Our African Christmas.
For a long time both of us have participated in charity work of some kind or another; both of us feel privileged to have the lives we do and feel the responsibility to help others in need.
In December 2011, on Christmas day we reflected on the customs of Christmas in this country, and felt perhaps, whilst grateful for all that we had received, it was not what Christmas is all about. It was at this moment that we decided that the next Christmas would not be the same and that we would spend it doing something worth-while.
Roll on December 2012 and we found ourselves doubting what we had committed ourselves to; four weeks in Tanzania, over the Christmas and New Year period, volunteering.
The lead up to Christmas always seems to flyby but for us it was for a different reason and we suddenly found ourselves frantically collecting the bits we needed right up to the last day in England, actually not so different to Christmas Eve itself!
The local community helped out and donated toys, books, games and clothes; in fact by the morning of departure on December 23rd (completely laden with bags) much of our personal items were left behind to make more room for donations.
Our journey took us from Heathrow to Cairo, Egypt then on to Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania.
Once we arrived in Dar we would need to get to the bus station and complete the 12 hour journey across to Iringa, arriving at our final destination some 35 hours after leaving home (this was the plan anyway)
On arriving in Tanzania after quite a pleasant journey with EgyptAir, we walked out to the oven that was Dar Es Salaam airport at around 35°C in the shade, at 6am!
The Visa process in Dar is unique to say the least;we were instructed to fill out the appropriate forms then place these, along with a $50 note inside our passports and hand them over, with the other 400 passengers from the plane.
What followed, 2 hours later was a giant game of “Where’s Wally” for the one official set with the task of searching among the crowed for the one face he currently held in his hand.
To cut a long story short, being the second to last passports handed back; we missed the bus to Iringa that day. It was Christmas eve and this meant there would not be another bus until Boxing day.
Luckily a local teacher, Geoffrey (pronounced Jo-frey) offered for us to stay with him and his family, an offer we excepted straight away.
When we arrived at Geoffrey’s house we were greeted by three children,who desperately wanted to carry our luggage, even after trying to explained how heavy they were,5 minutes later after being welcomed into his home and sat in the front room, the three children, now joined by two more barged in over the fresh-hold, struggling together with one of our suitcases; they continued with the next three bags.
After finishing work he asked us if we wished to go to the beach as it was near; being extremely hot we of course agreed and set off. This was when we realized that Tanzanians are happy to travel long distances; the journey to the beach consisted of four Dala Dala (town bus) one Tuk Tuk, two Bora Bora (motorcycle) a ferry and a final 45 minute walk.
In total the “near-by” beach took us over 2 hours to get to!
Certainly by this point the cold sea was more inviting that it ever had been, however our refreshment was short lived; due to the heat in Dar stepping into the sea has a similar experience to bath water and did none to cool us down, it was however a welcomed relaxation from all the traveling to get there!
We woke up on Christmas morning excited as usual,we knew it was Christmas because we could hear hymns coming from the front room, but no sound of presents being ripped open or laughter from the kids, in fact they were already at church, only Winnie and Geoffrey were home.
At Christmas in Tanzania the women cook (all day) whilst the men visit the neighbours to wish them “Habari Christmas” and share a drink or two.
Part of the Christmas dinner was the family chicken which had been bread especially for today and tradition states that the guests should be the ones to prepare the meat; this meant Me killing and Emma plucking.
Which for my part, I was thankful, came after visiting (and drinking with) quite a few of the neightbours first - since the chicken had miraculously escaped captivity that morning.
It was found by the kids in the end and the deed was done as swiftly as I possibly could -families can’t afford to buy meat very often and so killing your own is normal in Tanzania and the children were not fazed by it at all.
That Evening we headed out to see a live band with Geofrey and Winnie.
We took Bora Boras to the venue where we enjoyed a night of live African music and lots of dancing. We were also given 500 Tsh (19p)by some fans of our dancing, a common custom we discovered.
Boxing Day morning came after another bad night’s sleep, and unfortunately it meant it was time to leave Geoffrey and his family.
It was amazing spending such an important time with strangers and yet feeling so welcomed and somehow completely normal, it was certainly a Christmas we wouldn’t forget.
