It is my last full day, and I am taking the kids on an outing to the playground at The Ngurdoto Mountain Lodge.
An-wei and Esther are coming with me, and true to his word, as we near Save Africa, An-wei reminds me he has to get some chocolate for the children he wasn’t able to share any with yesterday. We settle on balloons instead, and he insists on giving them out himself when we arrive. When the kids keep coming over to thank me as they blow them up, laugh at the noise made by the air being squeezed out of the neck, I tell them to thank An-wei.
They are all still in their play clothes, a ragtag assortment often worn for days no matter the stains and dirt collected, and I wonder why I’m at all surprised. Just because Francis insisted I arrive early doesn’t mean we’ll be going anywhere anytime soon.
There is the special lunch we agreed would be served — rice with beef and cabbage, a welcome break from the everyday fare of ugali or makande — and while it is being prepared, I play with some of the kids, push the little ones on the swings, let Naifat take my hand and walk me around the yard.
I remember the cups I wanted to buy so the older kids won’t have to wait for one to drink their morning chai and ask Jesca if she wants to come with me to get them. I had hoped this would give us some time alone, since she’s been asking to return to Danish with me, where I took her and Angel to a bakery and ice cream shop two years ago. But Abdul joins us. Instead of heading to the small shop just down the road, we walk 15 minutes to the Usa River Market.
The sun is hot, she is mostly silent, and I wonder what she’s thinking.
At the market, I buy cups, plates, two kitchen knives, and at Abdul’s recommendation, a strainer and a flask. On the walk back, I tease Abdul about carrying the small bag with the flask when Jesca has a large bag with everything else slung over her shoulder. He hands his bag to me, takes her bag and I slip my arm around her, feeling the prick of sorrow in everything I want to say. That I’m sorry we haven’t had our special date. That it doesn’t mean I love her any less. That she’ll forever be a bright star, a golden song winging through my heart.
Back at Save Africa, the other kids have started getting ready. Witness walks past me in a stunning tunic made of traditional fabric that I jokingly threaten to steal, Teresia is dressed in a blouse with matching pants, Swaiba is a princess in a swirl of red…Going out in public always means wearing your very best.
By the time lunch is served, most of the kids are dressed to go.
Still, it is after 3 when Francis orders two dala dalas and we pile in. He has a meeting that afternoon so he sends me with two of his employees. The kids are boisterous on the ride over, singing at the top of their lungs, their joy gusting out the windows.
But when we arrive at Ngurdoto, we hit a snag. The entrance fee is way more than I’ve budgeted for. Before the dala dalas pulled away, I asked Francis if the money I had was enough to cover the buses and the playground and he said yes. Now I wonder if he’d misunderstood my question, been deliberately misleading or, more likely, was just waving me, and the deep pockets he believes I have, aside.
In the hotel lobby, I try to negotiate with the front desk receptionist but she is unwavering. I think of the kids, excited yet standing patiently in the parking lot. Of how dressed up they are, of how many repeatedly asked me this morning — I think they enjoyed hearing me flub the name — if we were going to Ngurdoto.
I check my wallet again, realize I have US dollars, ask the receptionist if she’ll take them. It’s still not enough but we strike a deal to throw in some shillings, as well. I can almost hear the sigh of relief Yoni and other Save Africa employee breathe beside me.
Then we’re all escorted to the playground, where the kids quietly eye their surroundings. I’m not sure what they’re waiting for when Yoni, perhaps wondering the same, says “Go!”— and the eruption of joy as they scatter across the grounds is worth every penny.
Every one of them, from the youngest to the oldest, is a giddy, giggly, unbridled child. Zipping down slides. Bouncing on yellow duck spring riders. Squealing on roundabouts and seesaws. Clambering the dome climbers and swinging from the monkey bars.
Their happiness fills me as I run around to push, spin, lift, join them in their merriment. And just like that, I’m a big kid, too, grabbing Agness’ hands on the trampoline, shrieking as I follow Annie down the slide, letting out a long “wheeeee!” as Josephat turns the merry-go-round.
But mostly, I watch them, soak up their exuberance, their brilliant, unhemmed smiles. I go wherever my name is called. Sometimes that’s to sit on a bench in a casual hug, beam at their exhilarated displays of strength and limberness, lounge on a climber with the older girls, take a requested photo, swing beside Jesca as she presses a kiss to my cheek.
Then Jofrei falls and breaks his arm. I find him lying on the ground with Mkutwarine holding his twisted arm. Someone is calling Francis. Yoni is speaking soothingly to him, amid a murmur of concern from the kids who gather somberly around. I sit on the ground, cradle his head in my lap, devastated. He cries and cries, his small face anguished, while I lean my head close to his, whisper against his cheek and forehead, pray for Francis to hurry up, for Jofrei to endure.
Finally, a car comes. I ask Stefano to carefully carry Jofrei, who lies in his lap on the back seat, with Elizabeth, another of the older students. Teacher Mary has come and Yoni goes with them.
While the rest of us wait for the dala dalas to arrive, some of the kids still play, making the most of the time they have left. But the ride back to the orphanage is quiet, and when we get there, Yoni is waiting for me, wanting to know if I’ll come to the hospital.
