Above is a combination songfest and talent show. The kids voted on who should accompany Sister Helena to a government conference in Mwanza last week. Contest categories included: Volume, Clarity, Behavior, and Endurance…since the field trip would be a twelve-hour day, without food, or naps….
Click here to read the full Tales from Tanzania #10 including Valentines Day project, Nehma’s story, and the farewell songs and blessings for ‘Mama Joy’.
And how do I leave these exquisite children behind me, when I have a personal little tradition or a special sound or a clap-game or a memory that only we share?
Usually there are tears involved, on both sides…. and my profound belief in “annicca” – the Buddhist principle that everything is always shifting…whether I stay or go…..
The Thai saying is “Mai tiang.”
In my mind’s eye, I am arriving at the Mwanza bus station in December, 2015, wearing a Sukuma fashion, and exchanging banter with the local vendors in excellent Kiswahili…And now I’m seeing the children racing to greet me, as I arrive at the Center.
Mungu, Allah, Spirit, Great Mother willing. And that’s how I got here in the first place.
Several of you new readers, and a few old ones, have asked me how I did, in fact, land in this little African village, with no other mzungu/foreigner in sight.
Here’s an excerpt from one of my final “Tales From Thailand” last year:
“… Last February, a psychic Rishi from Nawan Sakhon told me,
You will be traveling around the world soon, doing healing work everywhere…
I didn’t take that too seriously, though, cause I didn’t really know him…. But in September my own teacher in Arkansas, Anna Cox, said the same thing, when I asked her what my next step on the spiritual path would be:
I see a large-boned, brown-skinned angel carrying you through a circle of light. You’ll be leaving your comfortable niche in Thailand soon, and going to Africa. You’ll be sharing your yoga, clapping games, drumming and singing with people there, and teaching them how to be happy ..You don’t have to do anything to make this happen, Joy. Just be alert to invitations.
A couple months after that, I saw an article in a magazine about a sanctuary in Tanzania, for albino children. These children are disdained for their color, and live in fear all their lives. Some of them are murdered for their body parts, the article said. A child is worth thirty or forty thousand dollars to a witch doctor, who sells the potions.
A Catholic nun named Sister Helena started a sanctuary for these children, near Lake Victoria. They are always surrounded by two armed guards. They only have room for thirty children so far, but they’re hoping to expand the center.
I knew that this was “the invitation” and wrote them a letter immediately. I never got a response.
Four months later, I wrote another letter, from Thailand, and the response was immediate and very enthusiastic: Sister Helena and the children are waiting for me to arrive, next December, 2014.
So that’s my secret, friends. And according to Anna and to the Rishi, it’s just the beginning of a brand new chapter, of traveling all around the world. I doubt I would ever have thought to leave my extremely “comfortable niche” here in Thailand….. but this does feel exactly right.
Isn’t life fascinating?
That was excerpted from Tales From Thailand, #9, 2014…. and here I am.
“My” children will be nine months older, when I return here to Lamadi, and there will be several new ones… Sister Helena just accepted a five-year-old girl, Kabula, who was being pursued by murderers. More albino body parts were found in a market-place nearby, two weeks ago. Election years are the worst, Sister says, and this is one of them. Another mother is lying in the Mwanza hospital, critically injured from knife wounds by the man who stole her baby three days ago..
Perhaps these stories, or our concern, will provide the final stick of straw that shifts the balance towards hope for these albino children? Probably not.
But how does any outrageous act of inhumanity turn itself around… and we know that the world is chock full of them? And, how do we stay sensitive and simultaneously not drown in suffering?
Oh grandma, why have you decided to sell me [for body parts]? Have I done something wrong? Can’t we just go home and have lunch?
Sister Helena cried, too.
Kabula was equally perplexed to come inside and see an entire tribe of albino children! She’d never encountered even one before, in her small village.
And she’s starting to inter-act with all the kids …though she doesn’t speak Swahili. But then, neither does little Mariana, another of our newcomers, pictured next to Kabula.
Go and find the father of this child!
A few days ago, the woman returned, with baby Fatuma. She’d been forced out of her mother’s home, by the village tribal council. They threatened that the whole family would have to evacuate, if the albino baby didn’t go, immediately. Sister says that this is a new and a backwards development in Sukuma tribal history.
The mother, who had zero resources, and no alternatives, was crying when she left. But I noticed that little Fatuma, who is eighteen months old, actually brightened up quite a bit, once on her own. She began to play with shoes and bottle caps.
And when the other kids circled in to really welcome her, Fatuma knew she was home, at last.
She’s eating about five times a day now, just gobbling the food, from anyone’s plate, without chewing it. I bought her some infant formula, to try and ease the malnutrition, so she can start metabolizing the food.
Friends, I was again hoping to record a modest improvement in my toddler teaching skills….but yesterday was the worst yet.
I even tried smacking some of the recalcitrant repeat offenders with Sister’s stick, but it didn’t seem to worry anyone. I yelled threats until I was blue in the face. And I did, in fact, lose my voice, by evening. Today I’m a mild-mannered woman, who only whispers.
The children have forgiven me, and I, them.
If you don’t learn to read, you will be taking care of the goats.. Baaaa, Baaa
And the cows…mooooo, moooo
And the ducks…quack, quack, all your life…
And when the murderer sends you a letter, informing you that he’s coming to kill you tonight, and sell your arms and legs and eyes,
you will be wandering around the village all day, looking looking for someone to read you that letter. It will cost you your life!
She’s waving a piece of paper in the air, as she solemnly describes their fate.
The local policemen were touched by Fatuma’s fate. They came to visit the next day, bringing food and blessings and a letter of commendation for the Center.
Sister had the children stand and introduce themselves, in English:
…my name is Agatha. I come from Magu, and I live here in the Center,
Mary Mother of God Perpetual Help. I am eight years old. Welcome home.
And here is the Chief of Police holding back tears, as the children sing Edward Fabien’s song, asking Mother Tanzania,
have we done wrong?
Are we not your children, too?
Several officers wiped away tears, during their visit.
Getting there is at least half the fun. The kids LOVE to scream greetings and wave enthusiastically to the passing cars and trucks. The truck drivers usually respond by honking and waving.
As my faithful readers know, I dearly love the harmonies and the choreographies of the church choirs I’ve encountered here…and plan to try and incorporate some of it in my own singing groups when I get home.
But I was dismayed at the behavior of the village children, many of whom just turned around and glared at us the entire time. I forget how despised my children are, until we are in situations like this. I guess children everywhere just do what they are taught.
On the way home from the church gathering, it was growing late, and Mama Miriam (or Mama Ndogo, as she is more commonly known, which means “auntie”) decided that the children could perform their evening liturgy as we walked.
It’s a sight I’ll never forget, watching the villagers stand outside their home, as the children walked by, reciting liturgy in English, Swahili and Latin, by heart.
Sister murmurs, sighing.
She really had not planned to be cleaning up poop and carrying children on her back, as she approaches her fiftieth year on the planet. And there’s no end in sight…
Remember Beheveh, who ran away from his schoolwork in the last Tales? He has spent many hours here, in front of the the numbers chart, reciting…. early morning, afternoon, and evening, with someone to monitor, assist and support him.
Some evenings, Sister Helena will collect pens or plastic bottles, and he will count those instead, to make the numbers three dimensional.
Beheveh can now count to twenty.
The first time he did it, without help…..the kids intoned one of their favorite chants:
Yes! We can! We are people!
We can do it!
All of us cheered loudly, every time Beheveh completed the count.
There are two days a month when the parents come to visit their children, and to offer bags of beans or rice or dried sardines to the Center. It was a defining moment when Beheveh’s dad came to visit, on Saturday. Beheveh showed Dad his school work, and counted to twenty, three times.
He and Zachariah are holding chunks of sugar cane, a reward which Sister sometimes offers.
Zachariah is enjoying his role as #1 coach to Beheveh. It was he who stood by Beheveh throughout one difficult evening, and insisted:
Don’t even sit down, until you learn those numbers!
As his dad was leaving, Sister overheard Beheveh saying,
Go home and tell them that I am really reading now.
On Sunday, Mama Miriam and I took half the group to the Anglican church. This was a special treat, because the kids can not go out on excursions now, aside from the two holiday periods per year, without a permit from the police.
Townspeople still seem dumbfounded to watch us walk by, especially when we are miles from the Center.
I like to throw out a phrase or two from the Sukuma dialect, which makes us all giggle ….and compounds the mzungu/albino phenomenon.
It was a happy reunion with the Anglican pastor, Reverend Jackson, who was their public school teacher, years ago. And the Reverend was thrilled to hear my story about how I happened to be living in Lamadi.
