It was absurd, really. How fated it was.
A friend of mine called it a coincidence, but I know it had to more than that…
I walked into a restaurant and as a single human, dining alone, I got sat at a small table that was already occupied by two others. I wasn’t sure if communal seating was normal for the place, so I just went with it. (I later found out it wasn’t normal and my presence was very confusing.)
Two strangers sat across the table from me in a busy Tanzanian BBQ, and I started up polite conversation. It didn’t take long for the amusing fact to set in that these two grown men were conspicuously eluding the nature of their work with feigned modesty.
“I’m here visiting Charles for a bit…” the older Australian man said nodding towards his younger Tanzanian friend before trailing off.
“He’s doing good work,” Charles said with a slight nod before digging into his food.
“No, he does good work!” the Australian countered with boyishness.
I took the bait, “So what do you guys do then?” I asked with a smirk. The older gentleman eagerly prodded his friend. “Tell her, Charles!”
“I work for an NGO,” Charles said, “Jim is here spending some money for the organization.”
“Which one?” I pressed, intrigued. I had been researching Tanzanian based NGO’s just the night before.
“It’s called Maliaka Kids,” he said, looking up at me just briefly before biting into his chicken and taking a swig of his Coca Cola.
“Get out!” I quite literally shouted. He looked up from his plate surprised, and laughed, his soda almost spraying out of his nose.
“What?” he asked amused.
Malaika is an organization that rescues orphans off the streets of Dar es Salaam. Over 70 rescued children are currently raised in a family environment in a lovely village built by Malaika. And I had just emailed them the very night before asking if I could spend some time there.
I began babbling excitedly about how wonderful I thought they were and how desperately I wanted to volunteer with them.
“Wow! My mother’s the lady to meet then. She founded Malaika. We’re going to the orphanage right after lunch. Why don’t you join us?” Charles offered, politely.
Something about hopping right into a car with two strangers I met at a hole in the wall restaurant without letting anyone know where I was going seemed a little too impulsive, even for me. So I said something about getting back to work but that I’d like to come another time.
Charles wrote his number down in my journal and told me to call him the next day.
“We will go back on Monday, then. Call me and tell me where to pick you up.”
Monday morning rolled in with torrential rains but we agreed to meet in front of the US Embassy, regardless. I took a bijaji 20 minutes off the coast, got out on the side of the road and waited. A half hour passed. And then another. And then another. It was pouring down cold, rain so I stood under a young boabab tree; an unsuccessful attempt at keeping dry. I recognize that a sane person would have left after the first hour, but I just took out my old copy of As You Like It by Shakespeare, let the pages nearly dissolve with rain as I read, and kept on waiting
Two hours later Charles showed up with word that a bridge had collapsed from all the rain and he’d spent all that time in traffic trying to get to me. He didn’t seem to believe me when I told him I didn’t mind a bit. He couldn’t have possibly known that I have spent 2/3rds of my life wanting to work with an NGO that did exactly what his was doing. He couldn’t have known that he was driving me into a situation that was about to give purpose to my trip to Africa. And he couldn’t have known that I was about to propose a longer term work relationship between his mother and I. So he just rolled his eyes and smiled at what he thought was phony politeness, put his blinker on and pulled onto the road. We began heading further into the city to pick up his mother, sister and the Australian.
The four of us drove out of the city center. Past gas stations on the outer reaches. Past a strange, vast stretch where vendors on the side of the road only seemed to sell two things: coffins and bedframes. We drove past markets and shacks with tin roofs. We drove past children playing soccer in the dirt and goats nursing their kids on the equivalent of a highway island. And over an hour later the four of us pulled down a long beautiful road lined with palm trees and general lovely greenery. We rode up to a gate where a man in a chair sat ready to open it for us; a common thing for “safer” (or wealthier) residences in Tanzania. Charles’ mother, Najma, rolled down her window and greeted him with a warm smile.
We parked the car and almost instantly, a kind and welcoming young woman from the Netherlands came up and introduced herself. She told me how she has been doing work for Malaika for years and was back for a couple weeks to visit the kids. When I told her of my intentions to volunteer (and of my career as a blogger with a marketing background) she took me under her wing with equal parts sweetness and excitement.
While all the ‘grown ups’ talked she toured me around the village, pulling me into rooms and introducing me to the children. Some of them seemed standoffish but others ran to me, smiling, and jumped in my arms before even knowing my name. A group of them crowded around to play with my long, smooth curls. I brought a polaroid camera to take pictures of them and they watched them develop with unreserved fascination. They couldn’t believe their ears when I told them they could keep the photos and put them in their rooms.
I had to be pulled away from them when the time came to have lunch, but I had much to discuss with Charles and Najma and James, the manager of the village and the man all of the children call “Dad”.
While we ate, I told them all the ways I would like to offer my help and James and Najma agreed they would help me to help them in any way they could. They offered me a room in the volunteer house whenever I would like to come stay over weekends and they told me how welcome I was, anytime.
So I took them up on it sooner than they were expecting, I’m sure.
Less than a week later I was on a bus back to the village ready to get to work on some projects I had come up with.
When I arrived this time, the children seemed much less shocked by my newness. They gave me hugs and kisses and fought over who got to sit on my lap. A boy named Michael sat beside me for nearly the entire day, reaching out to squeeze my hand or pet my hair every so often, his way of making sure I never forgot I was loved. I happily returned the favor.
We played, and read books and watched a movie and I fell more in love with the children and their resiliency and their openness with every passing minute.
And the longer I stayed the more my feelings turned to a calling deep in my soul.
I want to give the world to them. And in this need to do whatever I can to make their lives a little easier, I earnestly and wholeheartedly intend to start a long term personal and work relationship with Malaika Kids. I want to assist the selfless ‘mamas’ and the invaluable on-site caregivers as they carry out their mission to give vulnerable children a happy, loving life.
But as they say, you gotta start somewhere. And Charles, James and I decided ‘somewhere’ was their education.
The best way to solidify a better future for them is to encourage their success in the classroom. If we champion their education and continue to advocate for them on that front, we set the example. We show them that this is the priority. Their ticket anywhere. The first step in securing the opportunities they deserve.
James explained to me how difficult it is for them to get to school. Some of them walk over 5k to and from school each day. The trek down rough, rocky roads takes a toll on their shoes and in just 3 months, a brand new pair is totally worn down and broken.
And so to make their school days a little easier we are raising $3,000 to buy over 150 pairs of new school shoes. This will allow each child to get two new pairs, lasting them six months. We hope this amount will also cover the cost of 20 used bicycles, so that the children who attend school farther away can get there without tiring themselves before their day begins.
And so, on behalf of my new friends, I am asking for your help. I have created a Gofundme page, and we are now raising money for Bikes and Shoes for Malaika Kids! With rainy season rapidly approaching, the roads are only going to get rougher. So we hope to reach our goal by the middle of April.
We thank you for you reading and watching the videos of all the magic that is Malaika. I am so excited to share our progress with you all, so follow our Gofundme page for updates.
Everyone at Malaika and I are are so grateful for your love and support and donations!
Thank you, thank you, thank you.