After saying goodbye to the family,Geoffrey escorted us to the bus station; we fully expected that Geoffrey would expect us to pay for his hospitality and all the help he had given us, but he put us on the bus gave us his number and told us to call if we needed him again.
The bus was incredibly hot and packed full, we can only conclude from being on local buses since that there was something wrong with this one as all the heat was emanating from the floor; so much so that anything which could melt in our bags did.
The only relief from the heat was the wind rushing through the open windows, a sign that it was particularly hot even for the Tanzanians.
The bus route took us North West of Dar stopping regularly to allow the passengers to pick up their groceries on the way; literally pick up, no need to leave your seat as its handed up through the open windows.
Bananas, Apples, Onions etc. all on sale, some of the sellers even boarded the bus like a steward on a flight; this seemed to give them the monopoly over those outside but meant they often got carried a few miles off track by the impatient bus driver.
We finally reached Iringa in 10 hours and 30 minutes where we were met by Wilhard the representative from Original Volunteer.
He spoke to us briefly in a taxi before sending us on to our accommodation.
The area was called Mkimbizi (meaning refugee) we were told this was to do with all the foreigners who historically have lived here which is quite a funny twist when you think about it. The house had an eclectic mix of nationalities with French, German, Russian, Kiwi, Australian and of course English.
Everyone was very friendly and the system seems to work well in that volunteers come and go but those that overlap pass on their knowledge to the newbies.
Our afternoon in Iringa was just spent coming to terms with our new surroundings, washing all the clothes we had sweated through in Dar (by hand of course) and getting ready for our strange night’s sleep opposite each other in separate bunks.
Iringa, luckily, was cooler than Dar with regular down-pours to keep the heat below 30°C, which on our first night’s sleep seemed like heaven.
However just because the temperature was more comfortable didn’t mean the sleep was (for Me at least)
This was the first time we noticed quite how tall I was in comparison to all Tanzanians laying in the standard Tanzanian bed was like sleeping in a toddler bed and this only added to the restless night sleep when a rat (nested above my head) decided to have a party that night; never-the-less it was still a better night’s sleep than in Dar.
On our first official day at work we were picked up by a man called Eno who took us (by Dala Dala) to get even more Visas, this was however a much better experience than the first time round if not a little more expensive ($400 this time)
With our work Visa in hand we were then lead to our first project FISCH.
Future for Iringa Street Children (FISCH) was founded in 2007. They act as a drop in centre for homeless children targeting their physical, social and spiritual needs; offering food, shelter, health care and education.
At first arriving at the FISCH I had been given the task of logging all the donated books FISCH had been given in a library database on one of the computers (something which a previous volunteer had created)
Emma began working with Tanzanian volunteer Joseph to write out all the translated interviews conducted with the children. FISCH keep a paper trail of all they do; interviewing children when they are first found on the street, then continuing to update this register every few weeks, even after they are rehomed.
The register contains information about how the children came to be on the street, whether they are in school, where their closest relative resides and their goals in life.
This helps FISCH to focus on exactly what is forcing the child to be on the street, as well as act as evidence for funding.
It took a couple of days for me to log all the books (over 200 of them) When I'd finished Mote admitted they had no-where to store them other than the cardboard boxes they came out of. Not wanting to place all these books out of reach of the children, I popped into town to look for a bookcase.
It seemed furniture was one thing that didn’t come cheap in Iringa and only by helping to jump start the shop keepers car did I manage to barter down to an affordable price, 20 minutes later I returned with a shiny new bookcase costing 200,000Tsh (£78)
Emma continued with the children’s records, now typing up all the written details onto the computer system. It was at this time that we noticed that files were often being moved from one computer to the next and meant the register was easily lost or corrupted.
I asked if networking the 5 computers around FISCH would help in their record keeping; Mote was very keen to do this and so the next few days were spent trying to locate the necessary cables and all important hub.
Monday morning and it was back to work at FISCH. Emma had begun to make headway with teaching English to a child called Salimini.
Salimini was a street child about 10 years old living at the FISCH centre. At first he had been very shy with both of us but Emma was determined to build his confidence and now had him writing and reading a few words in English.
