A little rain, a lot of love, and a challenge to choose compassion

TANZANIA, WEEK 2: The first day I take the dala dala to Save Africa on my own, I get off at the wrong stop, though I was given very specific directions by one of the volunteers whose placement recently ended and though the Dik Dik Hotel (or Diki Diki, as I was told most refer to it) is an unmistakable landmark. But somehow the ride seems longer than I remember, and when you’re one of almost two dozen crammed into a minibus that could comfortably seat about 15, it’s hard to see the landscape unfolding beyond the decals and lettering plastered on all the windows.

Convinced I’m bound for a destination far beyond Usa River, where the orphanage is, I rap my knuckles above one of the windows, a sign that I would like to get off at the next stop. I climb inelegantly over laps and knees, push my way past shoulders (courtesy is a rare extension on these clattering, colorful buses), and stumble around the conductor, who is holding the door open for me, with a hasty “Asante.” The minute I descend I know I have made an error but before I can even get my bearings, the dala dala is off and I am left facing a cluster of small shops indistinguishable from the many such strips that seem to pop up every few miles. There is one such stretch, including a small grocery store where we will come to make the owner very happy, right before the dirt road that takes me to Save Africa. But despite the similar appearance of the stores facing me, the “auto spare,” the sign for the mechanic I was told to watch out for, is nowhere in sight and neither is the Diki Diki.

Commercial strips such as this are a familiar sight on the roadways.

Commercial strips such as this are a familiar sight on the roadways.

I recognize nothing but rather than backtrack, having believed I’d missed my stop, something compels me to go forward. I swallow a mild panic, wondering who I could stop to ask for directions if I end up truly lost, when all I know is a hotel named after a tiny antelope and the name of the orphanage. Other dala dalas rattle by and I contemplate stopping one of them and hopping back on. It is raining and muddy, and I am constantly stepping back onto wet grass to avoid being splattered by any of the trucks that whiz past. But I am determined to go my way and even feel a surge of confidence as I walk on.

That boost somehow ripples into an easy contentment the longer I walk. I am aware I would be miserable in such conditions back home. But there is purpose in my stride and even under the day’s mantle of gray, the scenery around me is a trove of marvels, from the corn fields where men and boys work to the piki piki driver who flies by with several crates of live chickens wired to the back of his bike to the women disappearing down unpaved roads in a flash of bright colors, bearing firewood on their heads.

I take it all in, feeling the press of time, yet am also aware of the “pole pole” attitude — that unhurried flexibility the Tanzanians inhabit so well — I will come to savor. Eventually, after I’ve been walking for about 20 minutes, I stop a businessman I see getting into his car to ask if I’m going in the direction of the Diki Diki. He seems puzzled at first and turns to his companion, who appears equally lost, but when I say Usa River, he nods and points me onward.

Though crowded, this dala dala is not nearly as congested as they can get.

Though crowded, this dala dala is not nearly as congested as they can get.

Eventually, I arrive at Save Africa, later than I’d hoped, soggier than I’d planned and carrying a bag full of bananas that I stopped to buy from one of the produce vendors not far from the orphanage. But I am happy. And those bright, eager faces spilling their good mornings (a formal yet playful greeting they’ve obviously memorized) are one more marvel in a morning that could have been tarnished by my misadventure.

On most days, these children will inspire me to reframe everything, take me outside of myself and my minor preoccupations and into a deeper, rewarding absorption. That is not to say my time at Save Africa is all fun and ease, or that my brimming joy diminishes my anguish at the conditions I behold daily.

My growing love and affection for the kids is as constant and palpable as a heartbeat but mixed in are a range of emotions that trim every hour I’m there.

I will be frustrated often. When the children hand me their exercise books, with math problems where they’ve scrawled that “3 x 6 = 87” or “2 + 3 = 2” I am baffled by their lack of comprehension, as I hold up fingers and have them count, or encourage them to draw circles with sticks to correct their answers. Some will call a triangle a square when we’re learning shapes, even though they’ve only moments ago identified a triangle on the board. The letter “g” is impossible for one girl to recognize as missing from the word “rectangle,” no matter how many times I draw it for her, spell out the entire word while she watches, even go through the alphabet. A pig is proclaimed an elephant when I review the animals the younger kids will be coloring one day. The color orange, so enthusiastically identified one minute, becomes green, and then blue, and then purple — any of the shades they’ve heard as they stumble to guess the right one.

Before two other volunteers bought this table, we were making peanut butter sandwiches for the kids on the floor.

Before two other volunteers bought this table, we were making peanut butter sandwiches for the kids on the floor.

To be fair, the children all speak Swahili, and we are teaching them in English. They are a classroom of 47, a number that will continue to grow, and are of varying ages and abilities. Teacher Mary tries to cater to those differences, as will the four other volunteers who join me at Save Africa, two of them taking the lead in teaching the class as a whole while the rest of us help out with individual and small-group attention. Some of the children are exceptionally bright and demand more exercises when they fly through the ones we’ve assigned. Some will simply stare blankly at their books, unsure of the answers they’re presenting or even how they arrived at them. Not only is much taught by repetition and memorization, there is blatant copying from each other and the sharing of answers, too.