I see Violet in the yard and wonder why she isn’t going. But of course, money is needed for the hospital bill. I have no idea how much, and if I go, it will be hours before I learn anything. Even Yoni tells me he’s not sure they’ll know the cost until the morning.
I’m torn, but tell him I can’t go. I have An-wei and Esther with me, Harriet will soon be on her way to meet us, and if I leave now, I will have to say a rushed goodbye to the kids who will be eating dinner soon and heading to bed.
I’ve already spent so much money today, and the expectation that I have more to shell out rankles. It is the line I tread every time I’m here, wanting to treat the kids and address the immediate needs I see, knowing it’s impossible to meet them all, that every time I open my wallet, I’m suggesting a wealth perceived as limitless — and turning wheels in Francis’ head.
Still, after Yoni leaves, I walk to the ATM, take out what I hope will be enough, hand it to Violet when I return,tell her Jofrei will also need follow-up care.
I find Anna, whose birthday is the next day, give her a t-shirt that says “Girls can do anything,” wishing there were more time, for cake, for ice cream, to celebrate them all.
Then Harriet arrives, and the moment I have been wanting to delay for days is here. I remember past goodbyes, the singing, the high-fives and hugs, everyone coming together in one final moment. Now the kids are scattered, some in the dorms, some out back where they play, even though night has fallen. But just as many stand along the entrance to the front door, subdued and watchful.
I hug Violet first, start making my way down a loose line, patting the heads of the little ones sitting, folding others into my arms before arms start reaching for me, too, snaking around my waist from behind, slipping around in front. I feel the press of bodies at my sides.
“Tomorrow, tomorrow you come?”
Almost everyone knows today was my last day but some of the younger kids don’t understand.
I say I’m going home but what I think is, “Home is right here.”
“You come back when?” It is Agness, holding my hand, though a chorus follows her question. “September?” “October” “December?” “You come in December?”
“July?” asks Agness, with her impish smile, and I have to laugh.
“You know it’s already July,” and I touch my lips to her hand.
I don’t cry. Not when Witness comes to me, leans in, presses her forehead against mine. She hugs me tightly, lets go, reaches for me again.
I don’t when her sister Teresia squeezes my waist, stares into my eyes. When I gather both Roses, Anuari and Dorcas. When Swaiba hands me a note, offers me her lips. When Bitris slips close, lifts her face to mine and I clasp it in a rain of kisses.
But the more goodbyes I say, the more I feel the welling up. Until I am holding Robert, Robert with his quiet smile and observant nature, Robert whose eyes have been finding me more and more these last few days, who is slower to be drawn out. He comes to me, buries his face in my chest, hugging me so long and hard, the tears begin to fall.
Then James is in my arms. James who is always sneaking up to tickle me, perhaps because it is how I first made him laugh when he arrived at the orphanage, shy and sad, a few years ago. H comes back to hug me again and again before I leave.
I wrap my arms around Jesca, who is holding Jordan. She smiles, and I playfully pump his fist.
When Denis walks up to me, says “Me big baby,” I burst out laughing. Since the night I held him on my lap when I stayed over, he has been asking to be picked up with this request, though he is 8 years old. I oblige one last time. “Oh, my big baby,” I say as I cradle him against me.
At some point, Francis has slipped into the yard and I walk over to say goodbye to him, ask if he’s seen Jofrie. He tells me he has yet to go to the hospital. And just like Violet did, when I expressed how awful I felt about the accident, he assures me not to worry. Says things like that happen all the time with kids.
Harriet asks if I’m ready. I never am but nod my head. Before we walk out, I remember the sunglasses in my bag, fish them out, slip them onto Miriam’s face. Miriam who wears a longing she may not know she shows.
Several kids walk us to the road. An-wei, who has been hugging me as much as I’ve been hugging everyone else, reaches for my hand. Freddie is on the other side of me, touching my wrist with my bracelets. “Pole pole,” he says.
I came here with all the bracelets I got on my very first trip four years ago. I wear them all the time and when some of the kids have asked for them — “Can I have?” “You bring for me?” they will say, hoping for any gift they can claim as their own — I explained their sentimental value. But slowly, I’ve been letting them go until all that remained is a green band with the words “pole pole” (“slowly slowly”), my favorite, which I insisted I would keep.
I slip it into Freddie’s palm.
Then we are off, accompanied by Patrick, who was visiting Save Africa and will walk us to the dala dala stand. The tears that stopped begin again, and I am grateful for the night. But when I turn to Patrick after he asks a question, he sees them, says only, “Oh, Naila …”
And they fall faster than I can wipe them away.
An-wei notices, announces I’m crying to his mom. He drops the hand he’s been holding to slip his arm around my waist.
“I’ll be OK,” I say, to no one in particular.
Such public displays of emotion are generally not acceptable here.
But they let me cry, a brief shield of generous silence, as we keep walking on.
(If you would like to make a difference in the lives of any of my Save Africa kids, I encourage you to visit the website of Arusha Kids Trust, the nonprofit created to provide them all with an education while supporting their health and well-being. Donations are always welcome.)