Having taken a one-day safari break from farming, Ben and I were ready to meet our next host farmer, David, and get back to work. We knew that staying at our second farm would be a completely different experience than our time spent in the Pare Mountains because David also owned Tabasamu Orphanage (Tabasamu means “smile”) in addition to working on his parents’ farm. Plus, we would now be staying close to Arusha—a much more developed city with paved roads and stronger infrastructure, thanks to the tourism money that the surrounding national parks bring in from safaris.
The night we met David, he was so happy to finally talk to us in person and was eager to bring us to the Tabasamu Orphanage in Usa River so we could meet the kids. We drove down an obscure, bumpy road, finally reaching a humble gated house with six excited children spilling out the front door. Before we could even exit the car, we were being pulled, hugged, and jumped on; we could tell we had been long-anticipated guests as the kids unleashed their smiles, giggles, and shouts of “mzungu!”. Somehow we made it inside and David introduced us to the six kids that slept at the orphanage. We were so impressed how well some of them spoke English. Of course, the phrases that most benefited them they knew best, like “pick me up”, “put me on your shoulders”, “sit here”, “let me do your hair”—basically just a lot of commands directed at us to assist in their fun. They were a rambunctious group of kids—the oldest was 8 and the youngest 4—and I can’t even put into words their excitement and playfulness. At one point, I think Ben served as an actual jungle gym with all six kids climbing, swinging, and hanging on him simultaneously.
David often has volunteers who stay at the orphanage to take care of the kids every day, but Ben and I were here to farm so he arranged a homestay for us closer to the his parent’s property, up the mountain in his home-village of Nkoaranga. We stayed with his friend Victor and Victor’s sister, Eva. They were both so welcoming and Eva was an excellent chef, serving us all the delicious traditional Tanzanian foods. Nkoaranga was a small village that we were happy to call home for two weeks; filled with tons of dirt paths to explore the mountains, the Meru tribe village offered spectacular views of Mount Meru (Mount Kilimanjaro’s “little brother”).
After breakfast each morning—which normally consisted of mandazi, fresh warm milk, and coffee—Ben and I would take the chilly 15-minute walk up the mountain to the farm. David’s father was a Christian priest, and David’s main job was actually teaching Philosophy at a secondary school, so David’s mom was the one in charge of the farm. They had cows, goats, and chickens and grew banana, coffee, avocado, mango and potato (potato was the most popular plant in Nkoaranga). But the task assigned to Ben and myself was to plant a field of maharage, or beans. Over the course of two weeks, with an old-fashioned hoe and a bucket of beans, we must’ve planted over a thousand of bean seeds in hand-dug holes. David’s mother did not speak any English, but you’d be surprised how much conversation we could actually have between each other’s little knowledge of the other’s language. She helped us expand our Kiswahili vocabulary, and we shared laughs when it took us 10+ minutes to figure out a simple phrase she was trying to tell us.
After 3-4 hours of farming, Ben and I would eat a delicious lunch prepared by Eva, and then we would go to meet the kids after they finished school. Picking up the kids from school was a lot like arriving to the orphanage on that first day, times 10—because the other 50 or so students from school were just as excited to see us as the Tabasamu children, stampeding towards us ready to jump, tug, and hang on us. We would run and play in the field with all of the kids until Gift, one of the caregivers at Tabasamu Orphanage, determined it was time to make the long journey down the mountain to return to Usa River. It takes the children over an hour to get to and from school each day, a journey that requires two public bus rides and a 30-minute walk. Thus, on the walk home, the kids were normally exhausted (rightfully so, as they get up at 6am in order to make it to school on time), and Ben and I were often persuaded by their tired eyes and staggering bodies to carry them; luckily for our spines, only 4 were old enough to attend primary school, Azbetha (8), Exaud (8), Jasmine (7), and PrayGod (7). However, when we would finally arrive at Tabasamu Orphanage around 5pm, the exhaustion would magically disappear as they ran the last stretch of the way to enter the gates and play with the 20 other children who attend Tabasamu as a daycare.
Ben and I spent our evenings at Tabasamu Orphanage hanging out with the kids. The daycare students often went home soon after 5pm, so we weren’t able to get to know them very well. But we did have a lot of time to play and talk with the 6 who lived at Tabasamu: the four school-aged students I mentioned above, as well as Issac (4) and Jennifer (4). They didn’t have many toys, but we played soccer, swung on the swing set, read books, sang, and exchanged Swahili/English vocabulary. Ben and I really fell in love with these kids; their smiles truly brightened our days and we cherished every moment we spent with them.
Because Ben and I did not sleep at the orphanage, we had to walk the 30 minutes to the main road in complete darkness. The sun sets at about 6:30pm and it is pitch dark by 7pm in Tanzania this time of year. Without any street lights and with dirt roads with awful holes and bumps everywhere, you never quite know where exactly you’re putting your foot down—you just have to hope you won’t be stepping in any puddles, or worse, chicken or goat feces (almost every Tanzanian owns chickens and/or goats, and they allow them to roam and wander through the streets during the day). To get up the mountain from the main road to the house where we were staying, we had to take a piki piki (motorcycle). With three people on a motorcycle, I always made Ben sit on the end because I was afraid of falling off. Part of the road going up was actually paved, but once we took the turn to Nkoaranga Village, Ben was at major risk of falling off due to the random potholes and makeshift speed bumps. Don’t worry, he always held on very tightly and never fell off.
One Sunday morning, Ben and I attended the Pentecostal Church that Baba, David’s dad, preached at. We showed up at about 10am to a nearly empty church blasting with loud worship music. Gradually, families and single persons trickled in few by few until the church was filled with nearly 200 people. Through four different worship bands’ songs, everyone stood on their feet, sang, clapped, and moved throughout the church aisles as they danced to the music. The worship songs were played and sung through the speakers so loudly that our ears were ringing for hours afterwards. Baba’s sermon was obviously all in Swahili, so we didn’t understand much of it at all, but at one point Ben and I were asked to stand as they specially welcomed us to their time of worship and praise.
Exploring Nkoaranga Village was one of our favorite things to do. Unlike Usa River and Arusha, the weather in Nkoaranga was actually very cold, and I often needed to put on extra layers to keep warm at night. Even though these towns are extremely close, the difference in altitude explains the cold contrast in climate in Nkoaranga. So going on spontaneous hikes in the crisp mountain air was always a refreshing break from the stifling heat down in Usa River. One day Eva brought us all over the mountain, taking us to all the local watering holes, forest trails, waterfalls, and the best spots to see monkeys and lemurs.
On our last night staying in the Arusha region hosted by David’s family and friends, David’s parents hosted a huge dinner for us as both a welcoming gift and a farewell celebration. Everyone we had met during our stay gathered at their house to eat a deliciously prepared buffet-style feast of wali (rice), nyama and samaki in mchuzi (beef and fish in a sauce), chips (French fries—but really fresh French fries made from the potatoes the village grows), and of course, fresh fruits (watermelon, bananas, and oranges). I haven’t mentioned yet that forks do not exist in Tanzania; you either eat with your hands or with a spoon. At this goodbye dinner, Ben and I saw our first fork since being in Tanzania—but there was only one. I let Ben use it since he had taken more samaki than me (a fork-worthy food).
Our time spent in Usa River and Nkoaranga was truly memorable, and we have no doubt we will keep in touch with all of the friends we have made—including the watoto (children)!