Having grown up in the 80’s it is hard to shake the images from the TV screen of Sally Struthers pleading for a few cents a day on behalf of the starving children in Africa. Cutting from irreverent Wile E. Coyote episodes to scenes of despairing children with distended bellies and flies crawling across their faces seemed indelicate even to an eight year old who wanted nothing more than to eat her bowl of Cinnamon Toast Crunch and enjoy her ritual of Saturday morning cartoons. As the years passed and I turned from eight to twenty eight I never fully recovered from watching those haunting images flash across the screen. From time to time I would hear news stories highlighting the current economic state of this country or the HIV issues in that country. I had a desire to help in a meaningful way but how could I, with such limited resources, make any sort of impact?
The thing about Africa is that it’s intimidating. Its roots run deep and it has a long and storied past. Not only is it the primordial soup of humankind but the harsh terrain and climate coupled with political unrest creates an equation more complex than one formulated by my 10th grade algebra teacher. Sometimes it seems easier to put the pencil down and walk away but the problem remains unsolved and you ultimately fail the lesson. What to do when you need a little assistance solving a problem? Get a tutor.
I met my tutor in the spring of 2008. I had recently started a new job working with private schools and was in the process of meeting with my new clients. Joan welcomed me into her office and as I took a seat my eyes caught sight of a large mural of photographs hanging on the wall behind her. We began chatting but I was so intrigued by the pictures of breathtaking landscapes and radiant faces that I interrupted our meeting. “Joan, I hate to go off topic but I honestly cannot concentrate. I keep looking at this mural of photos behind you and am guessing there’s a pretty big story that goes along with these images. ” Her eyes sparkled as the corners of her mouth turned up into a large grin, “Ah, yes. Mbahe Village. Are you in for a story!”
Three hours slipped past as she shared the details of her fateful trip. Tired of sitting at home while her husband traveled the globe golfing with his buddies Joan decided it was her turn to have some fun. Although she hadn't hiked a single day in her life she thought an ascent of Kilimanjaro would be a good place to start. She began her training and climbed Mount Whitney with few problems. Unfortunately, Kilimanjaro was not as kind and she was unable to summit. Hating to see Joan return to the States without a positive experience, Felix, one of Joan’s mountaineering guides invited her to stay in his native village, Marangu Mbahe, for her remaining time in Tanzania. She eagerly accepted his invitation and by the time she was leaving Tanzania she had fallen in love with its culture, its people, and its land. Arriving back in California she was disturbed with the excess and wastefulness that surrounded her, so began her mission to adopt Mbahe Primary School and provide provisions to the villagers. Rather than having completed a goal, an item to check off a list of accomplishments, Joan created a legacy.
Up until that day I had never been in a work meeting that culminated in tears. Joan’s stories of poverty and vulnerability left an imprint on my heart. As I steered my car toward the freeway the faces from the photographs stayed with me. How could people living is such stark conditions beam pure glory? Joan’s images painted a contrasting picture than the television ads of my youths. As the days turned to weeks those smiling faces continued to flash through my mind and I knew one day I would be making a trip to Mbahe with Joan.
It is hard to believe that four years has passed since I first heard the stories of Marangu Mbahe Village and her people. It is even harder to believe that I have recently returned from a life altering trip to this idyllic mountain borough. From the moment the journey began I felt like I was being showered with gifts of insight. Each moment was a learning opportunity – giving me perspective and allowing me to connect and experience life and culture in unexpected ways. Some moments were sobering and heart wrenching while others were humorous and fun. A lesson in flexibility and patience began even before setting foot on African soil. Our inbound flight to Kilimanjaro had an unexpected landing in Nairobi due to a mechanical issue. We were told we could expect to be on the ground for a couple of hours while they resolved the issue. As flight attendants dressed in baby blue skirts and starched white blouses served bottles of water and spoon-sized scoops of ice cream the clock began its count down. Two hours quickly elapsed into four then ultimately doubled from four to eight. Welcome to Africa. Apparently there is a phenomenon called African Time which is important to note if you plan on taking an excursion of your own. No, I’m not referring to the time zone difference between GMT and other countries; I am talking about actual units of time. Seconds, minutes, and hours do not equate to the American time telling system. Sixty seconds does not necessarily equal one minute, sixty minutes does not necessarily make one hour and so on and so forth. After speaking with several natives I learned that time is defined differently in the land of contrast, mystery, and intrigue. People do not set schedules in the same manner as the western world; they do not focus on time tables and deadlines. Instead they work hard to accomplish tasks as needed without regard to the hour of the day. You can make plans and attempt to run on schedule but if Africa decides she has a different plan for you, Her time will always prevails.