Salimini had been living at FISCH for four months, a privilege which is not usually extended to the children; but Salimini was different. He arrived at FISCH with other street children, but it quickly became apparent that he wasn’t like the others; he wasn’t street wise at all and after some investigation it was found that he had a family in Dar and had ended up in Iringa after boarding the bus by accident.
Since arriving Mote has been trying to contact his parents but without luck.
It was New Year’s Eve and I had finally managed to find everything for the network, 50 meters of Ethernet cable cost 20,000Tsh (£8) and hub 55,000Tsh (£20) Emma had spent the day helping Erasto paint one of the classrooms. Erasto was one of the first children which FISCH helped, when he was younger they paid for all his schooling and now at 17 he is self-sufficient; renting his own room and working as a handyman.
In the morning we were back at FISCH for their New Year church service.
The service was full of children we hadn’t seen yet and a few adults from the neighbourhood. Mote is a reverend and so was conducting the service, he told us that New Year was a naming day (the day God gave Jesus his name) and very important in African culture.
There was lots of singing and clapping, then afterwards we helped serve everyone food. We spent the rest of that day playing with the children who had attended, holding impromptu geography lessons and taking pictures of all of them for the FISCH register.
There were two faces at church which even Mote didn’t recognise; these turned out to be two brother’s first time at FISCH and Mote asked Emma if she would conduct an interview with him.
The two brothers had lost their mum and so were left with their Grandmother; who two months ago disappeared. It is quite common for children left to a relative to still find their way to the streets because the family member simply cannot afford to feed, house and cloth them.
These two were still living in the grandmother’s house, but without a bed and obviously by their appearance without any other clothes. FISCH would now find the best way to take care of both of them.
The following day we had planned to visit to Tosamaganga orphanage. TS was funded by the Anglican church and run by Nuns. Traveling to the orphanage, we weren’t sure what to expect, and were worried about how the orphanage may be run.
As soon as we arrived we were relieved to be greeted by a building with colourful walls, fun murals, and an outdoor play area.
Most importantly we were met by the smiling faces of lots of happy children.
As soon as we arrived children flocked around us, reaching up to be cuddled. It became clear quickly that although the children were obviously happy; the ratio of them to nuns meant that the only thing lacking was hugs (something we had in abundance)
We were given a tour of the building, bright colours and friendly images continued into every room, children followed us wherever we went until we reached the babies room. In here was the youngest orphan, Sahara, at 2 weeks old; her mother had died in a bus accident and so she came here until hopefully a family member could be found.
Just as we had seen everywhere in Tanzania the children here were so well behaved; the babies in this room sat quietly until picked up at which their little faces filled with happiness to be cuddled.
We spent the day at the orphanage mainly handing out hugs and playing with the children. Emma joined the nuns in feeding and cleaning the little ones too, whilst I met the eldest orphan, Joseph who was 11 and played football and card games.
We enjoyed the day so much, and given the opportunity would have happily given a home to a number of the children, but as volunteers we felt we were a little wasted here; the nuns provided a good life for these children something we couldn’t really add to, however we had brought lots of small toys to Tanzania, which they didn’t have and so planned another day to return with our bags full.
Traveling back from the orphanage on the full bus, Emma was handed a baby by his mother. It is customary in Tanzania (rather than offer a seat) to offer to take someone’s child if they find themselves standing. The same goes for bags, very often when boarding a bus your backpack may be taken off you and past down the bus until it finds someone to hold it.
The buses were always interesting; the Dala Dala was basically a people carrier but the conductor could happily squeeze in 20 to 30 people, as well as their luggage,and chickens.
The Dala Dala cost 300Tsh (12p) and could take you anywhere from 10minutes down the road to an hour across town.
Early Thursday morning I was already crawling in the roof space above FISCH, laying cables for the network, the tin roof made the task sweltering.
Emma was spending the day with Salimini and Noel teaching English. Noel was older than Salimini (around 16) but new little more English. We will always remember him for his incredible skill playing football; even though he only owned one football boot to play in.
Later that day when placing a plaster over a cut on Salimini’s finger Noel suddenly presented a clearly broken thumb, which he had been nursing for a few days without saying anything.
In Tanzania there is no free health service, everything is pay as you go, something a street child couldn’t afford. For the next week we provided some basic first aid and pain killers which did the trick.