It will be next week’s sermon,
Sister assured me.
I was slightly delighted, I admit, to note that the children were pretty squirmy during the church service. ..so I’m not the only one who fails to capture their attention. Sister Helena holds the magic wand.
Khadijah passed the time much more sedately, following along in the prayer book… except that she was holding it upside down the first half of the service.
And I loved watching the choir perform, karaoke-style, and do elaborately orchestrated gestures while they sang.
Much smaller and newer than the Catholic Church congregation, I enjoyed the personal interaction at this service. Many came over to greet me, and everyone shakes hands with everyone else after the service.
Beheveh got up and announced that he is able to count now. and gave thanks to God.
That afternoon, little Mariana (as she is now nicknamed, due to a surfeit of Maria’s) was caught, red-handed, tearing up and eating a book. Sister Helena responded by tying her up, for a few minutes. Mariana loved it.
Sister has a fascinating and seemingly random repertoire of stern and playful responses, which keeps us all alert.
The night before, Sister Helena pulled out a big bag of gently used shoes, sent by a bank manager in Mwanza.
She called ten children forward, after assessing the approximate shoe sizes
Ten pairs of (velcro!) fastened shoes were assigned, among the thirty children.
The ten delighted children with newish shoes started marching around in circles, goose-stepping and hopping and singing, with their arms raised heavenward.
It’s not unusual for children to act happy with their new possessions. But then, the other children began singing to them and seemed equally joyful about their comrades’ new acquisitions. That’s pretty wonderful, to me….not one sulky face in the crowd. The singing went on for hours, and then evolved into a spelling bee, until late at night.
At least twice daily, these children intone the “Last Judgement” passage from the Book of Matthew (in English!) from memory:
I was hungry and you gave me food; I was naked and you clothed me; I was in prison and you visited me, I was afraid and you comforted me; I was sick and you gave me medicine; I was homeless and you gave me shelter; I was thirsty and you gave me drink…..
Jesus is suggesting that we love and obey Him by serving others, who are also Him, in some form….
One of the ironies of my time here is that I had thought I was going to teach compassion, forgiveness, and sympathetic joy (as it’s called in Buddhist studies) to the children. Instead, they are teaching me…. about grace.
When he’s two, Daniel will move in, as so many of our kids have done.
And, to continue with our (serialized) saga about the politicians who post photos of our children online and are collecting lots of money for their own contrived “Mother Thereza Center for Albino Children”…. we went to inspect the purported center, and found it was very real indeed….although stalled in process, apparently.
I am not so reactive anymore, after a few months here. Collecting funds and pretending to support albino children is quite common all across the country, I’ve since discovered… If we make too much fuss, they might shut us down, in revenge and to cloud the issues.
Of course, now that the Tea Party has a majority in U.S. Congress, who knows what deceit and trickery our own politicians will manifest, with self-righteous pomp? … How could Edward Snowden win the Nobel Peace Prize and also be “wanted” by the law?
I continue to (try and) teach the toddlers most mornings….and there is, perhaps, some incremental improvement. Instead of throwing up my hands and huffing off when the kids completely “break out” of control, I now save face by handing out colored pencils and papers, before I slink away.
I’ve initiated a water-color project with the older children, which we’ve all loved. I take four or five kids at a time and we retreat to a shady, sandy area outside. We relax and play with shapes and colors. The kids are thrilled to see their work on the wall.
And, upon closer inspection of the “nyumbani pinki” (pink house)….I see that the wall mysteriously dissolves… to reveal the dining table where I drink my “forbidden cup of coffee” every morning, that no one is ever allowed to look at, as they walk by.
I go to the big city of Mwanza, every week now, to obtain wifi access to send these Tales, and to apply and send off grant applications for the Center.
These journeys help me measure my progress with Kiswahili, and the culture in general. I now delight in the small winding alleys of the market-place, in my exchanges with the vendors.. When I climb off a pikipiki (motorcycle) and arrive at the Busuruga bus station, everyone seems to know where I’m headed…the pineapple vendors come over and give me the best deal, the water vendors know I want a bottle of water… If someone is pushy or yelling, I can say (in Kiswahili),
Hey, man take it easy.
That ends it, immediately. No one yells “Hey, mzungu!” anymore….partially because I’m wearing strange outfits that I sewed from a traditional kanga, with a proper shawl over it all.
But when two young men made a lewd comment at the bus station last month, I responded slowly and sternly, in Kiswahili,
Wouldn’t it be better to say “shikamoo” (a term of respect for elders)?
They vanished, fast.
I love to take my “Happy Walks” in Mwanza, which is to go nowhere in particular, looking and seeing and smelling, and blessing everyone as if they are or once were my mother….. Something wonderful always happens.
There is a famous monk in northern Thailand, named Ajahn Jumnian. He is renowned for his happiness, and the way he broadcasts this energy. I feel the same way about a little girl here, named Violet…We have incredible exchanges every day, just making sounds back and forth. Vi seems to have an extra supply of “happy chemicals” stored in her endocrines/brain….she starts giggling and twirling, smiling … anytime.
If my memory serves me, Violet even resembles Ajahn Jumnian quite a bit!
I’ll be heading home to America, in about two weeks now. I’m wanting to concentrate my energy, and my focus …to send special love to each child, and to be more useful to Sister Helena. I want to improve my Kiswahili so I can understand the children’s many songs and what they’re asking me….
For instance, Mama Miriam is teaching me “Ugalli Yoga”. She is showing me how to make five gallons (!) of polenta, in a giant pot over a hot smoky fire…We are fortunate enough to buy the firewood, instead of the girls or women who walk miles to find it somewhere…. in Afghanistan, there are also explosive hidden landmines waiting there…
So, the first time we made ugalli together, I “got it”:
This is practice in aversion –
*I burnt my ankle with a flying ember.
*My eyes watered from the smoke.
* the heat was extreme, in the little wooden hut, with a big fire
* I knocked the huge pot off the cooking rocks, as I stirred the polenta
* There is a special way of twisting one’s arms to stir the polenta with the yard-long wooden spoon, so it won’t burn, and to smoothing out the lumps.
* African women I’ve seen seem to have their own version of “Firewalking” on hot coals, that we do in America. It is: picking up a metal pot of boiling liquid with their bare hands, off the firepit. I still lack faith, at this point.
…..all the while the smoke was pouring into my eyes and lungs..
Mama Miriam and her daughter Monica laugh a lot, while I stir and fuss.
My studies continue, in this and many other subjects (i.e. pulling water from the well in a bucket…”Water Yoga”…and we’re lucky enough to have a well. I see village children scooping brown water from a small hole in the sand with a cup, cause their family cannot afford to use the village well.)
She certainly has a blessed existence, as she is universally adored and attended by everyone. She is also the 24/7 entertainment channel for the kids and staff. It’s been amazing to see her change so much, in the three months I’ve been here. She’s starting to walk, to eat everything, to talk and to expand her social circle to include me and others.
Not to mention doing “Downward Facing Dog,” Upward Facing Dog, and other yoga postures.
Kwaheri, marafiki. (Bye, friends)
….tu onanah….see you soon.
Everybody over two years old shares the work, here at the Center. Tasks are done very, very carefully. While watching Habi fold clothes, I realize how sloppy I am, … Each fold has to be perfect. Sister Helena is demonstrating and teaching the children perfection, speed, and endurance. Survival is not assured here in the bush, and Sister wants these children to succeed! If someone over two years old falls asleep, they are advised to stand, and jump up and down. The children will help each other to stay awake. Their day starts before dawn, and ends at 10 p.m…
In our western paradigm this sounds harsh, I know. But these kids are vibrant, happy and full of life. If an infant can’t circumambulate for the 70-minute evening prayer procession …., an older child will volunteer to carry them..
Here, Mleba is strapping Violet onto her back in the traditional style.
Habi had never been to school before this month, is nearly blind, and has a deformity in her left wrist.
Sister Helena has decided that Habi WILL succeed, however.
Habi is reciting the alphabet and counting from one to hundred, day and night. As I mentioned in my last Tales, Habi was required to complete her school assignment perfectly, before eating supper. And yesterday, Habi was teaching Behleve how to count.
She was quite proud to be doing that.
Now Behleve is on the hot seat. The other children told Sister Helena that he “ran away” twice yesterday, to avoid doing his schoolwork.
Perhaps Behleve is relieved to feel so much group energy and concern about his academic performance.
He will succeed, too and he will be teaching soon!
Sister assured me. At this point, I can only be sure of one thing: I don’t know much.
I dropped into the local primary school yesterday, on my way to the bus stop, at Sister’s request…
Mungu a kubariki
“God bless you”, I said to this teacher, as I was leaving. Let’s bless all the teachers who work so hard, in very difficult conditions.
