The sun sets in three places over the Rift Valley Children’s Village in northern Tanzania. It dips below the rolling hills of Oldeani in the west, as expected. But each evening, it also casts glowing evening light on the clouds in the north and southeast. The hues are so brilliant that I find it nearly impossible to tell where the first light radiates from. It’s spectacularly beautiful, and here, it happens every night.
I still haven’t figured out what it is about this place that makes a triple sunset possible. Curiosity would normally motivate me to do a little research: is it the altitude, the atmosphere? But in this case, I’ d rather not know. It’s just another thing that makes this place special.
As the sun sets, the 55 children at the Rift Valley Children’s Village are just getting ready for dinner. They live in five houses, each named after a national park. Serengeti House is most special to me; that’s where I live.
In Serengeti House, the Mamas announce “saa ya kula!” and 12 kids come running in what seems like a scramble, although their places at the long white table are the same from night to night. Christopher and Joshua sit at the ends, with Happy, Paulo, Isaka, and Vicent along one side, and Mole, Christina, Janie, Eva, and Simon along the other. Three kerosene lamps light their way through chapati with cabbage and beans, pilau, ugali, or a similar Tanzanian dish. “Welcome, Taylor,” they say every night before they begin to eat.
After dinner, the bedtime routine begins. First, we read a story. In my early weeks, story time was crazy. The kids would argue over story choices, then jump all over each other, jockeying for a good spot to see the book we’d chosen. This quickly spurred me to learn to awkwardly read upside down, with the book perpetually facing my audience. Once I started reading, though, I’d have their full attention, and at least four of them were always in the mood to snuggle. I love it. And I see it as one of the most important parts of the day to make them feel safe and loved.
When we finish the story, I tuck them in. In my first weeks, that’s when the mayhem would really start, especially with the boys. I would be carrying each of the eight boys to his bed, launching every other one up to the top bunk (the logistics of which required strength I never knew I had!). But within a few seconds, I’d turn my back to find the recent bed deliveries anxiously awaiting a re-do drop-off. “Yeah, riiiiight!” I’d say, and they’d giggle and affix themselves to my legs like superglue. When they finally all got into bed, I would begin the hugs and kisses.
On my first night, I didn’t anticipate the excitement with which my little boys would approach goodnight kisses. But it didn’t take long to figure out that they had a plan: work together as a team; if one of us can get her on the lips, we all win. Christopher was the winner the first time. As I leaned in to give this cute 9-year-old a hug and a kiss, he swooped in without warning and planted one straight on my lips. The entire boys’ room erupted in laughter as my jaw nearly hit the floor from a combination of embarrassment and total delight in the scene that made them laugh so hard. Needless to say, I have yet to be tricked again.
In the weeks that followed, each of the boys developed his own hug-and-kiss tuck-in routine. Vicenti, who is 7, has me lift him into bed every night. He gives me the tightest hugs of all. Paulo and Isaka both sleep on the top bunks. Their beds form an L; I fit right between where the beds meet. Each night I stand between the two and receive simultaneous pecks on my cheeks. This has become the “cool” way for the oldest boys in the house to say goodnight. No matter the night, Boazi, who is also 7, is always the last to be tucked in. “Wait!” he says as he tugs on my arms for another hug. I lean down and kiss him on the cheek. “How much do I love you?” I whisper. “This much,” he says as he holds out his arms as far as he can reach. These are the moments that make my heart most full every day.
Only eight sunsets remain for me here at the Rift Valley Children’s Village. Eight more sunsets; eight more nights of stories and tuck-ins; eight more days to spend with these kids, opening their eyes to the world around them and being part of the potential that lies within them. It’s been absolutely incredible to watch them learn and grow, even for the short three months that I’ve been here. My only consolation in leaving is the unbelievable will I feel to come back someday soon.
Just before I close the boys’ door each night, I blow eight kisses into my hands and throw them out to the room. In the shadows I see eight hands reach up to catch them. “Lala salama, nawapenda sana,” I say in Swahili, wishing them sweet dreams. I tell them I love them, and I really mean it.