Tales of Tanzania #4

Two hot news items to report, friends:

Sister Helena**Sister Helena is now sure that Jesus and Mother Mary have finally returned from their long sabbatical, and are back on the job. She sees signs of miracles all around.

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.

tales4-families-arriveThe 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….

tales4-sister-helena-josephPoor 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.

tales4-children-sun-lotionA 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…

tales4-primary-kids-robotWe 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.

tales4-sister-davidAfter handing out the skin lotion, We continued on to visit some more of “our” kids, who live in a nearby and very lovely center, right on the lake.

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.

tales4-sister-helena-sister-juliannaThe nun in blue, on the right, is Sister Julianna. She teaches sign language at this center for children with disabilities, and is from Sister Helena’s seminary class, twenty years ago.

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:

tales4-sisters-habi-khadijahI 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.

tales4-clap-gameThe new kids are now studying the clap games and yoga and foot massage that the first batch pretty much perfected.

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.

tales4-marcella-yogaPaul, who is wonderful with the children, loves to suggest to little Marcelina (age one) that it’s time to do yoga (“fanye yoga”).

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.

tales4-susanna-twoLittle 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.

tales4-suzyShe still seems a bit shell-shocked, but I see her participating more every day. I have no doubt that love will prevail.

At left, Suzy wearing Sister’s shoes.

and below, Suzy in her favorite rainbow dress at the neighbor’s Christmas party.

tales4-suzy-rainbow-dresstales4-mama-miriamBefore 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.