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.