Love is a funny thing. I fell in love with my daughter Zawadi the first moment I saw her big head perched precariously on her shrunken little body, sitting with five other babies being fed in turn from the same spoon. She was my baby bird, delicate but could she ever squawk! Just over a year old at the time, she was not even crawling, unable to find the strength to push herself up but that never stopped her. From day one, she would wiggle-worm her way across the floor to my lap, and nudge out whoever was sitting there, even if they were three times her size. As I got her treatment for the parasites that were preventing her from growing, her big personality began to shine through, and not just when she could muster up the energy. Now she is four, has been home with us for almost a year, is nicknamed "serotonin" for the joy she brings everyone she meets, giggling hysterically when she falls over, begging me to let her sleep in our bed.
It took a bit longer with my son. He didn't seek out attention from volunteers -- he was almost three and still couldn't walk due to bad rickets from early malnutrition, before arriving at the orphanage. He was shy, sensitive, and withdrawn, but I soon noticed that whenever he thought no one was listening, he would sing to himself, tell stories and laugh. I took him to several doctors trying to get first a diagnosis and then treatment for his rickets, and his sweet and silly personality began to emerge. Saimoni is deeply good, he can't stand the idea of hurting or disappointing anyone, and to this day, he is constantly making up songs and stories. The main difference is that now they're in English and Swahili, and we can't get him to stop talking.
I am so grateful to have been able to take these two home, adopt them, become their mom. But there are more than 30 other children we work with, and hundreds if not thousands more in need just within a few miles of us. All of our kids have no mother and most of them have no father, and the hard truth is that they will be in institutions for the rest of their lives. Tanzania has extremely strict and onerous adoption laws that make it impossible to adopt without spending from one to three years living on the ground, and with most local families already caring for at least one orphaned relative, there are nowhere near enough Tanzanians with the resources left over to take them in.
We are lucky to partner with an incredible local orphanage that is run by women who, as they say in Swahili, have a "roho kwa watoto," a spirit for children, but they can only accommodate children up until age five. When our head mama, Mama Pendo (Love in Swahili), started working there 25 years ago, it was a shack next to the hospital mortuary. Now it is a place filled with laughter and love. It's not a family, but it's about as close as you can get in an institutional setting. Up until about eight years ago, the orphanage we work with had to send children back to their village at age five, whether or not they had caretakers willing and able to take them. According to the head Mama, when they did follow up checks a few years later, at least a quarter of them were abused, neglected or had passed away. She personally adopted three children that were being neglected after returning home, but adoption alone is not a solution. Before now, the best Mama Pendo could hope for the children was to be sent to boarding school at five, going from orphanage to boarding school and leaving with no home base, no connection to their community, and no idea how to live in a family.
We're trying to change that, for these children, on the scale that we can. Our organization, founded in 2010 to support and partner with this orphanage to improve the care the children receive, is ready to expand. We are currently working on securing the funds for a 3.5 acre piece of land to create a children's village. There, the kids will live until their late teens in family-style homes with up to 10 children per house, consistent caretakers, attending high quality day school, in as close to a family environment as we can provide. This will allow us to take in many more orphaned children, including those with HIV and other health conditions, as well as expand our outreach program to keep children in families whenever possible.
I couldn't adopt every one of the orphanage kids. We can't provide even this type of environment for more than a fraction of the children in need in this country alone. But that doesn't mean we are powerless. Our organization's name, The Small Things, comes from a quote from Mother Teresa: "We ourselves know that we are just a drop in the ocean. But the ocean would be less without that missing drop. We can do no great things, only small things with great love." This is our small effort, our tiny contribution, but it is not small for these children. For Hope, Ebenezer, and Peace, who were all close to death on arrival at the orphanage and are now thriving with help from our one-to-one care program for premature babies. For my son, who is now so athletic and confident that you would never guess he has only been walking for less than three years. For my daughter, who brings me joy every day, who nearly died from a combination of malnutrition due to parasites and pneumonia. For Isaak, Auntie, and Shalom, who were split up after losing their mother just five months ago at the birth of Hope, their youngest sister. They are now reunited in our care, with their doting father returning every weekend from his job, which keeps him away day and night, to visit them. For Lulu, Neema, Baracka, Miriam, Anna, Priscilla, Angel and all of the rest who depend on our small efforts, from people all around the world, to give them the future their mothers would have wanted for them.
The Small Things is currently running an online auction for their children's village that you can check out at www.tinyurl.com/tstauction, or you can find out more about their work at www.thesmallthings.org.
Follow Bekka Ross Russell on Twitter: www.twitter.com/smallthingsorg