Quirks in Infant Care in Tanzania

July 23, 2012 § 1 Comment

What is a mother to do when a baby needs to suck on something to be soothed and there are no pacifiers to be had?

Well, she lets her baby suck on her tongue!

The first time Khadija did this with Sabra(Khadija is a matron at one of our orphanages and Sabra is her three month old biological baby), my thought process was something like, “Why is Khadija licking Sabrah’s mouth? Ohhh.. whaaaaa?? Hmm.”

Usually babies don’t get anything to suck on, a move I think is very wise in sometimes unhygienic east Africa. Since the babies aren’t used to self-soothing with a pacifier, they don’t need it or seem to miss it. But sometimes, babies just need to suck to be soothed.

In these cases, at least with Khadija and Sabra, there’s some tongue sucking involved. It shouldn’t shock me, I suppose, since her mouth is a lot cleaner than her fingers were at the moment and there’s nothing actually strange or wrong about what she’s doing. I bet it’s actually some pretty awesome bonding for mother and baby. Still, as a Westerner, it’s a bizarre sight to see a mother hold her crying, upset baby up to her face and start flicking her tongue against the baby’s lips. But hey, it works!


Perfect Day

July 21, 2012 § Leave a comment

Today was an idyllic day. I lived the kind of day so often described in novels as part of some author’s picturesque childhood. “Hurr, in 1925, when I was a boy, we swam in the swimming hole and picked huckleberries right off the bush.” Until now, I’m not sure I ever completely understood that kind of day and the pure, simple satisfaction that it brings.

Yesterday, me, a bunch of the kids from Dar Ul Muslimeen Orphanage – a Muslim all-boys orphanage in Morogoro – and their keepers went for a hike in the large mountain range right behind the orphanage. The mountains are beautiful, really beautiful, and since I’ve been here I often find myself getting distracted and staring at them with pleasure.

Can you see the waterfall all the way down at the bottom left of the picture?

To even get to the mountains and start our hike, we had to walk two or three miles. Once the climb started it was a steeeep incline for almost thirty minutes. Pretty much just straight up to the top – no gentle winding trails slowly leading you up to the peak like normal hikes. It was hard and everybody was huffing and puffing by the end. Well, everybody except Ma’alim the guy who runs the day-to-day of the orphanage. That weirdo was jogging up to the top. It was so steep that I could barely keep my shoes from losing their purchase and kids were slipping and sliding everywhere, yet somehow he was jogging.

He kept coming up to me and being like, “C’mon, run! It’s fun!” Dude. Do you know what I think is fun? Yoga, a nice glass of wine while contemplating the universe and a massage after. Trying to run up an incline so steep I can’t stand up normally and tripping over a bunch of wheezing 8 years olds on the way up is not on my list of party ideas. You do you, though, bro! I’ll see you up there!

Once we got past the initial shot up to the top, the rest was easy. We strolled along the mountain top for a while – the view was incredible – before beginning another insanely steep descent back down the mountain on the other side. That was fun because most of the little ones just gave up and slid the whole way down on their butts.

In the valley between two mountains in Morogoro, there’s a waterfall. It’s really beautiful and the smooth rocks form pools of cold, clear, fresh water perfect for swimming and cooling hot, tired feet. There are also plenty of smooth rocks to lie on and bake in the sun. We had fun splashing each other and looking at the tadpoles.

After resting in the valley, we climbed back up out the other side. We walked for a while, picking honeysuckle flowers and sucking the sweetness from them, and we also found mangos and passion fruit trees. Everybody was really happy just to be walking and enjoying the sunshine. After a while, maybe another couple miles, we came to this place called the “Rock Garden.” We paid about $1 for admission and entered the most beautiful place – a series of swimming holes made by a calm river flowing through a boulder field.

It’s lush with trees and hanging vines and is completely shady. The water is fresh, clear, clean and cold. Immediately, the kids stripped off their clothes (some got naked, which was hilarious), and jumped in the water. The swimming hole is their favorite place and, after seeing it, I completely understand why. It’s awesome.

My original plan wasn’t to swim, so I took off my shoes and waded out to a rock to sit. Adam – my new friend who’s twelve, intelligent and shy – decided to start a splash war. It began with just little flicks of water back and forth, and soon we were both heaving water with both hands and legs at each other. At a certain point, you’re already so wet you don’t care anymore and go for it completely. Our water fight expanded to involve about ten people, including Mama Matron, and things got pretty crazy. Other boys swam in the swimming hole, laid out on the rocks or practiced climbing the huge, hanging vines over the water.

Results of the water fight

We spent about an hour at the rock garden before we started the walk home. It was a long day and we were all soaking wet, tired and very happy. After getting back to the orphanage, we ate lunch, showered and laid down for a nap.

After I woke up, some of the boys and I went to buy fruit. I wanted to get everybody a treat and I don’t believe in giving candy to children without access to dental care – really to children in general – so we got fruit. Just to give you some perspective, I bought 16 bananas, 15 mangos and 4 oranges for 5,000 Tanzanian shillings or about $3.25 US.