I didn’t see Habi using her new magnifier equipment ….either she doesn’t know how, or is too embarrassed to look even more different than the other kids. Sister Helena is not very impressed with specialized tools, and believes that Habi will succeed by sheer grit; I’m beginning to believe her.
stomp on his dinner plate, and break it,
Three years later, I see Zachariah spelling long words from memory, and doing difficult math problems. He is leading the group prayers and teaching dances, at four years old. He is nearly always an enthusiastic student, except when I am teaching. I am watching him shift from concrete learning (counting on his fingers and toes) to the more abstract concepts.
Speaking of miracles, I need to show you some photos of dear Agatha, also age four.
Her feet were also suffering third degree burns, from the sun.
Because of the efforts of international organizations (especially Bas Kreukniet, from Holland, in our case), and Sister’s intense devotion, I haven’t seen this kind of nightmare since I’ve been here.
Friends, I was hoping to report a spectacular improvement in my ability to hold the attention of the toddler class, while I’m teaching in the morning. But alas, these Tales are nonfictional, and I’ve hardly done any better at all.
Within fifteen minutes, they are tickling each other, dozing off, wandering away, eating the plaster on the wall, crying, or daydreaming …. Sister Helena makes it look so easy.
Sometimes, she’ll stay in the room with me, to stave off mayhem. When she left for a minute last week….even though they didn’t see her leave…. they got restless IMMEDIATELY.
Perhaps I imagined that…
His mother used to work at the Center, but she contracted some illness while visiting relatives, and can’t do much anymore. I noticed that the son and the mother were quite thin, even by local standards, and naively reported the problem to Masange, our social worker, who had told me he was “in charge of” such affairs. Masange actually has no power at all, I’ve since discovered, and doesn’t have a job with the state.
Upon investigation (by Sister Helena), we discovered that Faustine had stopped eating and even tried to hang himself with a belt last month, because he had no money to go to Seminary. He was the top student in primary school. As a therapist, I’m suspecting there is some other kind of abuse involved here.
A couple weeks ago, I gave Faustine a lecture that
We don’t order God around and threaten Him, because we can’t get our own way. You’ve been given intelligence. Why don’t you listen carefully, and learn to serve God, however you can? There are poor, elderly, disabled people everywhere who need your help! There are people in the seminary who are not serving God, and many people who are not in the seminary who are serving God. We don’t know what your role is supposed to be.
Faustine just nodded and kept a very masked countenance, hoping that I’d come up with some finances if he sat and listened long enough. And I did give him money to go buy food (ugalli and oats) for a month or two.
But my “surcharge” is: bi-weekly classes with me, ostensibly in English.
We are studying gratitude, and do writing assignments like:
When I wake up I notice that I am still alive. How many people died last night?
Thank you, God!
Oh, I am breathing, easily…. How many people have difficulty breathing?
Thank you, God!
Oh, I can see well….How many people can not see, like the children here at the Center?
Thank you, God!
On and on… for about an hour. One of Faustine’s assignments is to read this long list, when he wakes up every morning….and contemplate his many blessings.
He did seem to smile with a tad more light, last time we met. Our last class involved writing an autobiography, which he finished at home…
After every line, he is supposed to think of a reason to give thanks. For instance, the last line we did together was:
Now my mother is sick, and we don’t have any money.
We concluded that:
Thank you, God, for helping me to know what poverty is. When I grown up, perhaps I will want to help other children in poverty.
And for my part of the bargain, I’ve found a textbook store here in Mwanza and bought Faustine some Form II textbooks. We’ll meet again tomorrow. Somehow, God has brought Buddhist training into Faustine’s life. I can’t pretend to understand any of it.
The light of the full moon sunset, for instance, over the children in prayer…and the tropical breezes that accompanied me in the moonlight, as I walked to my tent. I’m aware that the next full moon will occur in a “distant world,” for me.
Blessings to you, friends. May we always remember.
One of our recent rituals is pictured above: Sister Helena is passing out a hunk of raw ginger, dipped in salt, for every child to eat. The kids are sick, because one child returned from the holidays with a cold. As Sister said recently,
There is no escape….
We don’t have running water or, of course, kleenex or toilet paper, and all the kids blow their nose on the same crusty rag and wash their hands in the same bucket of water before and after a meal. But kids still want a hug, of course, and tiny children are not interested in the germ theory. I’m sure that nursery and kindergarten teachers everywhere can appreciate this.
I was trying to be not invested in the germ theory myself, until finally, I got a nasty ear infection and opted for Cloxicillin antibiotics at the local pharmacy. Oh, I was so grateful to feel the swelling slowly going down that first night, as I prayed for relief.
People pass between life and death rather easily here…. Joseah’s sister died of HIV (he’s at the funeral now); Masange’s little cousin perished of malaria, Khadija’s grandpa got fatally bit by a poisonous snake in his home; Edward Fabien the choir director whose funeral we attended recently..all in the last few weeks.
I, however, am better already, and will be full-strength again in a few days. Just one more Mzungu privilege….to stroll into a pharmacy and buy drugs. The antibiotics were less than $2.
Sister Helena is quite fastidious about keeping the children and the house clean. The floors are hand- mopped with rags several times a day and after every meal. Fifteen sets of foam mattresses go outside every morning (if it’s not raining), and come back in at dusk. There’s always a mountain of clothes to be washed out back….another reason the nine- to-twelve-year old girls cannot join me for yoga. Even though they are good students, Sister believes that an integral part of their training is to also be excellent house-keepers…
not just some lazy student who thinks she can lie around reading all day.
We’re at maximum capacity now…and taking in more children might endanger our licensure, Sister tells me.
This woman showed up yesterday afternoon, and tried to enroll her child, who is eleven months old. She was told to return in a year, when the child is not nursing. Sister Helena tries to visit these infants a few times during the year, so her face will be familiar when they make the transition to our center, at age two. We are praying for this one, because she lives in the nearby lake district, which is quite dangerous. This mother was thrown out of her home as soon as the baby was born. Her husband told her to
go find the man who is the real father.
Sister Helena gave her a lot of sunscreen lotion, some baby clothes, advice, and took them to the local clinic for a check-up. I gave the mom some money.
A typical evening meal is a mountain of ugalli (corn meal mush, a cross between grits and polenta) and a big helping of delicious beans, and perhaps a smaller pile of inch-long sardines that come from nearby Lake Victoria…..They look to me like they just swam out of the lake. They lie there, staring at me.
Sometimes we have chicken or goat or duck instead of the sardines and white rice instead of ugalli. I’m sure I get the best pieces of chicken, being the honored mzungu guest. But I have yet to figure out how to
*wrestle the meat off the bone
*chew the meat
These chickens were the avian equivalent of olympic marathoners out in the yard. They are mostly tough muscle and grist. I often just chew the meat a hundred times and then transfer it to a hidden place on my plate. Of course, nothing a mzungu does can be a secret…like my morning cup of coffee.
Lest any of you begin to think that I am a saintly person, here are some confessions:
I have stashed away a bag of cashews in my room, and peanuts….and I brought a green energy powder drink and powdered vitamin C…with which I supplement my diet every morning.
Oh, and there are sometimes avocadoes and boiled eggs cached in dark plastic bags.. I eat these quickly, guiltily, afraid of being caught in the act. I don’t want my cashews to be the next source of artistic inspiration for the children’s art.
“My” bedroom is now also the night-time bedroom for nine girls, three to a mattress. And it’s the school supply center, too.
I was sitting in my room after lunch yesterday, sewing pockets on my clothes. Hand-sewing is a respite I enjoy here. It’s a fun and useful way for me to hide out or to look busy without actually working.
Amidst the day-long howling screams of little Maria, our brand-new two-year-old arrival, my ears picked out an unfamiliar hum…..After another minute, I knew what it was. The littlest crowd of kids were chanting, “Aummmmmm” in a soft and soul-ful way, in the front of the house…So sweetly, it seemed like a dream. So I went out and joined them for a twenty minute yoga session. As usual, the bigger kids were required by Sister Helena to keep working.
If you read Tales From Tanzania #5, dear friends, you may remember that Sister Helena chose to stand up simama sasa at the funeral of Edward Fabien last week, and to make a plea to the community to alter the local Ulluo tribal custom of taking everything away from the widow. No one has ever suggested this before in public, at least in this part of rural Africa.
Apparently, the community did respond by protecting Edward’s widow: she still
has her nice home here in Lamadi, and her possessions.
Below is another widow who was not so lucky.
This same building technique is used by my friends in northern Thailand to build their “baan din” (mud) homes.