Every Saturday FISCH hold “Saturday fun club” this was a combination of bible studies, meals for all and games at the nearby stadium. For this day we started early, Emma was helping to cook the meal today and so we began work at 7.30.
Tanzanian food is pretty much all the same;every meal we ate consisted of rice, beans, meat and spinach. The variations were Ugali (maize flour and water) instead of rice, cabbage instead of spinach, and fish instead of meat.
As soon as children started arriving I was playing games with them, until finally the place was full (around 40 children) and we moved on to the stadium. The stadium was quite impressive, a full size football pitch (all be it a little bare) surrounded by concrete seating, covered in Pepsi logo’s and the slogan “DARE FOR MORE”something quite fitting for these children.
We had brought with us a full cricket set and so I began trying to explain how to play, unfortunately their ability to look after number one, which has kept them alive as a street child,meant that working as a team didn’t come easily and it took a while before they understood the principles of the game.
Coming to the end of our time in Iringa we started to tie up a few of the loose ends, we visited the orphanage again, this time with lots of toys and books in hand which the children loved. I finished the network which meant five computers could all share files between them.
We gave my shoes to Erasto who’s flipflops were in a sorry state (I had spare flops) and ensured that the rest of our donations were in the safe hands of Willhard.
One thing that Emma particularly wanted to see to the end was getting Salimini home. Although all attempts had been made to contact his family no one had yet taken him back to Dar; he claimed if he went back he would know his way home.
At first thinking it may be a financial issue we offered to pay for his ticket, however towards the end of our stay with us building more of a relationship with him we decided to offer to take him home ourselves. Mote agreed for us to escort him home, and the day before we left we decided to take him into town and make him a little more presentable for his parents (he remained in the same PJs he arrived in 4 months ago)
Clothes which had obviously been donated from abroad lay in heaps in the market stalls each item was 5000Tsh (£2) Through a process of thumbs up or down we understood whether Salimini liked the item of not.
We bought him a bag to carry the clothes he was wearing home and also planned to leave him with some books and stationary. Whilst shopping he alerted us to two items he desperately wanted, pants (he had none) and school shoes (children in Tanzania cannot attend school without smart shoes)
Mote also asked us to get his hair cut; again necessary for school. Unfortunately smart in Tanzania means no hair, and Salimini lost his beautiful short fro.
It was amazing to see that just with a haircut and a new bag on his back he already began to hold himself differently; like he was proud.
When we returned to FISCH Mote introduced us to Amani. A street child that currently lives with them at home. Amani had been given Quinine at the age of 13 to treat Malaria, it had saved her life but resulted in a hearing loss.
Now 16 the hearing loss, noticeable in her speech, prevented her from understanding speech without lip reading. I had brought with me, donated hearing aids and fitting equipment just in case of this scenario. So spent a couple of hours with Amani and Joseph (translating)
After I had finished she was able to hold a clear conversation with her eyes closed. She was clearly overjoyed. I left the rest of the hearing aids with Mote along with a supply of batteries. Mote is keen for us to visit again in the future and help at a new school for the death which he is developing.
That night we gave a tearful goodbye to all at FISCH. Our time there had been so enjoyable, and it really felt like we had become part of the family. We were told we were welcome back whenever we liked but next time for longer!
The next day felt like a completely new adventure; traveling back to Dar to reunite a lost boy with his family!
Part of us was quite excited, yet the other part was worried what to expect. Salimini was shy, he spoke little Swahili and less English; everyone had assured us he said he wanted to go home but by his expression today, we weren’t too sure.
What would his parents think; their son has been missing for 4 months then suddenly he turns up, with two white people in toe - and one with bright red hair!
The drive was just as long as before but nowhere near as hot, we also took advantage of the sellers, now more confident with their customs. We arrived in Dar 11 hours after leaving Iringa where we met Geoffrey.
Being a teacher in Dar we were sure that Geoffrey would be able to help us, and knew from his previous hospitality that he wouldn’t say no. We boarded a taxi, Geoffrey sat up on front with Salimini to give directions.
It took about an hour to reach the name of the village Salimini knew. Roads around Dar centre are good but when you start to venture into the villages you soon find yourself scraping walls and the under chassis of the car.
