We started the trip lost on a back road in a more ghetto area of Dar. Neema parked the car and rang up Danny, a co-worker who had filmed at the orphanage, no doubt in a painfully audacious effort to advertize the benevolence of the VodaCom cellular King. We waited for Danny until he joined us and got in the car. Danny is a tall, rather handsome Tanzanian guy with a chipped off front tooth. He speaks English crystal clear; no Tanzanian or British accent. He could have been raised in an American state save for his Tanzanian shoes and that chipped front tooth.
He led us onto a few back roads and we stopped in front of a hole in a wall. Literally.
I knew we were in the right spot as children were running in and out barefoot and shaved bald. I started to feel a little awkward.
What would we do? Walk in and gather the children like chicks to a hen? I got the feeling this was something Jesus would have been better at than me. I tried to conquer the situation with that humorous over-confidence which can make any weird situation seem palatable. We entered in through the rickety doorway and greeted several mamas in kangas and colourful headscarves as they lounged on the large mattress on the floor of the entrance.
Neema and I did a round of “Shikamoos” and I felt a bit of relief as Danny greeted the ladies with more charm than I was able. We followed the skinny path through to the open space at the back of the shack. At the rear, it opened up to a crowded open-air storage and cooking space. The place was a wreck. There were old pails, bags, boxes and who knows what else piled high up along all of the walls closing in the small space. Children ran around everywhere here, coming in and out of an even more rickety shed space to the right and at the back. To the left, the house sort of sprawled into a big U. The entire space was essentially two long hallways, one of them covered in a tin roof but other than that, open. Here is where the cooking took place. A giant fry cooker sat on top of a coal fire, palm oil boiling and soot and ashes heating up the hot, moist midday air. The kids scrambled around it; a sight for sore eyes. Dad would balk at the whole situation; I could hear him in my head, “We’ll have to hire a helicopter to take you to Sault St. Marie and you’ll be ‘oh-so-surprised’”.
Sadly, there is no Sault St. Marie here.
When they burn, they salve it with honey and we hope that the mama would have the sense and cents to bring the kid to Aga Khan by morning. I doubt these kids would ever step foot inside Aga Khan; and not for lack of necessity.
Many are very sick. Neema points out Fatuma. She wears an imitation denim dress and, like the other girls, her head is shaved bald. When Neema worked with this orphanage a few years ago, Fatuma had been dropped off by an abandoning mother and left to the care of whomever should find her. She was diagnosed with AIDS not long after. They said she would die very soon. Neema was happy to see her seemingly well after a couple years of infection.
It was evident by the yellow eyes and scabbed skin of her peers that she was not the only sick one. Danny said half of them are probably ‘affected’. That’s what Africans say to avoid using the word AIDS. A little boy looked up at us as all the kids began to gather around the strangers. His face was pulled sideways below his nose; a problem that will never be solved due to his lot in life. I started to get uncomfortable with the scene. I felt we were just looking around like we were touring the Zoo or on a walking safari. I plopped down with the kids who had sat around us as we made small talk with the Babu. My butt started to burn as soon as I sat; we were gathered on the dusty cement in the back. The sun had been beating down all morning until now. It stung through my flimsy black cotton, and I stared at the kids with a hesitant smile. Neema stayed standing. I looked up at her; “Can we do something with them?”. We had big service bags and were dressed formally; I didn’t want to give the impression that we were conducting an investigation or that we were just snooping aristocrats.
It took some minutes before we decided to go into the second part of the house; the one that is half covered just beyond the make-shift kitchen. We sat on a stool there and immediately Danny wanted the camera, as Neema had told him I wanted to take pictures. I was horrified. Please don’t take pictures yet, I thought. He snapped a few as all the kids gathered at our feet and I started nervously searching for the flavoured fruit toffees I had bought at the gas station as a peace offering.
I was looking for anything to give them, some reason for our visit beyond wild curiosity or the desire to look upon the abominable circumstances of orphans in Africa.
“Put one on your lap”.
Oh God. Please. This is so embarrassing; they will think I’m just looking for a facebook post with Angelina vibes.
Finally he cooled with the photoshoot and the kids broke into song. In unison they sang a welcome song for us, “We are happy, we are happy, for our family. . .”
At one part they put their hands in the air and waved them the way deaf people clap. I threw my hands in the air and peered over at Neema. She didn’t participate. We introduced ourselves one by one. They didn’t laugh at my Swahili, and they clapped when I finished.
After they sang and I threw each child a toffee, I pulled out the Greatest Teacher Book and we announced that we would read them a story. We hadn’t chosen one in advance so as we thumbed the table of contents I pointed out the one entitled, “Do You Remember to Say Thank You?”
We turned to page 97. I started to read and Neema tried to translate. She fumbled with her words so Danny took over. He sat on a bench at the back of the kids and three little girls shared the space inside his arms.
I began- and can you believe the story starts like this:
“Did you eat a meal today?” I prayed that they had, to avoid a real awkward truth.
“Do you know who prepared it? – Perhaps your MOTHER did it. . .”
Aye. Not a good start for hungry orphans. I skipped the line about their mothers.
We continued. The story took a strange turn when it began to describe how lepers’ flesh falls off and how they were thrown out of the city and rejected by common society in Bible times. As I tried to read I held in nervous laughter and disbelief at how not ideal this story was turning out to be.
“If a leper saw another person coming, he would have to call out to warn that person to stay away from him.”
I held it in, and looked up guiltily as the children listened for the translation.
The story took ages to develop, especially translating line for line. Finally, Danny was unable to bear it anymore;
“Can we skip to the moral, this relates to saying thank-you??” he asked after I read,
“. . .when he was well, he could live with people again.”
I got the point and skipped to the last few paragraphs about the different situations we could say thank you in. I threw candies out like they were apologies and managed three little girls on my lap; including Fatuma, the little one with AIDS. The kids sucked on salty toffee as their noses ran down their faces.
My arms became sticky with as their grubby little hands pawed at me; it didn’t gross me out. I just kept peeling the papers off their candies and hoping to somehow make their day a bit better; as cliché as that sounds.
Soon we were listening as they sang their goodbye song, “We are happy, we are happy to say goodbye. . . .” This time they clapped at intervals.
I eyed up one little girl with a tiny oval face and hands the size of a baby’s. Her round head was covered in a blue headscarf, she was awful little to wear a head covering so I wondered if it was for reasons of faith or health. I gave her another candy.
We said our goodbyes and climbed back in the blue SUV outside the upside down house.