Our week’s agenda included spending several days working with the 700 students at Mbahe Primary School , taking medical supplies and blankets to Huruma Hospital, and spending time at Light In Africa, an orphanage which cares for children that have either lost their parents (mostly due to HIV) or who have been abandoned or given up for varying reasons.
|walk to school|
We were supposed to arrive in Kilimanjaro Sunday night but even with our flight delay we made it to Mbahe Farm just in time to start our day. We quickly organized the contents of ten large duffle bags and headed down to Mbahe Primary School. The school is nestled at 6,000 feet in the foothills of Mount Kilimanjaro and on a clear day you can look north to see the glacier capped mountain towering in the distance. As we made our way down the single track grass trail I was surprised to see the juxtaposition of eucalyptus and pine next to wild banana and fig. I kept my eyes peeled half expecting a bearded John Muir to step out from behind a pine tree or Tarzan to swing by on a vine.
|baby school kids - a bit hesitant at first|
As we approached the school several kids from the “baby school” ran toward us shouting, “Jambo,” Swahili for hello. They were clearly excited to see new comers to the village and wanted to be the first to welcome us. One of the children held out his hand to me and I took it in mine. He smiled up at me and cried, “Jambo! Jambo! Jambo!” My heart melted into a puddle. The next thing I knew I was surrounded by a few dozen three and four year olds who were chanting a beautiful Tanzanian greeting while holding and swinging my arms and hands. I twirled in the center of the crowd around trying to capture each cherubic face in my memory. I had to bite my tongue to prevent tears from dropping. What struck me most was the look of pure joy that beamed from these children’s faces. I could see that they are genuinely happy. Though their clothing is old, stained, and threadbare they enjoy life. I caught sight of the rest of my group heading uphill toward the main school and although I didn’t want to I knew I had to break away from our impromptu party.
|a sea of 3 year olds|
|the finished project|
|6 year old math lesson - yikes - it's hard!|
|children carry water from stream and use to clean classroom|
|very good listeners|
|mbahe school and school children|
|joan helping to make butterflies|
|the sweetest twins|
|tissue paper flowers|
|getting new uniforms|
|whole class with their new uniform|
|newly colored tanzanian flags|
|lisa and kathryn putting supplies together|
|felix coloring at the baby school|
|playing an epic game of peek-a-boo|
|tobias serving ugali|
In the US we are constantly bombarded with news about layoffs and budget cuts to our public school systems yet we still have certain expectations of our educational institutions. State board certified instructors, electricity, and running water are bare minimums but let’s be honest, we expect a lot more than just a safe sanitary environment. In Tanzania the picture is much bleaker. It is not uncommon to have a classroom filled with fifty or more students and often times those classrooms go unattended by an adult. Can you imagine the uproar by American parents if a class of nine year olds were left unattended for even one hour? I can hear Matt Lauer reporting the news story already. As for running water and electricity – they don’t get those luxuries either. Their unscreened windows are left wide open so they can receive as much sunlight as possible. When it rains the water soaks the dirt floors creating a muddy mess while the children and their desks get wet too. And their lunch program? Well, they aren’t concerned with serving leafy greens and 2% milk. These kids are lucky to get a meal. Every day they stand in line holding a bowl brought from home. They hand their bowl to Tobias, the Mbahe version of the lunch lady, and he serves them a small scoop of ugali, a maize based porridge. They make their way down the “lunch line” which consists of two students who serve each peer one scoop of beans and one scoop of bean juice –the cooking water from the beans which provides a bit more protein. Oh, and lucky Tobias gets to cook everything in giant kettles over an open fire because there is no kitchen in which to prepare the meal. The kids sit in the weedy grass and atop granite boulders eating this soupy concoction with their bare hands. In the States I have seen temper tantrums over a broken cookie but as I looked around at these children eating lunch they all wore glowing smiles on their beautiful faces.
|getting out of the rain|
|calling for birds|
|a perfect model|
|i was kissed by this cow|
At the end of the day we walked back to the farm kissed by Kilimanjaro rain and escorted by our benevolent guide Felix. Mbahe Farm sits on 15 acres of rich volcanic soil and is completely self-sustainable. They grow and raise everything on the grounds from avocado, pumpkin, sweet potato, and papaya, to honey, coffee, mulberries, and (yikes!) bacon. The nutrient dense soil and flowing mountain stream enables an abundant organic growing opportunity and allows guests to enjoy five star and five course meals.