In fact, many people throughout history in every culture have used mud bricks or a mud-and-stick combination to make their homes.
Here’s two-year-old Joseph, who screamed for most of the day and night, and banged on the gate, trying to escape, when he first arrived last week.
He often runs over for a hug from me and has lots of big smiles now. The kids are especially kind to him.
While not exactly happy yet, she has ceased the non-stop screaming.
Sister Helena inspects everyone carefully for sun damage and dirt and bruises. You have to remember that none of these kids has possession of a mirror. There’s not one in the house or anywhere in their lives, that I know of. I had to consider this, when I asked them to make a self-portrait, in our first art project. They were much more willing to draw me.
I mentioned, a couple of Tales ago what a miserable failure I was as a teacher to the
youngest crop of children. They wander off, fall asleep, or start hitting each other and generally acting “childish” within a couple minutes, even when I’m performing the exact same exercise that Sister was just performing for a rapt audience. She encourages me to use her secret weapon…..the big stick that is never far from her side. But sometimes the two-year-olds will hit me back. And then I noticed that it was slightly satisfying to hit children who were ignoring me. Oops. Martial punishment is an unquestioned paradigm here, much like in rural Thailand.
Sudi tells me that his headmaster delights in whipping students every morning while they’re all lined up… if they’re slightly late… or their uniforms are not perfect. Sudi is nineteen, and he lives in Mwanza, a large city. He said these whippings can leave permanent scars. No one thinks it’s strange, though Sudi agreed when I said that it sounds medieval to me.
I know how much Sister would appreciate relief from this consuming three-hour teaching task every morning. So I watch her carefully as I’m drinking my forbidden cup of coffee, and write down a lot of Swahili phrases that are useful, e.g. “leap like a frog,” “stretch up high” “watch this!” “Let’s go flying!” “Sit down!” “Come here” “Listen to me only!”….
Sister keeps them entertained and challenged and captivated endlessly, it seems. Several of our four-year-olds can now read and spell long words, and do arithmetic.
Here is Jojo entering “higher mathematics”, which means using his toes as well as his fingers to arrive at a sum over ten. They can all count to over a hundred in English and Swahili, and recite the alphabet in English every morning.
Some of the four-year-olds are now spelling long multi-syllabic words … especially Zachariah and Zawahdi, who are neck and neck in competition for “top of the class.”
The local primary school teacher in town is delighted with our kids’ academic prowess and sent a message home to Sister yesterday to
please send more of these albino children to me.
In one of her many energizing games, Sister will have the kids lie down and pretend to be sleeping, while she sings them a sweet lullabye or Christmas carol.
Peaceful, peaceful….for twenty seconds.
Then she’ll say softly:
(Swahili for “May I come in?”)
Oops! It’s a murderer who’s come to steal your albino fingers and eyeballs.
The kids all leap up and run around screaming and laughing. It’s a strange topic for play, to me. But then I’ve noticed that most children everywhere are fascinated by grisly topics. And Sister wants these kids to remain alert to danger at all times, she told me.
Yes! We can!
We are people!
We can do it!
as they wave their arms and stomp around the room, eyes shining bright.
Zawadhi and Zachariah, never far behind….
Here’s how the older kids spend their afternoons when they get home from school, if they’re not doing chores.
Sister checks all their schoolwork. Woe to those who didn’t do well. I watched poor Habi (in the zebra-striped dress) re-doing her homework until 9:30 one night. She wasn’t allowed to eat dinner until it was perfect. I don’t know how that resolved, cause I went off to bed.
On a happier note, here are the little kids rough-housing with Sister Helena this morning, before I came here to Mwanza.
And happier yet:
They are playing a favorite game around here, among the two to five year-olds: pretending to apply oil to each other, as Sister Helena does each morning.
Zeru Zeru Simama Sasa! is the name of our website, although the Center’s actual name here in Lamadi is:
Mary Mother of God Perpetual Help Center.
“Zeru Zeru Simama Sasa” is Kiswahili for
Ghosts, Stand Up Now!
Edward Fabien died last week, overwhelmed with gastro-intestinal imbalance. He was 35. I went to his funeral yesterday, and cried a lot, though I never met him… Edward was born to the Ulluo tribe (which is more predominant in nearby Kenya). He grew up in the mountainous, remote valley where we attended the funeral….his mother was one of many wives. Edward, however, chose to become a devout Catholic, and moved his small family of four to Lamadi. He was the musical director in our church and in the schools. The children at our center loved him.
Edward did extraordinary things: he wrote a song especially for albino children and had his choir sing it in church, complete with choreography.
Some of the words are:…
Oh, why do you hunt us, and hack off our limbs…and try to steal our souls?…Aren’t we your children too, Mother Tanzania?
We hiked up into this mountain valley a couple miles, after spending the morning trying to get close to the path.. First, our car broke down, with Sister muttering …
Oh, with the children… in the middle of the jungle…
Then the next driver refused to continue after he got out us of the Serengheti preserve…Then the tire blew out on our commercial minivan.
We’re not in Wisconsin any more.
I was placed next to the casket, beside the family, in a position of honor … until the “mourners” showed up, and started wailing and howling over the casket. It was a little strange to me, because they were obviously putting on a show…e.g. pretending to wipe away tears that weren’t there. I could clearly see this, because I was just a few feet away. The only people actually crying, until the burial part of the ceremony, were the choir he had directed for years….and me.
Several Ullua tribespeople who were kinfolk came to the funeral, among the seven or eight hundred present. I noticed how distasteful their practices were, to the Catholic majority. This man to the right, for instance, wandered around clapping and shouting, blowing a whistle and pounding the ground with his cane.
Sister Helena denied knowing the meaning of any of this.
After the compulsory meal that must be served to guests, and viewing of the body, we buried Edward in a cornfield. The Catholics demonstrated their determination to make it their funeral by piling the burial mound high. Ulua would have flattened it.
We were preparing to hike back to the road, after the burial, as the sun was sinking low. But someone asked Sister Helena to come and speak to the crowd.
She told me later:
I’m almost fifty now, and it’s time to ‘simama sasa’/ stand up now…and not just submit to injustice.
It’s apparently an Ullua custom to confiscate everything a widow owns, and perhaps even seize her home and sell it… in other words, women have no rights at all.
Sister Helena spoke passionately for about fifteen minutes, appealing to the community to save this young mother and her three small children from poverty and homelessness, begging them to bypass the Ullua tribal customs which Edward himself had transcended. She talked about how devoted Edward had been to his (one) family …. and appealed to the crowd to uphold his wishes. Several women praised Sister’s speech as we left, and said they supported her sentiments. We still don’t know the outcome of this drama, however.
The next day, a group of international volunteers from StandingVoice.org called me and asked if they could come visit the kids. (Sister’s cellphone hardly ever works, which is another reason it took me five days to catch up with her when I first arrived in Tanzania… She would just rather feed the children, and tend to the babies than talk on the phone…).
A few hours later, Standing Voice was testing all the children for their vision. This group of volunteer opthamologists were from England, Spain and the United States.
Children with albinism often have vision approaching legal levels of blindness, and our children had never been checked out before.
Having these optical aids will definitely “brighten” their lives and change their experience in school. Of course, the children stole the teams’ hearts away and the group plans to be back again in a couple of months.
This delightful American volunteer named Harry Freeland really bonded with Ibrahim and Robat, (which is easy to do!) and asked me to send him this photo.
Thanks, Standing Voice!
Oh, here’s something I just discovered a minute ago, dear readers:
That “delightful American volunteer”, Harry Freeland, is the founder of Standing Voice, and made a famous movie in 2006 (which took him six years of filming) which has been hailed at film festivals all around the world, called “In the Shadow of the Sun” about the stigmas and dangers of albinism in Africa.
As “coincidence” would have it, I happen to be meeting with the star of that movie tomorrow, Josephat Torner. He is flying to Mwanza from Dar Es Salaam in the morning, to meet with me. We will travel back to Lamadi together.
Josephat was quite angry and surprised that the Prime Minister’s five million shillingi donation went to an imposter posing as someone who cares for albino children. He’s coming, “with the press,” he told me, to clear this up. Our relationship began when I wrote to several people, appealing for justice.
But that story…. will have to unfold further in Tales #6.
My yoga classes are a bit “frivolous” for Sister Helena’s taste, now that holidays are over… and the older girls are rarely allowed time off from their chores or studies to join me, but several of the younger boys are getting into it.
Finally, I want to mention the “prayer wall”. That is an institution I started around New Year’s. I asked everyone to make a picture and write their wishes and blessings for the coming year.
