Tuesday, September 26, 2006

The Brilliant Baobab Boys

Our boys came home this week for a short break from school. One night Benedictor and Yassini solemnly brought their report cards to me, stapled shut- “to the parents of ……..”. In Tanzania all grading is quantitative and students are ranked against their classmates. I don’t care for the practice much, but I have become as curious as everyone else about the results. I opened Benedictor’s first. Third in his class of 40, wow! It was a great moment, but I quickly thought…..”mmmm….how will I handle it when Yassini is number 15 or 20?” I needn’t have worried, as he was 4th in the same class. “HONGERENI!” (Congratulations!!) I kept telling them. A few hours later I learned that Emmanuel was 2nd in his class of 54 and that’s when the tears came. How did we get so lucky to find such terrific kids to help?? Caito was just as amazed and proud as I was. It didn’t stop there- Benard was 4th among 50. We haven’t gotten results for William and Gabriel, but I am sure they did fine. When I look back at how they were living before and how they passed their primary exams in spite of so much, I am awed by their determination. Every break they ask for, and we arrange for them, extra tutoring. To those of you who have helped them, thank you so much, from all of us. Please be absolutely confident that your help is working, and bettering lives.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006


There is a boy here named Omari. He is 9 and AIDS has ripped through his house like a rusty knife, killing most of the middle generation and leaving just the very young and the very old. He is HIV+. He lives with his great grandmother, small sister, and great uncle who has leprosy. These days his "little mother" (maternal aunt), cousin and infant twins live there too. A little mother IS your mother, especially if your birth mother is dead.

Back when our work was new to us, Caito and I maintained lots of boundaries and we only helped kids under three years of age. But each time we visited one of our little girls, we saw that her brother Omari had cotton in his ears. His great grandma told me that they’d given him ‘local’ medicine, but I just couldn’t bear looking at him with this problem anymore. I took him to several doctors, but it wouldn’t clear. Finally, an HIV test told us why the ear infection was so persistent.

Our counselor Elice was alive then and she talked to Omari’s family. AntiRetroviral Therapy (ART) was available, did they want it? Did they understand how important it was to keep to the regimen? Yes, yes. We got him started on the life saving drugs and watched him closely for a week or two. We figured that, like other people we helped, he and his family would cling to the lifeline we had thrown and adhere to the daily med schedule. We stopped the daily visits, happy that he was getting what he needed. We came back after two weeks and were horrified to learn that he had missed a lot. I cried.

Some people who get very very sick from AIDS related illness, get on ART and when they regain weight and power, think that they are "cured"- so they stop taking the medicine and their body becomes resistant to it if they start again. Then their health takes one last speeding nosedive before they die. I imagined Omari, wasted and skinny, dying like those people. It seemed to me a fate worse than "normal" death by AIDS- to have had the second chance at a normal life and blown it. Being a martyr type, I knew this had to be my fault so I vowed to repent. I went to his little mama as she lay in bed with a hurt leg BEGGING her to watch over Omari and reminding her of how important the medicine was, how he would die without it. Then my husband and I began a daily ritual. EVERY night we went to make sure that Omari took his evening dose and count pills to see if he took his morning dose. I would panic if we had to miss a day even if we warned them ahead of time. I was convinced it was futile, that resistance to the drugs had happened, but guilt drove me.

Months went by and we visited him daily, spending gallons of gas and hours of time. His health was awful- his ear infection never went away for more than a week, and he coughed a lot, but he was maintaining weight and going to school. Then, some excellent volunteers took over, visiting daily. After the volunteers, Caito and I resumed for a little while, but Omari seemed like he was in a groove. We were very overworked at the time and all of the hovering we were doing felt wrong. We felt that it was time to graduate him. We pulled back, talked to the family and reminded them of the importance of the meds.

From time to time we stopped by, but it was all verbal " are you taking your meds?" Always we got nods and yeses. We believed them. Strangely, Omari started to glow. Truly, one day I was amazed at how vibrant he looked. He talked more and had grown. Often he had no cotton in his ears. In May we went to remind him of his appointment. Caito and I agreed that we had never seen him look so good. We thought that meant that he was on top of his medicine regimen. I even wrote to the American nurse who had initially tested him to say that maybe us pulling back was exactly what he needed.