Although I was grateful for and enjoyed every bite I also felt quite conflicted. Moments before partaking in this feast I watched hundreds of children eat an incredibly meager meal and here we were being served a multiple course meal for lunch. Flashbacks to an eight year old girl absorbed in cartoons hedonistically eating her bowl of sugar laden cereal passed through my mind. How could I reconcile, or more likely rationalize, this dichotomy - such abundance steps away from such scarcity? The reality is that this exact same experience surrounds me every day in the US but for some reason it seemed so much more evident here. Is it because of the number affected is so much greater or perhaps the contrast between the haves and have-nots is less severe? I travel through underprivileged communities on a regular basis and more often than not I see the population chatting on cell phones and walking into Starbucks. I know there are so many in need in the US just as in Africa and yet what have I done to make a difference in my own town?
|oranges with green rinds|
|one of the many waterfalls|
Feeling the effects of a sleepless night on a broken down airplane and an emotionally charged day at the school my travel companions headed to their cottages for an afternoon nap. Knowing I would have trouble sleeping that night if I opted to sleep I decided to forgo the nap. Felix volunteered to take me on a hike through the village and I jumped at the chance to explore the peculiar landscape. We hiked up and down hills, through streams, past waterfalls, under trees filled with handcrafted hollow log beehives, into clearings with views of Mount Kilimanjaro, past rustic houses and on to the main trail just in time for what I considered to be rush hour.
As we hiked past several villagers making their way to and fro I asked Felix about the economy and how people make a living in Mbahe. He explained that a good number of the men work for various expedition companies as guides or porters. The work is rigorous, the conditions austere, and the pay is often times paltry. Most stay home and work their land growing crops to provide food for their families and selling the excess to make a little money. They live a much simpler life and tread lightly on the earth. “But how do they pay for electricity?” I inquired. “Some of these houses have satellite television and I keep hearing music coming from some of these houses. It obviously takes electricity to power electronics. How does that work? How much is an average electric bill?” He patiently answered saying that an electric bill runs on average $30 per month and that to get on the grid costs around $2,000. With the cost being so steep most families don’t have electricity but those that do take advantage and enjoy the comfort it provides.
|one of kili's peaks|
|felix leading the way|
|felix showing me the coffee bean berries|
We reached Felix’s family’s property and he gave me a tour. We made a stop at the neighborhood watering hole his brother owns. Although the bar has satellite TV and serves up beer and liquor to the locals it is a far cry from Cheers. It consists of one very small room with no tables or chairs and the television sits on a wooden shelf that looks like it is going to give way at any moment. We headed past Felix’s newly built house and through his flourishing gardens which also include pig pens and a chicken coop then past a house, tucked in a corner, which seemed dark and empty. Felix told me it used to be the residence of one of his brothers who died a few years ago from HIV. It is hard to find someone in Africa who has not been touched by this disease.
|hot water heater|
We arrived back at the farm to the pungent smell of eucalyptus burning in the boiler and the sound of coffee being ground for breakfast the next morning. I must ask: do you ever enjoy a cup of freshly brewed coffee? If so, as you hold your venti carmel-machia-whatever in your hand do you ever think about the process that went into making your cup of java? Can you imagine the soils that nourished the crop and envision the faces and hands of the workers that helped to care for and harvest the beans? Mbahe Farm it is a multiple step process and does not include the use of an electric coffee grinder. Farmhands manually pick the coffee berries and must hand shell the beans from two outer layers. The prepared beans are dried then roasted then placed in a large wooden mortar. They crush the beans to a fine powder and sift the dust through a sieve. The particles that remain in the sieve are placed back in the mortar to be crushed again until they all flow through the sieve. The workers are focused and determined but what struck me about this labor intensive process was that each worker did his job with a smile on his face. They are proud of their work and the end product. But how was it that every person I came in contact with – from young to old -seemed not just content but genuinely happy?
|storing for the morning|
|our guide anton, joan, and patricia|
|father aloyce and sister doctor receiving medical supplies|
Father Aloyce is a wealth of knowledge and our drive into town was an education. It is estimated that there are 3 million orphans in Tanzania, 16,000 in the Rombo District, and approximately half of all orphans have lost a parent due to HIV. Often times when parents die they leave behind several children. Adoption is frowned upon here and the government has made it increasingly difficult to adopt a Tanzanian child. Historically extended family members would take these children in but with the increasing number of deaths due to HIV it has become more difficult for the family that remains to provide for so many. Father Aloyce oversees 1600 of these children. By offering monthly rations of maize and beans and free medical care when needed he has successfully encouraged many extended family members to participate in the upbringing of these precious souls.
