22:09, Feb. 13, 2013
Picha ya Ndege (translates to “bird picture”), Kibaha, Tanzania
Today is pretty special, a very new setup compared to all mine previous. I’m sleeping under one roof with 26 children (plus a few adults) at an orphanage with no name.
In Tanzania, pretty much all the volunteer work I’ve come across is with orphan children. It was never a line of work I considered myself qualified for or even interested in, but here it just seemed a most logical path to take.
I must say I don’t like the word orphan so much, as it sounds almost derogatory, conjuring too many pathetic preconceptions. It seems to me a misguided label, calling someone by what they don’t have: which is biological parents on-hand, instead of by what they might have instead: like a big family of beautiful and assorted souls, (hopefully) compassionate and committed caretakers, good energy and love in scarcely-seen abundance.
At the risk of glorifying happenstance that one would probably never choose given a more “nuclear” alternative, I must admit that I’m thoroughly surprised and impressed by what I’ve seen. After spending last week at one home and now beginning another week here at another, at least here in Tanzania where the big cold institutionalized approach and infrastructure is missing from what I’ve seen portrayed in the media, there’s a lot of love to go around. The culture must play a large part in it, as we’ve quite easily met a ton of Tanzanians in a few short weeks, all of them amazingly kind, warm, and caring. The life force is strong with these ones, and this energy is Love; this wouldn’t be possible otherwise.
After much musing and comparing (which I’ll spare you), these orphanages seem more like a family than anything else I can think of. That’s my impression, and I’m happy to convey it.
What isn’t in abundance is money, and even the basics are scarce, even in nice homes. Electricity, water, and food are on the hotlist everywhere. Next that come to mind are teachers, books, and school supplies. In a country where a majority of people are living in mud brick homes without doors, these basic needs overshadow pretty much everything else I can think of, which would practically fall into a relative class of luxury. (Let’s not forget health care, jobs and whatever makes a strong economy happen.)
So what would I have to offer here? I had no idea coming-in. Talia’s qualifications include that she was a teacher and loves working with kids, even ones with disabilities (next stop: disabled kids’ home in Kenya), but I’ve never had any such rapport with young people. But it all made sense soon after I arrived.When we rolled up the dirt road in a borrowed 4×4 (the equivalent of riding the red carpet in from the bus stop a few miles away), dozens of smiling jumping beans ages 4-14, eagerly awaited us. When we stopped, they pulled us and our bags from the open doors, hugged our legs and held our hands. “Welcome” came in many forms: in Swahili of course, plus English, Smile and Hug. (And they don’t do the fake smile, or even hug much here, for the record.) These kids were pumped.
When they’re not in school, and during the day when some of the littlest, sick or ‘challenged’ ones have stayed behind, we Play. Swapping English and Swahili words and phrases is a most natural way for us to communicate. Teaching skills and chores (like cleaning, food-prep, caring for the animals) is another. Singing any songs we can think of. Making stuff, drawing, playing games. Pretending and laughing. I’m so new to all of this (and Swahili) that I’m probably learning more than they are, but boy do they Beam when we’re doing any of it. It’s fun, (as much as I’ve got energy for!) Talia is a great inspiration and teacher for me too, (but I have much work ahead of me to match her brand of marathon playtime.)
A bunch of impressive elders run the show. I still don’t know how exactly everyone is involved; people of all ages help make it happen. Some are the oldest kids. Some might be local volunteers. Do they receive stipends, or is this their job? And who is this wonderful, fabled director who is away in the city, whom we haven’t met yet but received many gracious compliments? All I know is everyone seems to take care of everybody in a most natural way. Anyone, even visitors who are just dropping-by, will pick up a crying kid or chase rambunctious rascals around the barn. Everyone is amazing and extends enthusiastic gratitude for our being here to play with and teach the kids.
Those volunteers who preceded us have usually left in their wake some contribution, which became their legacy. Some made purchases: mattresses, cement to become a floor, others labors of love. Every little bit helps things progress, or at least stay afloat. Talia and I are lowly volunteers, not in a position to be amazing patrons, but we are happy to assess what they’ve got (which is practically nothing beyond walls and beds) and do what we can with the money that we are saving by staying here. (Our daily budget isn’t necessary when we’ve got room and board), so today we put that money into some foodstuffs from the market and art supplies for doing activities and some sprucing-up around here. We’ll see what flows next. What I like is that nothing is required, as our presence is definitely appreciated, but it just makes sense to help out when it’s obvious how advantaged and abundant we (very thankfully) are.
If any kind readers wish to contribute anything, I can assure you that we can definitely put it to a huge benefit for many people out here. As we will progress up through Tanzania and into Kenya, we’ll be visiting many such places (as is the obvious path). Any penny saved can be easily redistributed to grateful kids.
Cheers and thanks for reading! And Happy Mother’s Day, to all those with and without your kids (for any reason, God bless), and a special thanks to the ones who share your motherly love with so many, whether your ties are with blood or without.
(Addendum: oops it’s not mother’s day but My Momma’s birthday! I’m getting old – or it’s late-nite senility. Happy Birthday Momma P!)