Tales From Tanzania #6

tales6-gingerOne 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.

tales6-shoesAll the youngest children get a bucket bath every late afternoon in the back yard….just one more of Mama Miriam’s endless tasks.

We’re at maximum capacity now…and taking in more children might endanger our licensure, Sister tells me.

tales6-woman-arrivesThis 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.

tales6-evening-mealA 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
*swallow it.

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.


Robat and Agatha saying goodbye to Edward

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.

She is making mud bricks to build herself a home, after everything was confiscated when her husband died.tales6-mud-bricks

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.

tales6-morning-classHe’s even starting to participate in the morning classes, though he doesn’t speak Swahili or Sukuma.

tales6-mariaAnd on the left, center, is Maria, our latest “project,” another two-year-old arrival. Her mom dropped her off two days ago.

While not exactly happy yet, she has ceased the non-stop screaming.

tales6-morning-beddingThe day starts when everybody puts their possessions back in a bag in the garage, and takes their bedding outside, and carefully folds all the linens.

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.

tales6-morning-sunscreenThen, Sister covers the youngest kids (infant to six years old) with sunscreen in a kind of sweet and loving massage, which they clearly cherish.

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.

tales6-higher-mathHere 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?”)

and whisper

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.

tales6-zawadhiAnother popular and beloved group chant is:

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.

tales6-check-homeworkSister 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:

tales6-maria-mariaHere’s our little new-comer Maria (“the screamer”), playing with another Maria this morning.

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.

And here we are, chanting a very long “aaauummm”
Bye now,