A Lesson from January

January holds up his lesson book.


After our trip to the see the wonders of the Serengeti, Suzy and I made our way to the small village of Buswelu outside of the town of Mwanza. We carried the clothes, shoes, school and art supplies we’d been lugging since Chicago and a hope that we could somehow be helpful. The cab ride from Mwanza took us from the main road into the dirt roads of the village. We passed small mud and brick storefronts with tin roofs, and houses of the same materials, until we came to a crater-size pothole. Or maybe a better description is that half of the road wasn’t there. Many sections of the dirt roads showed the scars of rain, but this section was especially precarious. The first attempt of passing failed, though luckily we didn’t get stuck. A second go with more revving before allowed us to get pass the crater, just barely on the left, and make it to the house where volunteers at the Watoto Wa Africa Orphanage stayed.

After unpacking our things, a fellow volunteer from Australia who’d been volunteering at the orphanage for a few weeks brought us and the two other new volunteers from Belgium to the meet the kids. Being near the equator, the land was as tropical as one would imagine. Lush greenness greeted us in every direction. Most families had crops- corn, bananas, potatoes, sunflowers—growing right up next to their houses. Small yards consisted of neatly swept, compacted dirt, not grass.

The dirt roads of Buswelu rarely held cars.

The dirt roads of Buswelu rarely held cars.

We walked down more dirt roads, often going single file on the left side of the road where the ground was firmer instead of sandy.  Calls of ‘mzungu’—literally translated to meet white wanderer in Swahili, echoed in our ears from children in their yards. Whenever we walked in a group, our mzungu parade drew a bit of attention, at least for the little ones who seemed to enjoy the game of calling out and then sometimes running out to shake our hands.

The new Watoto Wa Africa orphanage buildings

The new Watoto Wa Africa orphanage buildings

We arrived at the orphanage the first afternoon after the fifteen-minute walk. The boys playing soccer in the yard spotted us first. Soon the fifty-some children came out to inspect the new visitors and grab the shiny soccer balls we carried under our arms. The toddler and preschool age children took our hands and lead us up to the buildings. The Watoto Wa Africa Orphanage has been run by a man named Josephat and his wife Rosemary since 2000. The Tanzanian government offers no support, and they rely on donors to help pay for everything including shelter, food, private school in most cases, and the hired workers who help with the daily care of the children. The orphanage moved to its current site (with new buildings and more room for the children to play outside) just a few months ago. We saw the girls’ and boys’ dorms, the simple classroom where supplemental lessons are held, and a room for cooking (where meals are prepared over low fires).

Boys play a game in the yard next to the dormitories.

Boys play a game in the yard next to the dormitories.

The children’s dormitories consisted solely of beds and just a few clothes hanging from each bedpost—with no possessions in sight otherwise. And yet the children happily played and chatted or did their chores, unaware that other cultures, like ours, put such emphasis on things to make us, and our children, happy. One three-year old boy proudly demonstrated the effectiveness of his bow and arrow made from sticks and string—luckily without sharp arrows.  Other girls played skipping games on squares drawn into the ground with a stick. Through our subsequent walks through the village, it appeared most children must create their own games, lacking material goods as well.

Vanessa demonstrates how she can carry the water bottle on her head.

Vanessa demonstrates how she can carry the water bottle on her head.

During the weekdays we made the trip to the orphanage twice daily—in the morning to do activities with the toddler and preschool age youngsters and then in the afternoon to tutor the small amount of school age kids that went to government school instead of private school. (Individual sponsors pay approximately $300/ year for a student to go to the better private school that is taught in English).

One Saturday afternoon Suzy and I brought out the colored thread we had carried with us and demonstrated to a group of boys who’d gathered in the classroom how to make friendship bracelets. They picked their colors and began criss-crossing their string into patterns. At the arrival of a car into the driveway they all ran out. Apparently a local physician had come and brought two more children to stay there. We saw everyone gathering and then heard the children singing. The doctor brought cookies and after the song ended they were each given a small package. Soon they came back into the classroom munching away.

A little boy named January, the one who fashioned the bow and arrow, came up to me breaking his cookie in half. Speaking little English, he simply offered one of the halves. I refused at first, saying no thank you. A large smile spread across his face as he continued to hold out part of his cookie to me. He emanated such joy in wanting to share. I accepted his cookie with a smile and a thank you in Swahili. Here was a little boy with essentially nothing of his own, and yet he wanted to share this one thing he had gotten. Another child offered part of her cookie to Suzy with the same happiness. And the next day, when another visitor brought a snack for the children- the same thing happened. And I thought: if there is one thing I have gotten from this trip- this is it. It was an unparalleled example of sharing and giving that I hope to keep and reference and emulate. If only we could all, especially those of us who have so much and don’t really even realize it, could share so freely as well.  

Nicko poses next to the cow (that often liked to lounge in the classroom as well).

Nicko poses next to the cow (that often liked to lounge in the classroom as well).


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