Mama Miriam wrote a wonderful prayer, hoping for good health for all the children and requesting more patience for herself….
An art project is a good way to find out what is on kids’ minds, I’ve discovered:
One of my daily mzungu customs is: When I come inside from my tent in the morning, I boil some water, sit at the fancy guest
table, and drink a cup of coffee every morning (Nestle’s powdered coffee, powdered milk, sugar, and sometimes even some cocoa powder). This is a luxury unimagineable to any of the children…
So it was amusing to see that every kids’ drawing included that cup of coffee somehow:
And Obama products seem to have beaten out even Che Guevara and Bob Marley, in terms of marketing popularity!
Two hot news items to report, friends:
It started when she heard a voice telling her to go on the website and surf for albino children in Tanzania. She discovered that a local politician in Parliament (Titus Kamani) was bragging online about having received a five million shillingi grant (nearly three thousand dollars) from the Prime Minister for “his” center for disadvantaged and albino children…plus he received six hundred bags of cement and a promise of more to expand his center. Kamani was using photos of our children and had slightly changed our name to sufficiently confuse donors.
Sister and I spent days going from one police station to another, and then finding a place to photo-copy, and make print-outs of this politically explosive (we hoped) information, in an election year. She’s spoken to various newspapermen and politicians, each of whom swear that they will get right on the case and expose the dirty scoundrels. (Kamani’s partner is Joseph Gimonge, a local businessman.)
Truthfully, it’s two weeks later and nothing has happened. I suspect that our evidence has been shredded and composted into a steaming pile of bribery and deceit. But I also asked Sister for a list of international English-speaking contacts, newspapers, and interested officials that I might appeal to. The response to that has been immediate and spectacular. People in Holland, Germany, Poland, California and the U.S. State Department in Dar Es Salaam are thrilled to see photos of the children, and to read stories about us… Some of these groups are now offering grants and donations.
The Tales From Tanzania subscriber list has grown! Sister is generally a poor correspondent. She prefers to mop the floor, feed babies, and go check on families with albino children. As I’d suggested in my last Tales, our census at the center has grown radically now that kids are back from the Christmas holidays. Here are a couple of families arriving. Most of the children were happy to return, some shed a few tears for a day or two….
Poor little Joseph, aged two, was inconsolable for days. He’d never been away from his parents, and doesn’t speak either Swahili or Sukuma, the local dialect. Only Sister Helena, who speaks twelve dialects, could comfort him, as he banged on the iron gate, trying to escape, and wailed all day and night.
At right, she is showing him photos of Mother Mary and Jesus. He did seem comforted.
Sister and I escorted a group of the older kids to the best secondary school in this part of Tanzania….in a district to the north, called Musoma. She secured special permission for our kids to go there. It was a relief to me to see a government school that was actually using their funds to feed and teach the children. Sister Helena says that this district is fairly unique in its integrity.
In the news yesterday we saw photos of albino children near Dar marching and demonstrating, holding signs, at another center, and telling the press that they were starving and maltreated. U.N. commissions have concurred.
Here, Sister and a school administrator in Musoma are handing out a special sun lotion to the one hundred albino students in this boarding school, and demonstrating how to open and apply it. The kids’ skin is too sensitive for most brands.
A group in Holland, led by Bas Kreuniet, has generously supported albino children with hats and sunscreen for years. Like any teenagers, some of the kids don’t want to look different than their peers and resist wearing hats and covering up in the equatorial heat.
But I haven’t seen any badly burned kids yet, as used to be the norm.
Below are some of our primary school kids heading back to school after the holidays…
We have eleven primary school children, including one named “Robot” (pictured front) who has less legs than Ibrahim, who is in front of him. It doesn’t seem to slow Robot down at all. Like our other kids, he is one of the top students in the school, and an excellent artist, too. They all show me their exercise/quiz books when they get home….no wrong answers.
Sister Helena will be checking, and she breathes fire, to anyone over five years old.
Despite Jesus having returned from vacation, Sister is still an “angry black woman,” as she loves to say….much of the time. I’ve told her that I’m so relieved she is not a white mzungu….or I would have to explain to nearby people that I don’t know her and have never seen her before, when she goes on a rampage.
This often happens on a bus or in a mini-van. One day she screamed at a man that he
was standing on her foot (he wasn’t), that they were going too fast, it was too crowded, there shouldn’t be chickens and goats allowed, and that everyone should stop looking at her(!). Granted, there were 23 people and three chickens in that particular minivan…but that isn’t unusual.
I whispered, Psst, Sister. We’re not in Wisconsin anymore.
She sat up very tall and responded slowly: I am still in Wisconsin.
We joke that each of us is half-mzungu. I’m the “hakuna matata” kid (“no problems”).
One day, we were in just such a mini-van, stopped in a small village. I heard a roar of women’s voices coming from a dirt pathway, and finally saw a big crowd (at least 150) of women, singing, laughing and dancing rather lewdly. They were beautiful young
adults, very excited and all dressed up. The men in our van were laughing a bit nervously.
I had to ask Sister Helena four times what was going on before she would respond. She sighed, finally, and said that it was a Sukuma custom: When a woman dies in childbirth, all her friends and relatives arrive in that village about a month later, and stage a demonstration against men. Sister told me that they may beat up any man they encounter and perhaps badly injure or even kill someone.
I’m sorry I don’t have a photo of this demonstration, readers, but I was pinned down by the crush in the van, and couldn’t move, much less reach for my I-pad.
David, next to Sister, is fifteen years old, and plans to be a doctor someday. It wouldn’t surprise me at all.
The other David, on the far right, just won a regional speech contest.
We now have twelve young children under the age of five who stay home and study. I have tried to be their teacher, and find that I am a total failure at holding the children’s attention…..even when I am doing the exact same exercises as Sister Helena.
The minute Sister leaves the room, they are off and crawling, exploring….the minute she returns they are attentive and obedient! Hmmm. Many of these three years olds can do math, know most of the body parts in English, and can count in English and Swahili. Some are great dancers, and have phenomenal enough memories to recite scripture for half an hour!
So, after lamely trying to maintain order and teach the youngest for an hour or so in the mornings, I usually retreat to a safer, more manageable haven:
I have committed to helping two older girls, Habi and Khadijah, who are challenged in school, and are no longer allowed to attend, cause they can’t keep up. I know that they are capable, because they both learned the clapping games as fast as anyone…they are both quite artistic. Like me, they seem to live mostly in their right brain, and have a hard time focusing on specifics, once they start to feel ashamed.
So we spend hours every day practicing the alphabet, breathing deeply and reciting, “Hakuna matata” and “Hakuna haraka” (there’s no problem, and no rush). I’m not above sweetening the situation with cookies, either. And we stop and do the clapping
game, when they are exhausted. They are improving rapidly, and very eager to continue.
My role model is the saintly Mrs. Angel (really!) who had a pouf of white hair framing her blue eyes and soft, wrinkled face. I left elementary school every morning and walked across the street to her house, to learn how to read and write. I too was an L.D. (learning disabled) child. Now I’m using the same techniques that I learned from Mrs Angel sixty years ago….. we write the letter in the air first, then on the desk, then with fingers on the paper, and finally with a pencil. It’s so adorable when Habi or Khadijah try to “erase” the air letter, if they’ve made a mistake.
They are less and less likely to be making their alphabet letters upside down or sideways now. I understand that no local public school teacher, who has one hundred students in his or her classroom, can possibly have the time to do what I can with these girls.
Ahhhhh, only breathing….and trying again and again.
Josiah, a delightful staff member whom the kids love, really got into it, as well.
The oldies will breathe deeply, and chant, “Ahhh, hakuna matata”, ”Hakuna haraka” (no problems, no hurry)… then proceed to do the clapping game at the speed of light, until someone messes up.
She immediately flips into Downward Dog.
The new crop of kids is catching on fast, too, although they have much less leisure time, now that holidays are over.
Life pretty much runs as a monastic community around here, with hours of devotional prayers offered every day….before meals, before and after school, before bed.
I sometimes circle the house with them on their forty-five minute evening liturgy, spoken from memory, in English, Latin and Kiswahili.
It’s given me a whole new perspective on familiar phrases, re-translated slightly in this country.
Though I walk through a dark and shadowy place, I fear no evil….for that art with me, my Protector…..
Pray for us, Mother of God; Have mercy on our souls..
Tanzania is a classically dark and shadowy place for these children. There was another albino murder near Mwanza a couple weeks ago- a child of six disappeared. Only ten people have ever been prosecuted for these murders and mutilations…. although yesterday the government declared that being a witch doctor is now illegal. This is sort of like declaring the Mafia is illegal. They’ll have to go further underground.