Salimini wasn’t sure of the area and after driving around for some time we tried for pot luck and walked round asking locals if they recognised him, or his name. After an hour or so Salimini claimed he could remember “Puma”by now we had formed a bit of a gathering helping us and one local new of Puma Market in another village; we set off.
By the time we reached the next village it was dark, and realistically we felt it was unlikely Salimini would recognise his way (there are no street lights in Tanzania) but as soon as we turned into the village he sprang into action, pointing out every turn and even predicting the ones after that.
After a short while and more scraping we stopped; outside his house.
Nobody got out of the car or said anything, no one was sure what was going to happen here and so no one person wanted to go first. In the end we all got out together and approached the house. It was empty, nobody in nor did it look like anybody had been in for some time.
Geoffrey began asking locals who it was that lived here, they all said no one, and the previous tenant had been evicted for not paying the rent. Geoffrey then began asking if they recognised Salimini; being dark the first woman (with the aid of our mobile light) came close to see his face, she immediately screamed and fell to the floor and the next woman did exactly the same.
It was a while until we could get any sense out of anyone but soon Geoffrey told us why they had reacted in such a way. Geoffrey had been told that when Salimini had gone missing his parents had looked everywhere for him so much so, Dad had not worked through all the traveling.
They had then spent all their remaining money on witch doctors to help; three witch doctors all told his parent he was dead, which they had finally accepted, Salimini was well loved in the community and known for his good looks and so there had been a big funeral.
Since then his Mum had not eaten and the family had been forced to move because they couldn’t afford the rent.
Luckily, though someone knew where they now lived and went off to get them. Whilst standing outside the house news had obviously spread and more and more of the local turned up to see Salimini, so much so that it soon became hard to move amid the amount of people wanting to see (and touch) Salimini.
At one point, because he was become a little distressed by it all,we decide to retreat back to the taxi while we waited the resulting scene was a little like all the zombie movies; faces wedged against the windows and hundreds of hands all beating on the body work.
They were chanting “let us see him”and “let us see the ghost child”to them the more rational explanation of what was happening was that Salimini had been brought back from the dead; and by two white people!
After about an hour in a sweltering taxi surrounded by people, the crowd began to disperse in one section forming a passage way for a woman who was quite clearly Salimini’s mother (not only because she looked exactly like him but she was whaling and near to collapse) following behind her was his father in tears.
Not wanting to make this even more difficult we decided to have the reunion at their new home, away from the crowd.
Salmini’s parent got in the front and we all sat in the back with Salimini on my lap. It took quite some time to get out and even when we did we were chased up the road by the crowd. On the drive not once did Salmini’s mother turn to see her child and Dad kept peering sheepishly round to look.
Arriving in the next village still neither Mum nor Dad seemed keen to take Salimini from me whilst we walked to their home. We walked through small passage ways until we reached a building with people gathered outside around a fire.
Immediately, on entering, mum through herself on the floor and began to whale again, everyone began hugging and kissing us and we were ushered in.
The families new home was a single room in a building filled with tenants;the room had just enough room for a bed, coffee table and sofa (all butted up against one-another)
We were introduced properly to Salimini’s Mum and Dad, two little brothers and family friend (all five shared the same bed) Geoffrey translated everything Salimini’s Dad had to tell us, about when he went missing.
Dad works at the main bus station in Dar (selling chips) early one morning he left for work; at the same time Salimini went to use the toilet (still in his PJs) all he can think is that he followed him to work then boarded the bus looking for him.
Since, Dad had reported it to the police, then travelled over a 1000Km around Tanzania visiting family which Salimini knew,hoping he was there, in desperation they visited witch doctors who all told them he was dead.
They held a big funeral which the whole village attended, and unfortunately the cost of all this meant they were evicted and now live here.
We had a few hours with Salimini and his family but, with our flight in the morning it was time to leave. We were heartbroken to say goodbye to Salimini that night but so happy that he obviously had a family who loved him dearly.
FISCH will now continue to work with the family and ensure that Salimini never ends up on the street again. Through Geoffrey we will always be there too to look after him.
Bringing a child back from the dead could never have been expected, but what a way to end our last day in Tanzania. We will never forget our time volunteering and hope to be out there again in the future, if you want to volunteer or help in other ways visit the links below.