Hassani, my little six year old friend, is so sweet. He looks like an adorable alien and loves to hold hands or walk right up against my side so my arm is around him and resting on his shoulder. While we were walking, my hand was on his shoulder by his face, and he very discreetly took my hand and kissed it. He didn’t do it so I would notice – he was trying to be sneaky since he’s shy. I wouldn’t have felt it if I hadn’t been watching, but it was the sweetest gesture of affection and love. He wanted to express himself but felt shy or embarrassed to do it outright, so he snuck a kiss on my hand. So achingly sweet. But again, the kids here are just like that. Sweet, polite, loving, affectionate, sensitive and usually a little shy at first.

Hassani is the little one with his hand on my shoulder

Waterfalls, swimming, sunshine, fruit picked right off the trees and lots and lots of kids. Today was a perfect day.

Flowing Forward

July 11, 2012 § Leave a comment

Last week I said my goodbyes at the orphanage. It was… well, it was. Everybody cried and clung to me and asked me to stay and when I would be back. Even the matrons that work there, old ladies, cried and asked me not to leave. The reaction from the matrons surprised me, not because we didn’t get close – we got quite close – but because I didn’t know they cared that much. It touched me very deeply to know that they felt that way.

When I was saying my goodbyes the children and matrons kept asking me when I was coming back. It just wasn’t possible for me to say, “I’m not.” Instead, I told them I would try to return next year or as soon as I can get the money together. Even though they would prefer I never left, this seemed to be an acceptable alternative. After giving it much thought, it just felt too wrong to me to spend such a significant amount of time allowing these children to get so attached to me to just up and abandon and vanish. I know they would recover, but I want to be a tally in the positive column of their lives, not the disappointment column. Whether or not they know it, I’ve become emotionally committed to these children and will do everything in my ability to be a positive influence in their lives, even if it’s just financial support and occasional visits. Either way, I promised to come back and I keep my promises, so I’ll be back.

Since I left, we’ve spoken on the phone a few times. My Italian husband, Giorgio, lets them use his phone to call me and I appreciate it so much. Last night I answered the phone and heard Raymondi’s voice and was so happy I promptly teared up. Raymondi is 20 but lives at the orphanage and is still in high school. Due to financial struggles being such a common thing, it’s not unusual for people here to be even 24 before graduating. They have to stop and start and are only able to go when they can afford it. Raymondi lost his father last year and the sadness is still settled around his shoulders like a cloak. You can see it plainly in his face, even when he smiles. He’s also very shy and him calling me to tell me he missed me is pretty amazing. Of all the people I said goodbye to, saying goodbye to Raymondi and seeing him cry and try not to was the hardest. It’s making my eyes water just thinking about it.


So, now I’m in Zanzibar. Nabeel and Leila, of Peak 4 Poverty fame, got married. The wedding was really fun and there are a couple posts on the way dedicated to the island, but right now I have to go snorkeling. I rented a private boat for the day for $20. The driver (captain?) is taking me to another, smaller island where there’s beautiful reef to snorkel and giant tortoises to ogle.

Here’s to salt water and tan lines!



July 3, 2012 § 2 Comments

Last night was my second to last night in Moshi. Dr. Greg, his ladylove Shannon, the three volunteer girls from Alaska, Giorgio and I spent it having dinner at Greg’s house.

On of the subjects that came up was what was going to happen to some of the sick children. The orphanage cares for two young children, ages three and four, that are HIV positive. There are only two lines of medication available in Tanzania for HIV. One of them, Tyson, is already on second line meds, meaning that once his virus develops a resistance to his current medicine, which will happen eventually, it will stop working and he won’t have any more options in Tanzania. The same will eventually happen with the littler girl, Brightness. For an HIV patient, once there are no more lines of medication, there are also no more options and death will shortly follow. Tyson and Bright are both playful, funny and sweet. I call Tyson, “Chura,” Swahili for frog, because he likes to jump up to me like a frog and then jump into my arms for a hug. Bright looooves to be tickled and she’ll often sneak up behind you and tug gently on your hair or softly poke you under your arm to try to provoke you into tickling her.

There is another little boy, whose name is Meshak but we lovingly call Tappo, who has juvenile diabetes. Dr. Greg says that it’s pretty much a death sentence in Africa because the diet here is so terrible and it’s a high-maintenance health concern even in the States. He’s also four, I believe. His insulin levels every day around hover around 400. I don’t know much about diabetes, but I’m told that 400 is very bad. He is deeply shy and quiet, but incredibly sweet. Whenever I take a nap in the afternoon, Tappo will quietly come in and curl up in my arms in bed to join me. He rarely speaks or makes eye contact, but he smiles his shy smile very easily and loves to be cuddled and kissed.