Little Susanna is now two years old. She arrived here a year ago. Sister Helena told me that no one in her family of origin was allowed to look at her directly or speak to her or touch her, because she was considered a ghost and an evil omen. When she arrived, she just sat in a corner and screamed when anyone approached, and wouldn’t interact at all or even look up, for days, Sister says.
She still seems to sleep a lot, but little Suzy, as we call her, is definitely smiling and dancing and interacting with adults and children now.
We all call out her name a lot and open our arms.
At left, Suzy wearing Sister’s shoes.
and below, Suzy in her favorite rainbow dress at the neighbor’s Christmas party.
Before I close this Tales #4, friends, I must mention a truly “unsung hero” hero here at Zeru Zeru Simama Sasa. Sister Helena gets a lot of press and attention, and deserves it, but her younger sister, Mama Miriam, is unknown to the world. Mama Miriam seems to glow with energy and love and compassion all the time. She is up working long before I emerge from my tent in the morning….out back stoking the fires for the ugalli (cornmeal polenta) or porridge mixture for the infants. Always always working hard, with an infant on her back, she is scrubbing pots, carrying buckets of water, cleaning the children….and usually singing as she works.
In my experience, the world “generator”, that central circuit of energy that keeps this crazy planet functioning, is stored in the goodwill of just such women, cheerfully working over a clay stove or fireplace somewhere in ramshackle huts
around the world.
Mama Miriams everywhere:
I salute you.
Actually, I can’t give you the full picture, friends.
On that motorcycle (below) was : Little Violet in front, the Motorcycle driver, then Sister Helena, then the chicken, then me….
We wound all over the mountainous hillsides on sandy tracks, avoiding the swampy rain-filled ditches, past bullock carts, goats and flocks of sheep, bicycles piled high with firewood…
It was such a marvelous sunny breezy day! We spent it (many days, actually) visiting albino children who live WAY out back, delivering sunscreen, checking in, with Sister doing her own assessments….e.g. which children have parasites, which have been burned by the sun, which are malnourished…..
At right: Hey, “Mambo vipi?” (roughly translates as slang for “What’s comin’ down, man?”)
Sister Helena says that my presence in these homes of albino children seriously raises their prestige in the community. The parents are usually ridiculed, if not shunned.
Meanwhile, Mama had given birth to twins, one albino girl and one black girl.
Mama impressed me with her grace and ease and the sense of “plenty,” in terms of resources (food, water, shelter, and happiness) in that home.
Violet’s ’s step-siblings, who live right next door with the other wife, were all vying to get little Violet’s attention. She pretty much ignored them, and seemed equally comfortable with me and with Sister Helena. But after a couple hours, her memories of “Mama” had clearly returned.
Before we left, Sister gave Mama some supplies that she would need to protect Perpetuella from the sun. Mama was amazed and delighted to see that little Vi was absolutely free of sores and burns from the harsh sun. Plans were made to bring little baby Perpetuella to the center when she’s about two, in eighteen months.
Mama suggested hopefully that Sister Helena should accept both twins, in order not to break them up? Many families in town are now trying to get their children into the center, because of our standard of living, education and possibilities for the future. Sister has to remain true to her government charter mission, however, and accept only albinos and/or those who are disabled or totally abandoned at an early age. Vi had an older albino sister, who, like Violet, was usually laughing and dancing. The sister contracted leukemia the second half of her life…and died at the Center at the age of four last year. Sister Helena is still grieving.
A simple question like this usually reaps an incredible tale.
She replied that he’s about two years old now. He was discovered in an abandoned, locked house six months ago, in a distant province. He had scars from beatings, was severely malnourished and full of parasites. No one expected him to live….but the social worker in that province had heard of Sister Helena’s magic…and they begged her to take Francisco…whom Sister named, since they had no identification for him at all.
I’d noticed that Francisco had a pretty fierce temper, and was prone to chase anyone who messed with him all the way across the yard. But he spends most of his days healthy and happy and flourishing now. He’s playing soccer with amazing agility, and learning words like “banana”, and counting and dancing with me and the other kids. I just snapped this photo on the left a minute ago, to share with you.
There’s a shovel near the door of our home. Someone always seems to be burying something on the sandy grounds around the house. I assumed it was a massive composting operation until Sister mentioned that every aspect of an albino is considered fertile material for a witchcraft potion:
locks of hair, fingernail clippings, and even poop.
These items bring incredible profits to anyone that can take them to the witch doctor. Sister Helena’s younger sister (Mama Miriam) or the older girls are in charge of these careful grooming operations, because no one else can be trusted not to sell them.
Sister told me that one of her girls in boarding school was accosted and the front of her hair was clipped and sold.
I asked, “Sister, do you really believe in the power of this witch-craft to injure the child?”
Her response was unequivocal:
That child went blind for a week after her hair was stolen…I had to take her to the church for an exorcism. She got her sight back, but never again excelled in school. She used to be the top student.
I leave the “truth” of this to you, dear reader. I myself am chronically amazed at every society’s ability to manifest it’s own “dreamy” reality field….from my own suburban Semitic tribe in Chevy Chase, MD… to my fellow Qi Gong practitioners who manifest healing by transmitting energy…to the Sukuma power of witchcraft.
And perhaps the fabric of American society is also stained with a dark energy?
Why is diabetes now an epidemic?
Perhaps we too are under the “evil spell” of high fructose corn syrup and factory farmed animals packed with antibiotics and chemicals? Social myths die hard, especially when the “Wizard of Oz “ is a darkly powerful industry.
My buddy Mariamu, at right, cut her hair right after this photo, cause it was getting too long.
Mariamu is twenty; she didn’t join Sister until a year ago, and didn’t start school until she was eleven. We go out shopping in town often, and we went to the church service last Sunday. Mariamu knows a lot of dances and songs, which I’m trying to learn.
The heart she’s wearing says,
I love you, Mama Joy.
Friends, I cannot say enough about the church choir. Perhaps just that tears of gratitude stream down my face regularly, when they are singing? I’ve made a dozen recordings, but think they’re too bulky to send.
Everyone brings their own chairs to the Catholic Church. At the end of the service, here’s traditionally a competition to see which community has contributed the most charity.
Mariamu and I put our contributions into our neighborhood’s box…. and “we” came in at first place, for the first time in history (instead of the customary 8th or 9th) …because of the mzungu’s extraordinary generosity, it was explained to me.
Together with Mariamu, I’d put about $4. (U.S.) in the box. That’s 6,0000 shillingi.
The Protestant Church next door has more affluent members, Sister tells me….and
they have an amplification system.
Mama Anna was next to us in church. She’s a delightful neighbor whose emotional support has meant a lot to Sister Helena. Her English is quite good. She’s about my age, and English used to be the primary focus back when colonials were in power. Now it’s Kiswahili.
Friends, I’m going to close this Tales #3 with a few Christmas tales….
On the morning of December 22nd, Sister Helena and I headed out to the closest honest (i.e. nongovernment) hospital, in Mukula, with a very pregnant teen-ager named Hridaya. Sister was carrying a plastic bucket, in case the baby arrived before we got there.
It was an exciting two-mile walk, then a crowded bus-ride for an hour, on a wash-board dirt road to get there.
The hospital staff was incredibly kind and competent, and did a marvelous job…especially considering there was no running water, and only intermittent electricity.
I was showing Sister some photos of Wattle Hollow to pass the time, but we had to stop, because most of the hospital staff was there watching, in a few minutes.
By 9 p.m. (or tatu usiku, in Swahili terms), Hridaya was holding a tiny baby girl, named Noella Joy.
The kids were quite thrilled with the newest arrival.
The next night, Christmas eve, Sister and I were sloshing around on the flooded village paths, looking for infant formula for Noella Joy. We had to travel to the next village for it.
Any adventure with Sister is fine with me. We sang “Jingle Bells” as we hiked in the dark.
When I asked Sister who all these people were, (the 30 or 40 folks gathered), she explained that our Sukumo host had many wives, and it was all his family. Oh.
There were just a couple of very drunk people dancing when we arrived. I must have been tapping my foot, because someone (less drunk) then asked me to dance.
Oh, and those of you who know how much I love organic, natural structures, must know how thrilled and inspired I am by these stickwoven storage bins….or the round mud huts that I see all around me.
This man was working on his when I took the photo. I’ve shown some of my own mud-houses from Wattle Hollow to folks here, to large approval.
Ahhh, these easy holidays here at the center are about to end….Instead of thirteen or so kids, there will soon be thirty-two, starting in a few days.
But Sister Helena’s staff of helpers will also be back, too, she says.
Hakuna matata – no problems. I’m definitely home.
Happy new year.
