But I announce it’s time for me to leave, and as several heads rise up and emotion begins to flit across a few dear, dear faces, I start making my way back to each row, pressing my lips to as many brows as I can reach, blowing kisses to the others, letting my hand linger after patting some of the smaller children on the head.
When I realize I have patted Stefano’s head — he is one of the older teenage boys — and see him staring up at me in amusement, I burst out laughing and the kids chime in. I shake his hand, squeeze his shoulder and keep on going.
At one point I notice Jesca is no longer in the room and I hope she isn’t hiding, given her many pleas the day before that I stay and live with them all at the orphanage. But she returns to slip a note into my palm, reveal in her pocket the sunglasses I’d left behind the day before. I tell her to keep them and pull her into a hug, kissing her cheek.
Then, just as I think it’s truly time, Anuari comes up and hands me a folded piece of paper, followed by Swaiba, Witness, Rajabu, James…child after child until I am holding a small bounty covered in stickers and hearts and crayon drawings in my hands.
The tears fill my eyes then as I try to swallow as many as possible in a group hug. And it is then I allow myself to truly take in the sad faces in the room — these children I have seen every single day from the moment I stepped off the plane.
I put down my stack of envelopes and notes and reach for my phone to take a video. The kids love being filmed and watching the clips replayed, and the chance to be captured this way typically prompts lots of laughter and joking around. I think it will lighten the mood.
But then Violet suggests a song and Jesca gathers a group of girls at the front of the room. When I left in 2015, it was also to a song, a goodbye offered to every volunteer, that left me in tears.
This tune is different — slower, softer — and every line, repeated again and again, brings me closer to what is finally a very real goodbye.
I am filming it all, determined to stay dry-eyed, when I see Bitris standing in the back row with fat tears rolling down her cheeks. Bitris who is so sensitive and easily hurt, who often wears a sorrow on her face that deepens whenever she’s close to me and another child reaches for my hand, slips under an arm or tries to climb onto my lap.
Just the other day when I peeked into the girls room wondering if any of the kids had arrived home from school, she was there changing out of her uniform. Half undressed, she leaped into my arms and squeezed me tight and I held her for long moments in a slip of undivided time. The next day, she took my hand as soon as she saw me and walked me back to the dorm room. But Teacher Mary and Elizabeth were in there, and robbed of the private moment she’d no doubt imagined, she changed her clothes and disappeared.
Now the tears are streaming down her cheeks, and I motion for her to come to me. She stands still for a few seconds before walking over, and I put down my phone and take her in my arms. She holds herself rigidly as I rock her, kiss her face, promise I’ll be back and whisper of my love. The tears don’t stop.
When I look up, several of the other girls are crying, too. Witness valiantly tries to mask her sadness and Swaiba, bright-eyed, seems confused by all of this welling emotion.
By now, I am crying, too, and I open my arms to them all with the same pledge I made to Bitris, while letting them know how amazing I think they are — even if they can’t comprehend my words.
When I finally pull back, Harriet is urging me to go. And there is one last rush of hugs and kisses, one last aching moment when Rose, whose smile is like the breaking sun, asks: “You go to the city? How many days? Two?” And though I say I’m going home, she and some of the younger kids can’t seem to understand.
Still I am walking out the door, and sliding into the taxi, and everyone follows me into the yard. The car starts rolling out and I wave madly, repeating “Nakupenda” (“I love you”) over and over, while their hands flap and some of the little ones blow kisses.
And “I’ll be back soon” is a promise already too far away.