June, a week after his appointment date, Caito remembered that we had not reminded Omari to go to the clinic. PANIC. Not only had n o one taken him, but they had sent him away for the city on his school holiday. His "little mama" assured Caito that he had taken his medicines with him, which I later learned was not true. We insisted that Omari be brought back immediately. I told his grandfather that he could die without the drugs. They wanted bus fare for the inconvenience. Omari got the drugs and went back to the city for his vacation, far out of our range for a month.

So now I am left trying to find the lesson. Part of me says, that me must take responsibility for our action and inaction. We screwed up, own up to it! If you don’t, it could happen again. We were too busy and should have known better from the first time that his caretaker just wasn’t responsible enough.

The other part of me forgives and says that it is not our job to lead the ""horses"" or people to water and sit there all the time forcing them to drink. We, and the doctors, taught the family all we could, and reminded them. We thought that they understood. Outreach is about teaching people to do things for themselves and their children.

The truth I think, lies somewhere in between. Despite our good intentions, we let down Omari as much his little mama did. As terrifying as it sounds to me, we had to learn a lesson on a 9 year old boy’s life. The relieving coda to this story is that if and when Omari does show signs of resistance, there is now a second line drug available in the city that we can get for him. It will not be easy, but he will get yet another chance, and we will make sure of it.

Lyle Lovett TZ style

If I had a boat, I’d go out on the (Indian) ocean, and if I had some cows……..
Well, I’d shove them on the boat too, along with some really ornery goats. We would all together, set out for Zanzibar where apparently they don’t have enough cows and goats of their own. ....

Slightly Sticky Situation

I want to thank everyone for the incredible toys, games and books you have sent. The kids love them and benefit tremendously. I can see the skill building that things like puzzles and flash cards do for them. It is a joy when they make music with the instruments and draw with the crayons you have sent. The last thing in the world I want is to sound ungrateful but I just need to make a little announcement……….
We now have more glue sticks than we do orphans. We are up to our knees in them and we have nothing to glue together! I try to be creative with it-yesterday I used a wad to keep a closet door closed that keeps flying open- but there are only so many things for which one can use this mildly adhesive substance. It would take a lifetime and gallons of glitter to use up all this glue …….Maybe we could donate them? Is there anyone out there who is glueless? If so, there are some orphans in Africa who want you to benefit from their largesse. Please apply (no pun intended) to the Baobab Home and if you qualify, we will send you some orphan glue.


A few weeks ago I met a woman in the road- she and her friend sort of bounced into my range of vision-they were laughing. I didn’t recognize her at first, but she asked me how my son Justis was. He was fine. OH! She was the one in the hospital bed across from ours when Justis had pneumonia last month. Her daughter had it too. I asked her "mtoto hajambo?" meaning, "how is your child?" She died. I was a little stunned and offered my sympathy, but I saw no sadness in her face at all. She said that it had been God’s will. She bounced back out of my day.

That same day, my neighbor Sina, who is HIV+ and has birthed 5 children, told me that she had just lost her second. She had asked me two days before for bus fare to go see the child (staying with a relative) because he was ill. I didn’t have it and was in a hurry and wanted to research the matter further because Sina had been asking several people for money lately. It turns out that by the time she asked me, the child had already died. Sina told me this news in much the same way one would report the contents of one’s lunch. My arms wanted to hug her, but I held back, deciding it wasn’t appropriate. Since then I have seen her dancing and laughing as she always does.

I recall an anthropological study of mothers in Brazil who do not name their children for a full year after they are born. With such a high infant mortality rate, they hold back on naming because to name them is an investment of hope, a recognition of their humanity. I always wondered how that worked- is love therefore held in store for a year? After a year, if the child is still alive, then it gets a name. A week after my friend died last year, I ran into her young son for the first time. Tears flooded my eyes to think how many orphans she’d helped and now her son was one. People were shocked that I was crying a full week later!! How long would I cry for?? Since then I have felt hesitant about showing my grief especially when a child’s own mother tells me "it’s ok".