As they stand in line for me to correct their books, some will whisper the right response to those who’ve gotten the assignment wrong or speak aloud what I am trying to get one child to identify. They all crave a check mark, that seal of approval that seems to affirm so much more than a job well done. And when I refuse to give them to the kids who do nothing but erase their wrong answers and fill in the right ones, they often sulk or even cry.

The days are broken into math and English lessons, with recess and lunch in between, and always end with story time. Then, the children all gather around us on the floor, while one of us reads aloud to them, from books as varied as Dr. Seuss’ “One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish” to “Goldilocks and the Three Bears” and a tale of a family going on safari. We break our sentences into short phrases that they can repeat. Again, I wonder what this is teaching them, if it is truly improving their comprehension of English.

Rose and Carolina agree to help me demonstrate the difference between

Rose and Carolina agree to help me demonstrate the difference between “tall” and “short” during story time.

But they seem to love this part of the day, always asking for another story — we usually read two or three — before Teacher Mary calls for “sleep time.” They scuttle back to their desk, where they are expected to nap. Though some already begin to doze off during story time, there are several who appear bored with this forced quiet and fidget in their seats. Sometimes before leaving, we will hand them cookies as a final treat, and I can never walk out the door without a round of high-fives and silly handshakes and kisses blown to the ones I don’t reach.

From there, I walk to the babies’ orphanage Cradle of Love, but I always wonder what happens after we leave. I ask Teacher Mary one day and she says that following their “nap,” the kids play until they have dinner and then go to bed. But I doubt that dinner is a nightly guarantee.

On my first visit to Save Africa, before I chose to begin a new placement there, the kids went without lunch. When this happens again on my first day there alone, and I have only the bananas to offer them, I am heart sore — which is how the other volunteers and I come to provide their lunch every day. At first when I question her about the kids’ meals, the manager assures me they get three a day, even with my observed absence of lunch. She even shows me a schedule of what is to be served and when. Yet after two days of bringing bread, peanut butter and bananas, when I ask her again, she admits that, yes, there are days when they go without food.

These are among my other frustrations, the inability to get a straight answer from the staff, or the sense that they’re responding with a specific agenda in mind, when we ask questions regarding the children’s care and environment. There are shelves in the office stocked with expired medicine, tissues, pencils, crayons, coloring books, jump ropes, toothbrushes, and more — most of it new, all of it untouched. I cannot understand why these items, no doubt brought by volunteers and visitors, sit gathering dust when the children write with stubs of pencils, when they run around with runny noses and scrapes and cuts that haven’t been tended, when some of their teeth are already showing signs of decay.

But whenever I am tempted to judge the women who work there too harshly, I think about their own overwhelm and perhaps even hopelessness caring for as many kids as they do with so few resources and very little pay. I think of how exhausted they must be, which is why they are so eager to turn the kids over to us every day. And I wonder if this is the life they imagined for themselves, if there is fulfillment in the work they do and the roles they play in these young ones’ lives, or if they simply seized an opportunity for employment in a country steeped in poverty, were led there by a desperation greater than a desire to serve the children. There is the perception, no doubt because of the volunteers who stream through with money for projects, food and other necessities, that a job at an orphanage offers some kind of financial security. (A woman walking by with a basket of bananas one day asks a fellow volunteer who stops her to buy several bunches if she can get her a job at Save Africa.) But I am sure there are weeks when the “mamas” who cook and clean and teach and provide what fragmented attention they can for these kids do not see a single shilling.

Teacher Mary and Edina with the kids during

Teacher Mary and Edina with the kids during “sleep time.”

Sometimes it makes me angry to see them detached, observers lingering on the edges of our day. But then Teacher Mary rushes to get me a pair of slippers from the single shelf piled haphazardly with clothing the day I am barefoot in the classroom, having left my mud-caked shoes outside, and have to use the squat toilet. And Edina, a mama who openly delights in the children even as she plays the stern disciplinarian, hugs me the morning I arrive after offering to help her sweep the floor the previous afternoon. We hug each other in greeting every day after that. Even Violet, the manager whom the kids call “Mother,” begins to tease me occasionally. When I arrive one day with socks and several pairs of shoes for the kids, her thanks is profuse. She is always grateful, if at times more reserved in her expression of it, and though I long to see a maternal bloom in her, some overt tenderness toward the kids, I take my solace in all we, as the volunteers, lavish upon them.

There are moments when I will stand before the class or sit in a cast-off chair missing all of its cushions in a corner of the room and let my swimming eyes feast on every child. I will watch them bent over in concentration, giggling conspiratorially, sneaking crayons into their desks, sharing what little porridge they have with each other. And I will silently speak a blessing for each one, that they may know themselves as adored and beloved, that they may never be without shelter and security, that they will have the chance to dream big and inhabit their dreams.

I tell them that they matter, words I cannot speak in Swahili but that I endeavor to convey with a glance, a touch, a smile — every day that I’m there.

This new arrival, so sad and silent during recess, broke out beaming the moment I smiled at him.

This new arrival, so sad and silent during recess, broke out beaming the moment I smiled at him.