Hello again, friends.
Some of the kids at Zeru Zeru refused to go home to their families for Christmas vacation and instead waited six days, through political strife, and floods, and communication and mechanical breakdowns, for Mama Joy to arrive. I received a rousing reception when I finally did, escorted by two of Sister Helena’s friends, on the bus.
We all did yoga first, by request.
Then I pulled out my craft supplies and suggested that we make
name tags…The children were quite innovative, more than I’ve ever seen in the Third World.
Sister Helena has made it clear to them that they are the ambassadors to African society and to the Sukumo tribespeople here, the emissaries who will prove that albino children (I use this phrase because Sister always does) are not ghosts or demons, but have superior capabilities and sensitivities.
These are the first albino children around here to “come out” in public…. and not be hidden away inside their homes, for fear of being sold for their body parts. They are still shunned, in general.
Sister Helena told me that the danger is especially intense around election time….and that full-grown albino women were begging to come live with her recently. These witch-doctor contracts come from “very high up in the government”, she says…. because the politicians and police are looking for good luck. This is why the laws have not been enforced or strengthened.
This is my “nyumbani” where I sleep and meditate in the mornings, just outside the house. Ten babies generally make a lot of noise in the night, and I have taken sanctuary here….. I lead such a privileged life!
To the right is my closest neighbor….a 12” chameleon who has hung right there in the tree since I came. The only indication that he’s alive is that he changed colors and squirmed a bit when i got very close. At night he’s purely lime green.
Sister Helena is a phenomenon all by herself…a combination of saint, story-teller and comedienne. She told me:
“I never thought about anyone besides myself before I went to America. Then I saw the volunteers at Habitat For Humanity in Madison, and joined them. Something happened in my heart, and I felt happier than ever before in my life. I began to volunteer everywhere I could, in Madison and in Milwaukee. That was the beginning of my real path. I learned about giving from my friends in America and in Europe.”
She spent eight years (2002 – 2010) in Wisconsin, and got a degree in Education. And yet, Sister is equally down to earth in her frequent description of herself as “an angry black woman.” Returning home, she found that she no longer fit in to the order of nuns that she’d been assigned to, in Bunda.
“There was so much favoritism, I just got angrier and my heart seized up.”
Then a European monk nearby named Brother Gregory had a vision in which Sister Helena would institute her own project and that she would be working very very hard.
“Brother Gregory promised to help me. And then he went and had a heart attack and died, right after I got started…..he just left me here alone. Jesus and Mother Mary used to come visit me and encourage me, too.. But they’ve all gone away now, on vacation somewhere…. I want to take a vacation, too!”
Sister frequently threatens to run away to Zanzibar and take a rest, “for a month, at least” now that Mama Joy is here. I suggested yesterday that she’d probably last about a day, before wondering, “Where is everybody?” She smiled and nodded.
These children, who have been betrayed by their tribal origins in so many ways, are incredibly devout Catholics. They say a twenty minute prayer before every meal…partly in English. And several times a week, they volunteer to circumambulate around the house at dusk, chanting in Latin, Swahili and English, doing a forty-minute liturgy that ends with elaborately pantomimed
gestures, choreographed by Sister Helena.
Shockingly, even the five, six and eight-year-olds do it from memory! Sister shakes her head and swears that she can’t remember it all. She has taken these kids to mass in the Cathedrals in Bunda and in Musoma, on Easter, and allowed them to recite the liturgy in front of hundreds of parishioners, with all the gestures…no need for a microphone or text. She said the bishop and most of the audience were in tears of amazement by the end.
Sister no longer allows the “photo shoots” with the children that she used to. Too many groups have posted the photos on their own websites and pocketed donations from abroad. A Methodist Bishop (from Fayetteville, AR!) who has been here for decades was one of these exploitive con men. He always feels “too sick” or too busy when Sister requests an audience. But he did finally take the photos off his blog. I’m pretty sure he’d be too sick to visit with me, as well.
Another Sukumo tribal tradition is to slaughter or burn elderly women who live alone, in case they are witches. My friend Sudi, a wonderful young engineering wood, and their eyes become red with irritation. This is sufficient cause for their elimination.
It never happens to elderly single men who cook with wood, though.
The Church has banned all such witch-craft practices, and is fairly widespread around Tanzania. I’ve never felt such respect for the Christian religion as a true sanctuary before.
Isn’t life fascinating?
Sister doesn’t accept exclusively albino children here at the center. In the photo below (on the right,) you’ll see little baby Marcelina whose mother died in childbirth, and my good buddy and “mualimu” (teacher) Ibrahim. As you can see below, Ibrahim has one and a half legs. Yet he has learned to sort of scamper, and can move faster than anyone else around. At seven, he is one of the top ten students in the local primary school, all of whom live with Sister Helena. Ibrahim recently won a speech contest within the precinct. When he went home for vacation last week, he insisted on arriving in his village, on a motorcycle with me, and Sister Helena on the other one. Everyone in the tiny village got to see how important he was. I loved it!
There is a story behind every one of these children and Sister’s heroic response to their
But I’ve probably given you enough information to digest, for one letter.
When the kids and I went to visit some delightful neighbors across the village, we all held hands and did a kind of Harpo Marx walking, while singing a wonderful song about wonderful Mother Mary.
I’ve never felt happier.
May your new year bring you the blessings of peace and wisdom, friends.
Dear friends of Sister Helena and Zeru Zeru Simama Sasa.
I send you greetings from a soggy and happy Christmas holiday time in Lamadhi. You don’t know me yet. My name is Mama Joy, and I am quite blessed to be spending three months with these beautiful “children of God” at the center.
Sister Helena asked me to send you holiday greetings, as she has neither the time nor the solar capacity to use her computer to do it herself. I have come to Mwanza on the bus this morning, for this express purpose of writing to you (and also to send greetings to my friends in America, who think I have fallen off the map.).
We’ve had very interesting holiday adventures in the two weeks since I arrived. There were some vociferous demonstrations around the country, and even more tear gassing, as a police response, to the chronically corrupt regime, around election time…
Then a few days later, Sister and I headed out to the closest honest (i.e. non-government) hospital, in Mukula, with a very pregnant teenager named Hridaya. It was an exciting two-mile walk, then an hour ride on a wash-board dirt road to get there. The hospital staff was incredibly kind and competent, and did a marvelous job…especially considering there was no running water, and only intermittent electricity there.
By 9 p.m. (or tatu usiku, in Swahili terms), Hridaya was holding a tiny baby girl, named Noella Joy. We returned home the next day. The kids were quite thrilled with the newest arrival.
The next night, Christmas eve, Sister and I were sloshing around on the flooded village paths, looking for infant formula for Noella Joy. We had to travel to the next village for it.
Any adventure with Sister is fine with me. We sang “Jingle Bells” as we hiked in the dark. As you may know, Sister Helena never does anything halfway, so we went all out with the Christmas tree and the manger scene. Some of our kids had never seen either. I brought sacks of stuffed animals and clothes from America, which Sister had requested….but it seems to me that nothing holds its fascination like bottle caps and wrappers and plastic bottles.
Or for little Susie, it’s shoes.
Many of the children are home with their parents for the holidays….and several of the older children who are here will be going back to their boarding schools on the 10th of January.
Meanwhile, we’re having a wonderful time, trading language lessons, and clapping games, and dancing and yoga classes, and just lots of snuggling with the youngest ones. There are at least eight babies under the age of two, and several more coming soon.
The older girls and blessed Mama Miriam and and Sister never cease caring for the tiniest. I’m slowly learning to draw the water from the well, and cook some meals, and do my share, but I’m still a pretty useless “mzungu” by contrast.
On Christmas Day itself, I pulled out the big Santa Claus that a shopkeeper in Mwanza (named Flora) had given me, for the children. At first they were a little worried about this fellow, but by the next day, he too was part of the family.
Sister Helena refuses to “feel fear,” as she often says, and is the first person in this area of Tanzania to bring her children out into public, as much as possible….so that the local people can see and feel and hear how adorable and intelligent and human our kids are.
On Christmas afternoon, we all went out to a neighbor’s party.
When I asked Sister who all these people were, (the 30 or 40 folks gathered), she explained that our Sukumo host had many wives, and it was all his family. Oh.
There were just a couple of very drunk people dancing when we arrived. I must have been tapping my foot, because someone (less drunk) then asked me to dance. With Sister’s approval, I started to dance, to a chorus of ullele approval by the women.
Within minutes, most of the women were joining me. My status as a foreign Mzungu seemed to shift into the sister/dada category within the hour.
Then our kids, upon seeing this transformation, overcame their own shyness, and jumped into the act with equal exuberance.