When I used to work in the childbirth industry in the United States I met mothers who had lost their children. The grief consumed them utterly. They shut down for months or even years, they formed associations, celebrated birthdays annually, and always referred to the deceased child by name. In many ways they just did not recover-refused to recover because if they ever got back to "normal" that would somehow devalue their child’s life. Here, there is no time for protracted grief because too many people die. If people grieved for months or years for each child, the whole country- most of the continent- would become paralyzed. But whereas I must stifle my grief here, the Tanzanians I meet truly seem released from it quickly. Where does it go? I am not judging such persobnal emotion as grief, nor am I saying that there is no variation to the pattern I have seen, there is. I am just in awe at how different humans can be.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

I'll be Back!

Don't lose faith in me! With the laptop still down, I just can't blog or load pictures very easily. August 17 the brand spanking new laptop, donated by Mr. Eric Plue arrives and blogs will resume and be steady.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

bad geography

Mwajuma, a young girl who we sponsor to attend secondary school, was over the other day to get help from me on geography. The topic was longitude and latitude lines and how to differentiate time zones using the former. I looked at the examples and saw these odd math problems using something akin to what I remember as algebra. I looked closer and saw the answer........If it is twelve o clock noon in X place at y longitude, what time will it be in Z place....the "answer" from her teacher was 2:40 pm!!!

It so happened that 5 of the (former) street boys who we also sponsor in school were there. I asked for their help and each of them were familiar with the (incorrect) formula. There is a standardized curriculum for the entire country. All government schools use the same books. The teacher writes everything on the board and the kids copy word for word. They do not get a book. Many of the schools don't even have a library.

I asked the kids "what are you going to do about this? Will you tell your teachers that they are wrong?" One boy said that if they do that, they risk getting into a lot of trouble- they aren't allowed to tell a teacher they are wrong. They saw the now familiar look on my face when I am about to launch into protest mode. Mwajuma said "I am going to tell my teacher!" Emmanuel followed and said "I will also tell". The others were quiet.

The boys are on holiday still, but Mwajuma told her teacher and he said he had just been "testing" the students to see who was clever enough to spot his error. Right. I don't want to use this blog to complain about Tanzania, but this disturbed me a lot. In defense of the education system, the problems seems to correct itself because all of the older students I have asked know the correct formula, but what is most disturbing is that in general, independent thinking and creativity are just not rewarded- just obedience and memorization.

I welcome dissenting opinions and stories that would cheer me up.

Saturday, June 03, 2006

Sand and Babies

I came here to work with orphaned children, but as an administrator, and mother, I don't have much time for that. I have to create ways and generate funds for others to do that. Several of the kids who live near the Baobab Home are orphans, but I suppose I don't think about that a lot. So many kids visit daily and are all familiar to me. I dress wounds, break up arguments, and encourage silliness. I know who to watch for danger signs, but most are skinny, but stable. There is a house across the street that has several orphaned children passing through- they stay a few months with their grandmother (who is always away in the fields anyway) and then leave and new faces appear. Recently, a small girl (2?), named Yusra has been around. She is so quiet I barely noticed her, until her "aunt" and "uncle" who ostensibly care for her, took the time to make some jokes about her. The last time these two mistreated an orphan in their care(Yusra's older sister), I made it a very public issue and stopped the problem, so I am surprised they made the jokes. I picked Yusra up and took her home. I held her while my son played. I said her name gently. She clung to me. I gave her juice and she couldn't get enough of it. Her feet were as dry as leather. She has light hair around the edges- tell tale signs of malnutrition. My son Justis fell asleep. The power went out and I just held this quiet child who wanted nothing but my arms around her. I wanted to bathe her, but I didn't want to disturb our quiet time. So I thought how, sometimes, to bathe my son seems a chore because he is so active. Justis has so so many people who love him. Yusra has no one, well, now me- and Justis too. We saw her today and he went over to hug her-really embrace her. I think he scared her, but we fixed all that. I know that all my life I was treated as a unique individual- by my parents ,teachers. How incredibly lucky I am. The word in Swahili for infant is the same as sand and everytime I remember that it feels so sad. Yusra.. Yusra...human being, alive, sick, needing love..so much more than a grain of sand.