We had the opportunity to meet a group of these courageous and cheerful children. They welcomed us with song and jumped for joy when they saw Father Aloyce. It is clear that there is mutual love and respect between the two and it was reassuring to know that these kids are well cared for and loved. Patricia, one of the members of our group actually funded the building and stocking of two silos to store maize and beans. She spoke to the children and told them how much she cared for and loved them. Tears flowed as she shared her thoughts and feelings with the kids and not a dry eye was found when she said, “I want you to know that since I met you two years ago not a day goes by that I don’t think about you”. I know she spoke the truth because I have yet to make it through a day without reflecting on those children and the circumstances they face.
Our visit to the hospital and orphanage coincided with Ash Wednesday and before our departure we were each blessed by Father. I did not grow up Catholic but I thought it was a beautiful way to end our day and felt it an honor to be have been given such a blessing. The ride back to the farm was quiet and contemplative as we each reflected on our day’s experiences – or in my case dozed. When we said our goodbyes to Father Aloyce and he told us that he is grateful we made our journey and he will pray every day for the success of our families. There is no doubt in my mind that he meant it and I believe that my loved ones have someone in Africa praying for them.
|standing in front of silos patricia (in pink) funded after being blessed|
Thursday was our last full day at the school and we had an overwhelming number of projects and lessons to manage. Due to time constraints we decided to divide and conquer rather than to go into each classroom as a team and we were able to accomplish all that was needed. As an expression of gratitude for our time the teachers prepared an elaborate meal and we had the chance to get to know more about each other. I learned that the monthly salary of a teacher ranges from $60 to $180 which is considered a low wage for full time employment. Can you imagine getting paid $60 a month and having half of that going to your electric bill? Perspective is eye opening isn’t it?
Friday morning we packed our bags and said goodbye to the farm, the workers, and the children. The school held an assembly filled with song and beautiful speeches of appreciation and love. We were each presented with a traditional Tanzanian wrap, called a kanga, and we took a few last pictures with the teachers and students. I was surprised at my reluctance to leave and as one of the mischievous boys coyly hit my arm to get my attention on my way out of the school my heart broke. He had warmed up to us and clearly wanted to play. I had but a minute which disappeared far too quickly.
|one last goodbye|
|mama lynn with one of her children|
|child at light in africa|
|kathryn and one of mama lynn's children|
|marty and baby|
|marty and mama lynn|
Mama Lynn shared many heart wrenching and tragic stories with us about how these kids came to live at Light In Africa; each one more disturbing and sobering than the next. There are far too many to write about here so I will share a poignant story about two sisters. Albinos live in constant fear as shaman will pay $4000 a head. These “medicine men” believe albinos have special healing properties and use their organs in rituals, ceremonies, and potions. Some even believe that they can cure HIV so often times they are attacked and raped. A young Tanzanian mother had two albino girls. One night bandits invaded her home searching for the girls to kidnap and sell. She was able to conceal them just before the bandits broke through the door and she successfully saved their lives. Sadly she realized that she could no longer protect them so she brought them to the Mama Lynn and asked her to raise and guard them. These girls are alive and well today. We held their hands, enjoyed their voices, and had our hearts melt from their bright smiles. As you talk and play with these children you forget they have lost their families and if you hadn’t been told you would never know the horrors they have had to face at such a young age. Their resilience is astounding and their joyful spirit contagious.
|bush baby eating a slice of banana|
At this point my dear friend Kathryn wanted in on the action. I reluctantly let her take a turn. The bush baby, feeling much more confident, came toward her reaching for the fruit. She shrieked and dropped the morsel into the darkness below. “Are you kidding me?” I shook my head in disgust. She was certain she would be successful with attempt number two but sadly the scene was repeated. I had to put a stop to this madness before I lost the trust I had built with this creature. I quickly pushed Kathryn aside and restarted the feeding frenzy stopping only when I was told our table would not be served dinner until every member of the group was present. It wouldn't have hurt me to skip a meal but I figured the rest of my group wanted to eat so I tore myself away promising the bush baby that I would be back the next night.