And the goat-flavored rice and soda pop was a big hit with the kids. They and Sister seem to put away astonishing amounts of food …. yet no one is fat, by any means.
In fact, everyone is shining.
Social workers from many provinces are taking note of Sister’s magic with the children, and are increasingly requesting her services. The next child who will be arriving is a two year old who has no arms or legs. Sister is so eager to embrace and begin to let this little one feel his own self-worth and beauty.
This has truly been a Christ-mass for me, and I wanted to share it with you.
Happy Holidays, from Sister Helena,
the kids and me,
Habari asubuhi, marafiki zango? or How are you this morning, my friends?
These photos (click to see larger view) are from the Saanana National Park, a small island reserve where I think I hiked every trail, on Sunday, and stumbled into long-horned ibex, some zebras, a marmot-looking rodent (who is most closely related to an elephant, I’m told), phosphorescent red-bluepink iguanas, and many epic rock formations.
The iguanas were constantly leaping in my path, and then gone in a flash, when I went to take a photo. The symphony and sights of the fish eagles, storks, kingfishers, swifts, kites, golden warblers and ….turquoise, red and purple birdies was equally enthralling.
I had the entire reserve to myself the first few hours, except for the National Park staff.
I’m pleased to see that I have 97% power on my laptop today….cause the electricity has been off for about twenty-four hours. It’s not a real problem, or even an inconvenience for “one who has no preferences.” as the Zen scripture goes. Last night, I wanted to take a Tylenol PM, but couldn’t find my flashlight in the dark (although I thought I had positioned it very carefully.) and went looking for it by braille. These little Lucille Ball skits make me laugh!
I got enough sleep last night (six hours if we add up the segments) to feel much more alive today. The night before, the bar down the street played Latino music until 3:30 a.m., (that’s called 9:30 in Swahili time, which is measured from noon) I have now moved my sleeping quarters down into a sort of vault, here in the Lake Hotel. It’s not as breezy or delightful as the upstairs room I had, but a whole lot quieter. Hurrah!
Today, with my eye irritation subsiding (finally got something at the pharmacy), and some sleep….I feel much braver and more confident to wander around Mwanza. Why does it take energy to wander around Mwanza, you might wonder?
Almost everyone on the street wants to communicate something,… just Jambo! (“howdy”) or practicing their English, or welcoming me to Tanzania. I especially adore the beautiful and loving eye contact with the brightly clothed older women with baskets or buckets balanced on their heads.
Here’s one little one (at left, click to view large image) for openers.
There is one level of “friendliness” that I can’t quite tolerate – the very occasional guy who wants to escort me somewhere, or keeps holding on to my hand, and asking me all about my life. But that is my own opportunity to practice boundaries. And as a last resort. I avoid walking that way again.
I just went shopping for coconut oil, toilet paper, and powdered coffee….I bought a plastic/electric tea kettle yesterday and lots of craft supplies. Then I saw a shop with Christmas decorations, and bought quite a few more. Sister Helena had asked me to bring lights and things for their tree. I’m happy to support the small shops in Mwanza. The shopkeeper, Flora, a beautiful young woman, started piling extra Christmas decorations into my already-bought bag of items when she understood that I am going to visit “Nyumbani kwa watoto albino” (a house of albino children). Then she asked me what ages they were? When I said, “1 – 16,” she ran to find, and handed me a giant stuffed Santa Claus. I told her that the children will be told that this is from Flora.
Isn’t it interesting how an act of generosity stokes more energy inside? I then found the confidence to go buy a bolt of colorful waxed cotton cloth in a small shop. I hope to have it tailored into a skirt and blouse once I get to the province of Magu, and the tiny village of Lamahdi.
Who knows- I might return with almost as much “stuff” as I’ve hauled here….the more I can support the locals in the village, (which is a mile from “my” children’s home.) the more they might look upon the albino children as a blessing, not a curse. Hey, is that a great reason to consume, or what? : }
Whoops! It’s later in the afternoon now, and I’ve just had a true “SILLY OLD BEAR” moment……I discovered that the electricity hasn’t been off for two days. I had simply turned off the
master switch in my room, so nothing worked. “Silly old bear” is my newest self-description,
when I’ve done something foolish. It’s a sweet Christopher Robin-ish approach to my own mistakes that is quite a bit kinder than the previously punitive descriptions that my inner critic enjoyed using.
And where is the mysterious Sister Helena?
I finally reached her on the phone yesterday…She told me that “they are bombing everywhere.” The election results were revealed on Sunday….and many people think the results were rigged by the current corrupt administration. (This is the same president who wanted to banish thousands of Masaii tribespeople from Here is Proskovia, the manager at my hotel who has been so kind to me…posing with the donated Santa doll and my new cotton outfit-to-be their homes in the Serengheti, so that Arabian sheikhs can go hunting by helicopter for big game, inside the reserve.).
When I asked her “bombing, as in killing?”, she said “No, just bombing everywhere.” So I think she meant to say tear-gas. So, we’ve spoken a couple more times. Once I convinced her that I don’t feel scared or abandoned, she decided to come get me tomorrow, when everything has calmed down.
Truth is, I appreciate the extra time here by myself, to get acclimated. I believe I have now “landed” here in Africa, restored my balance, and am ready to enter into the thick of my proposed adventure: travelling to the “Mary Mother of God Perpetual Help Center” where dozens of kids have been waiting for days to meet me. She had them yell “Karibu, Mama Joy” over the phone to me. Welcome, Mother Joy
It was the birds who “invited” me to Saanana Island…which just became a national park last year. While I was eating supper by the lake last night, I was enchanted by the birds flying overhead: ibis, storks, cormorants, eagles, kites, swifts, kingfishers. On the walk home, I noticed that I was near a National Park.
So I took a motorboat, and paid my park fee…. The Park ranger guy in charge spontaneously decided I was a Tanzanian national, for the private boat fee, (though I told him otherwise), and greatly reduced it….
I didn’t see another visitor the first couple hours….my own private animal sanctuary!
My guide and now friend is Oscar. It’s more or less impossible to not have a guide, though the whole park was only about 2 square miles. But after 40 minutes, I took off on my own.
I still haven’t been able to contact Sister Helena….but it will happen at some point, in perfect Third World time.
Ahhh, it’s been a rather long day…about 40 hours worth, I think (but then my thinking may be a bit hazy) and I’m still feeling wonderful.
I did get quite a bit more sleep than ever before on the three plane rides. The flights were great…. On the first one, I sat next to a young Saudi named Abdul, who studies business in D.C.. He is quite excited to bring his Turkish fiancee to Wattle Hollow this spring or summer. I taught him some pointers from Buddhist eating meditation and he absolutely LOVED it. He seemed to grok it all immediately….what a coincidence : }
He also wants to donate some money to Zeru Zeru, he says….
Turkish Airlines suddenly got quite a bit more casual, after the Washington, D.C. – Istanbul flight…. For the next one, we were wandering around in the rain, waiting to board, for quite a while. I am so grateful to be quite fit, as there was no handicap access in sight, for anything, and a lot of stairs to climb, luggage in hand.
And then, things got even more “casual”, bordering on the Mad Hatters’ Tea Party….after I got to Dar Es Salaam.
No one seemed to recognize my airline….so I was told to go take a taxi to another terminal. I had to wait forty minutes for that to happen for no apparent reason)….then the taxi ran around in circles and we ended up back in the original place. By this time the driver and I were sprinting to get to my plane on time, through security, with my gobs of luggage. It was a fabulous Buddhist opportunity!
I was never charged for an extra luggage fee, by the way.
I love the “town” feeling here in Mwanza…and I love that I haven’t seen more than a half dozen Americans since I boarded the plane for Istanbul….or even one here in Mwanza. People have been so incredibly friendly. They are quite pleased that I’m trying to speak Kiswahili. Several folks have given me their phone number and offered to have me over…and I’ve only been here five hours.
One is a woman named Nuru, who teaches elementary school kids here in Mwanza.
Instead of going to the fancy and expensive tourist hotel, I’ve found this delightful native version for a tiny fraction of the price, in the center of town. Of course, the electricity is currently out, and it only has cold water….but that is Africa, I suspect. And with the money I saved from foregoing the bourgeois frills, I bought tons of digital stuff – a router, (for constant wifi access for three months, provided I can get my portable solar banks working), a samsung cellphone that isn’t locked and sim cards to match for the iPad, laptop and cellphone), an African electricity adaptor.
Someone has accompanied to every place whenever I’ve asked directions…. It feel very “right” to be right here, my dear friends.
I’m going to venture back outside now….still not tired, and look for craft supplies and a few other things.
LOVE, love, love to you all.