Sunday, May 28, 2006

Kazi Nyingi

Once I wrote an entry for a different blog (www.loungechicken.org) about a man named Kazi Nyingi here in Bagamoyo. I am going to print it here because on Tuesday, Kazi will start to withdraw from heroin. He confided in Caito, my husband several times about it and finally, Caito took him to the doctor. I want to republish the blog and tell Kazi about any comments so that he knows people are rooting for him. Kazi has done so much more than clean nappies. He has helped us build a home for some kids, he delivers formula on the fly if we need it for a baby..he is always there helping us and I hope we can be there for him.

Even if reprinting blogs is not good etiquette, I think the folks at loungechicken will understand.

Kazi Nyingi vs the Machine

Some people might find it appalling that we pay a man two dollars to clean our son’s dirty diapers, or maybe shocked to learn that he’s a heroin addict. I was my own version of shocked and appalled, but I am over it. It's Tanzania, and I don't know if the rules are different, but most of the time it doesn't even look like the same game. Kazi Nyingi is his name and it means "a lot of work" in Swahili. At first I thought this was a hilarious, but admirable, tool of self promotion, as I imagine that there is a lot of competition for day labor, but I've learned he is most worthy of it. The first time I met him was when my husband Caito’s bicycle was stolen. Caito went to where the heroin smokers hang out and asked for help. Kazi and his friend found the guy who stole it and got the bike returned somehow. I was impressed. I remember him telling the story of the bike retrieval and thinking "Maybe Caito meant cocaine? This guy has a lot of energy!" He’s probably in his late twenties, thin, but muscular, and he smiles a lot. He’s got big eyes that are a little wild. He often wears cut off jean shorts with a rope for a belt.

When our son Justis was born by c section, Caito washed the diapers the first week, but he had 800 other things to do, so naturally that was the first thing he attempted to outsource. I tried to do it once in the second week, but I knew I'd hurt myself. Caito asked Kazi. This is how I know some people might be appalled, because I was. I couldn't even look at him at first because I thought he'd hate me for being such an inept white woman. I imagined he felt degraded, but too in need of money to say no, and it was my/our fault. I also wasn't thrilled that "this man" was cleaning my kid's diapers. We'd had a US government surplus washing machine donated to us, and I kept hoping it would be repaired soon so my conscience would be cleared, and I could deal with defecation the way rich people do... by whisking it away. But Kazi always greeted me in the same, almost jubilant way, and without fail, he asks how Justis is. I started to feel less hung up and gave him some of my old dresses for his mom. One day I asked him about his only daughter and, although she is not of school age, he just said "she's learning, she's learning". I gave him a pair of white patent leathers to give her, and thought it was sweet the way he looked at the shoes. And while I'm sure he has a gruffer, street wise side that he doesn't show me, he has an innocence about him that to me is unusual, and very definitely not simpleminded . One day he and another guy were at the house doing some work to help us prepare the house for the orphanage we are starting. Kazi said that we should have just let him do it all because the other guy was lazy. My admiration grew. Even still, I resorted to assumptions and stereotypes when he just didn't show up one day. I figured he probably hadn't had steady work in awhile and had taken a day or two to score some heroin to smoke and he'd turn up in a few days.

Then one day I was sitting in front of a store and saw a big blue flat bed and a bunch of men, one of whom was Kazi. Shopkeepers get together and rent one truck to haul supplies to our town from the port of Dar es Salaam. The bags in back were enormous-almost the size of a full grown person. 50 kg of sugar, 100 kg of beans, some even more. There must have been 10 men standing around the truck, but only Kazi was lifting anything. I stared at him as he maneuvered the bags onto his back and made his way slowly to the stores without help. Again, he is not a large man and the strain looked incredible. Did he insist on doing this alone? Were the bags too wide for two people to carry? The other men, and the ones playing cards nearby, all watched him too, but not with the same awe that I did. They seemed used to it, as if saying “whew, that’s kazi nyingi!", and I saw where his name came from. He will not turn work down and he laughs at people who do. Now I can't figure out when he has time to smoke heroin. I think that the times he doesn't show, he just finds some other, more profitable work.