|gerald and giraffe skull|
|zebra at watering hole|
|his hands were SO soft and strong!|
That evening after dinner had been served and bowls of fresh fruit were sitting in front of us, I gathered handfuls of watermelon and banana and set out to find my bush baby. Within minutes we picked up where we had left off. Marty, another member of our group came along and served as photographer and coconspirator. We decided to put the fruit in the crook of my arm to see if he would actually be willing to walk across my hand and up my arm to get a piece of fruit. He looked at us then at the fruit then back at us and decided it was worth it. As he scurried up my arm I felt his warm soft belly against my skin. He took hold of his prize and scurried back to the tree limb. I placed another piece of fruit half way up my arm with the same result. This ritual continued until the bush baby’s brisk scamper turned to a leaden saunter. He sat on a branch looking down at us. I reached my hand high in the air holding out a juicy piece of watermelon and his eyes seemed to say “Are you kidding me? There is no possible way I could eat another bite of that luscious-y goodness.” But the temptation was way more than he could resist. He made his way back down the branch, looked at me and sighed, took the fruit and slowly ate it. I held out another chunk of watermelon. He looked down at his belly and wondered if he would be able look at himself in the morning. “One more bite. I’ll have just one…more….bite,” he rationalized as he ambled back down the branch. He shoved the succulent fruit in his mouth and begged me to stop.
“Are you sure you don’t want anymore? “ I asked nonchalantly.
“You can’t be serious. I am going to explode,” he moaned. In the end he acquiesced devouring every last piece I had to offer.
Our last day in Tanzania we headed back to Light In Africa to pick up a group of children to take on safari. They were dressed in their Sunday best and very excited to be headed off on an outing. We split the group into two vehicles and drove to Arusha National Park. Along the way I became fast friends with Sarah, a beautiful girl with deep soulful eyes who loves giraffes. Sarah is reserved, fairly shy, and speaks in broken English. We managed to communicate and understand each other with the use of few words. She is very sharp, exceedingly observant and I was impressed at her quiet adeptness. She has had life experiences well beyond her years and taught me things about myself that I may have never learned without her help.
Halfway through the day we found a scenic setting near a lake to enjoy lunch. We made peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and passed out a variety of fruit, crackers, and caramels to the kids. They expressed their appreciation every time we handed them something – quite different than children in the US. Another shocker - they ate every piece of food we gave them. Apples, bananas, and oranges disappeared bite by bite. I shudder to think of all of the apples my mom packed in my sack lunches - Granny Smiths, Braeburns, Fujis, I didn’t discriminate -they all shared a similar fate, the trash bin. As for the oranges she sent to school with me? The idea of having sticking fingers and acidic juice running down the lengths of my arms was far from appealing. Besides, all that time spent peeling the skin from a piece of fruit could be better spent on the playground. I had no comprehension of wastefulness.
|sarah and me|
By late afternoon the rhythmic sway of the car slowly rocked the kids to sleep one by one. Sarah rested her head on my shoulder then decided to make herself more comfortable by resting her head on my lap. It was a tropically muggy day and as she slept my pants slowly absorbed her perspiration. I wondered how she could sleep with the heat and moisture until I was taken back in time to when I was young and fell asleep on my mother’s lap. Sometimes I would wake perspiring with drool everywhere but I felt safe and loved and could sleep through anything. My heart ached knowing that Sarah would probably never experience the comfort of a mother’s embrace.
|sarah sleeping on my lap|
We reached the park’s exit where we were to say our final goodbyes. I hugged Sarah and thanked her for spending the day with us. I wanted her to know I enjoyed learning about her and told her that she would be in my thoughts and prayers. I could barely look her in the eyes as we parted ways knowing in a few short hours I would be headed back to the States. Back to a life filled with family and friends and lots of love. We snapped a few last photos and the kids piled into the van to take them back to the orphanage. I looked through the van’s window and Sarah smiled a toothy grin. “Asante sana. Asante sana,” thank you very much, she said waiving her hand back and forth as they pulled away.
There is a saying in Tanzania, “life is the best gift, the rest is extra”. In the short time Africa shared herself with me I learned a great deal about the human spirit and its resilience. Day after day I witnessed true happiness and was shown by example that life is in fact the greatest of all gifts. I am not sure of the impact I had on these children’s lives but they left an indelible imprint on mine. Some of my greatest life lessons were taught on the continent where mankind began, by unsuspected guides and teachers - lessons of appreciation, humility, contemplation, and reflection. In an effort to enrich others it was actually my own life that was affected. I know I haven’t solved the equation yet but you better believe I am signing up for Algebra 2.