Shedrack is the other boy with health problems. He’s fifteen but is smaller than most of the nine year olds. His Sickle Cell Anemia prevented him from growing normally and he is functioning on about half the blood volume of a normal person. He’s intelligent, reserved, sweet and very dignified. In school, he’s one of the best students and in life he has the best attitude of all the kids. It’s always Shedrack that comes to mind when trying to think of an older kid that you can count on to come through. Greg says that Shedrack is a perfect example of how suffering is a choice. Shedrack’s condition is a daily struggle, but he never complains and is the most cheerful, wonderful kid. It’s unlikely that he will live past age twenty-five.

For all of the children, the reality is that their lives may, probably will, end early. Their illnesses are difficult to treat anywhere, and in Africa, if it weren’t for Dr. Greg, some would likely have passed already.

Terminal illness in children is something that, up until this point, has blessedly never touched my life. Now I’ve come to love four beautiful children that will almost certainly die young. When I arrived in Moshi a month ago, I knew these children had health problems, but I think I thought that because Dr. Greg was this amazing doctor (and seriously, he’s so amazing) these children would live normal, fully realized lives. Last night it was explained to me that no, they won’t.

This morning I looked out my window and saw Tappo and Tyson playing with their toys in the yard. They are the sweetest boys, as are all children, and trying to understand why children are brought into the world to be sick and then die young as it relates to the big, universal picture is beyond me. Maybe they are here to remind us about the brevity of life? It seems unlikely that children would be used to cruelly by the universe to teach adults a spiritual lesson. Maybe they’re almost at the completion of their cycle of lives on Earth and only needed to come back for one more quickie before they evolve to the next level? Maybe, I guess, but that seems awfully convenient of an explanation. Maybe there are just parts of life that hurt and are desperately sad and that we have to try to understand, embrace, love and let go? I suppose, but it still doesn’t explain the “why”. But then, I guess we don’t really get to have that many “why’s” actually explained during our time here, do we?

It hurts enough that I am leaving today and am not sure when I’ll return to see these children again. It may be a few months or it may be many years. It is devastating to realize that some of them may die before I am able to return. The truth is that most of the children at the orphanage are young and, even though they bonded with me while I was here and I with them, they will mostly forget about me after a few weeks or a month. Children are resilient, especially orphanage children who are much too used to adults coming and going from their lives. That doesn’t provide any comfort to me, however, since I feel guilty for being another one of those brief, inconsistent presences in their lives and reinforcing for them that loving adults appear and vanish constantly. It also doesn’t soothe the ache that comes from feeling real love for them and sadness about leaving. I will try to stay in touch, but given how hard it is for computer-savvy me to get on the internet here, I don’t have any unrealistic expectations about them keeping up with me on email in any meaningful way. Maybe I’ll have to finally overcome my aversion to postal mail. Or maybe I’ll just have to start saving now for my next ticket out here.

Zainabu and the Dentist

July 2, 2012 § 4 Comments

My sweet girl, Z.

The other day I took Zainabu to the dentist. The clinic was a nice, clean place. Zainabu is nine years old. A few days earlier, she came to me and put her head in my lap complaining of pain in her mouth. After some convincing, she opened her mouth to show me. Inside, two of her lower molars were so decayed with cavities they were bleeding from the middle of the tooth. The root, I suppose. They should have been treated a long time ago, but that’s how dental care, and problems in general, are often treated here. Put it off until you can’t put it off anymore. There are so many expenses and so little money they can only pay for the most emergent necessities. Zainabu’s cavities weren’t an emergent necessity until they became intolerable. Besides, they’re just baby teeth and they’re going to fall out soon anyway.

At the dental clinic, the dentist – for some reason – thought I was her mother and was very warm and respectful with me. It felt really nice. Plus, I’ve become particularly attached to Zainabu and would be proud to have a daughter like her. We came with Agnes, one of the older girls from the orphanage, and Matthew, a young man who Dr. Greg is putting through school at the Wildlife Management School. He comes around whenever he has free time to help out. He’s very sweet and very soft spoken. Later in the day he very sweetly and very quietly asked me if I would marry him, explaining that I was very nice, would make a wonderful mother, and he’s always wanted to go to America. I don’t think he expected me to accept, but I guess he figured he’d give it a shot. Alas, the night prior saw me betrothed to Giorgio, a fellow volunteer from Italy. He proposed as a joke over dinner. Dativa, Teacher’s wife, and Skola, Teacher’s sister, were teasing Giorgio that he’s too old to not be married (34). Giorgio, who is very funny, responded by proposing to me. I accepted because I’m also considered too old to not be married and having children already.

Back to the clinic, Zainabu and I went into the treatment room together while Matthew and Agnes waited outside. Dental clinics here don’t use anesthesia, but Zainabu didn’t flinch or cry once. She was so stoic and strong, but I know it must have hurt quite a lot. Her cavities were so exposed and raw that even eating and breathing air was causing her extreme discomfort. Having them poked, scraped, prodded, drilled and filled could not have been pleasant. After the dentist, I took everybody out to lunch for chicken and fries. Chicken and fries is the favorite meal of most Tanzanians. It’s exactly what it sounds like – half a chicken and a big plate of french fries. Delicious.

To get Z’s two cavities filled, it came to a grand total of 77,000 Tanzanian shillings – a little less than fifty dollars.

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