Meanwhile, the big American washing machine was fixed and I had a month of blissfully mindless diaper cleaning. I’d been away from the USA long enough that it amazed me I could get work done in my sleep! Add soap, press button, do something else! Wow,and it may be cheaper! But the machine got the diapers all tangled and it frayed them. Maybe it was just that they've gotten older, but the machine doesn't get them as clean as Kazi does, and now it's broken again. Since ours is probably one in 5 washers in the town (the others are at hotels), there aren't any Maytag repairmen around and getting it fixed is not easy. Perhaps because both are black men, I am reminded of John Henry- the real man and not the tall tale one. I think about how the whiteys building the railroad in the US, eager to save money and time, brought in the steam engine† to replace the laborers, many of whom, like John Henry, were ex slaves. John Henry challenged the machine and won (although unfortunately it killed him). I wonder if the steam engine ever broke down? Kazi beat my machine, and he didn't show again today. Man vs machine 0/0. Woman against stinky pile of diapers, outcome unknown

Monday, May 22, 2006

Untitled Poem

It makes sense that our first post from a volunteer should be from our first volunteer, Carissa Guild. Actually, she sent it to me a while ago and said I could post it.

A kanga is a piece of cloth the size of a sarong that almost all women wear here. They have designs and a proverb on them.
Asante Carissa...........


an elegant wisdom
wrapped up in
dirty colorful kangas

skinny girls in beauty-filled
hole infested
dresses with swollen feet and penetrating glances

intoxicating incense of trash that’s
burning ash
is hovering in the air captured by the

sun’s setting dancing drums carried on a
salty breeze
unreadable faces silently questioning

carrying thin children
wrapped up in
dirty colorful kangas.

gracefully stirring a meal above a fire chin raised with
indignation a subtle violent nod

erupting from an inside her head regally
wrapped in red
cloth distorting her fragility fighting with immunity

a child’s playful nobility watching as if torn from
a vibrant
erased painting--yet breathing

the song’s a conversation, the hope
has hardened
unbelieved, their laughter remains uninhibited

lying in hospital beds
wrapped tightly
in dirty colorful kangas.

black arms hugging bones of shoulders
ripped and tied
back together blue t-shirt standing in the sand seeing

overfed and manicured tourists drift
in and out
and by down along the seams of ocean and his

life? something a little unnerving for feeling too
to see too needy for lack of receiving outside his own

twelve year old body like the caged bird’s bars
by society a broken shell wildly escaping oxygen
then forced ashore by the tide just
child mchanga malaika

wrapped up in
a dirty colorful kanga
or torn t shirt.

Inaugural Blog

They say the first blog is the toughest to write.........ok, "they" don't, but it is, so I need to get moving and get this one written. KARIBU! (that's " welcome" in the language of Kiswahili).Whether you have reached here via the Baobab Home website (www.tzkids.org) or you are a bonafide blogger who reached us by a more circuitous route, you are very welcome. As some may know, my Tanzanian husband Caito and I, along with our infant son Justis and a growing army of incredible supporters around the world are opening an orphanage in Bagamoyo, Tanzania. While we wait, and sometimes struggle, to get our license, we are supplying several orphans and other vulnerable children (OVC) with nutritious food and getting others to Antiretroviral Therapy for HIV/AIDS. We feed breakfast each day to between 10 and 40 OVC, and provide a community reading/play center in our home to dozens of kids. We also send 6 (former) street boys to secondary school and provide uniforms for several primary school kids.

This blog is in large part for me, because, well, I don't have a lot of people to talk to in rambly American English here in Tanzania and I have a profound need to do that. It's also a way for me to let you, gentle reader, in on some stories of our everyday life here that I think many would find interesting, sad, funny, and sometimes, dare I say it? maybe even englightening if I have had enough coffee to write well that day. I envision this as a "backstage" for our newsletter and I hope to get to some of the more "meaty" ethical issues we face and invite others operating small NGOs to contribute.

I would also like it to be a forum for our volunteers to share their stories of life here, and their work experience. I think that could be especially valuable for future volunteers.

Before closing this brief intro, let me send copious thanks and praise to David Novak, my technological guru, who hath made this blog, and many other important things for the Baobab Home possible. He and his wife Geraldine are en route to Namibia to begin a new chapter in their most nomadic and interesting lives. We wish them kila la heri (all good luck) and hope they don't forget us up here in TZ. As always, thank you so much David!

So that's. This week I will commence with some short stories. Thanks for visiting!
Mama J