I arrived to the Rift Valley Children’s Village on the 25th of February in a jet lagged daze. It had been a long flight, and then a long car ride, and I was overwhelmed by my foreign surroundings, as well as the sheer geographical distance between where I was, and where I had been two days before when I left New York City. I was excited and optimistic, but I would be lying if I didn’t admit I was nervous.
When I climbed out of the van, all that apprehension vanished as a group of excited and curious children rushed toward me with eyes and smiles brighter than the African sun. Their energy was invigorating.
The staff and children led me through the offices, past the library, across the soccer field, and welcomed me to Manyara House, my new home, where I would be living with eight girls and a baby boy for the next five months. The girls’ ages ranged from three to fifteen, and I was immediately impressed by how the older girls cared for their younger “sisters,” making sure they were bathed, in their pajamas, and finished with their chores before dinner. It was clear that these children had learned responsibility at a young age and were extremely capable young women. I was especially grateful to have Coletha and Natalie by my side to show me the ropes my first few weeks. Coletha, sixteen years old, is a true eccentric. She is a born comedian and can make me laugh with just one of her goofy facial expressions, of which she possesses many. Natalie, eight years old, is a child genius and completely runs the show at the village. She plays the roles of Adorable Child, Teacher, and Mama, and is quick to correct you if you make a mistake.
A few days after my arrival, the village was celebrating February Birthdays in all the houses. In Manyara House we were celebrating Paskalina’s presumably Fifth Birthday, a girl who, along with her baby brother Raif, had recently become a part of the RVCV family. Paskalina had arrived to the village speaking only Kirawqi, but is a quick and eager learner, so when I arrived three months into her time living in Manyara House, she had picked up Swahili, and her English, though very broken and basic, was improving each day. Now, her English pronunciation and vocabulary have flourished.
Paskalina had never celebrated a birthday before, so when Board Member, Peggy Bacon and I arrived to the house bearing gifts and a cake, she was beside herself with excitement, as cake is only served to the children on very special occasions. When we explained all the fuss was for her, Paskalina, confused, looked at us in disbelief.
We handed her one of the gifts, and instead of tearing off the paper, she innocently stared at the beautifully wrapped package, unsure of what to do next. The other Manyara girls, who had circled around Paskalina at this point, were cheering her on and shouting directions at her in rapid Swahili. Though they were trying to help, this did not improve the birthday girl’s already bewildered state.
Janine, a fellow volunteer, had brought a balloon to the party, and when Paskalina saw the yellow rubber bubble of air, bobbing up and down, she disregarded her other gifts that she had yet to unwrap, and began to bop the balloon around the room. The other girls, who had been patiently waiting for Paskalina to open her presents, suddenly lost their composure, and before I could stop them, began tearing off the paper to expose the surprises inside.
Initially, their behavior made me upset and I worried that they were taking away from Paskalina’s first birthday experience, but again, the girls surprised me with their kindness towards one another; each package they unwrapped, they brought over to her and put on display for the birthday girl to see. They took their time and explained how to use each new toy. First, with many “Oooo’s” and “Aaaah’s” they showed Paskalina her new Lego set. It must have seemed a bit too complex for her though because she quickly disregarded her new toy and went back to bopping the balloon about the room. Next, they unwrapped a baby doll, which captured Paskalina’s interest, until she pressed its belly and the doll sputtered out gurgly baby noises. Alarmed, Paskalina threw the doll to the ground thinking it was possessed, which made everyone roar with laughter!
I picked up the doll, then rocked it back and forth in my arms to show her it was ok, and gently said, “Hamna shida,” it’s no problem. Paskalina looked up at me with her big eyes, and a smile crept across her face. At that moment, it felt as if she was trying to say, “Thank you!” I smiled back at her with tears of happiness.
Later that night when I peeked into Paskalina’s room, she slept with her new doll in her arms and, of course, the balloon. Back in my room, I lay in bed completely in awe of what I had experienced that afternoon. Having grown up in New York City, where everything is technologically advanced and materialistic, I was amazed that Paskalina, a child who had no possessions of her own before coming to RVCV, conscientiously chose a rubber sac of air over a shiny new toy. It is heartwarming to see a child find such joy in the simplest of things.
Throughout my five months at the Rift Valley Children’s Village I experienced many of these affecting moments with the children, all of which took me by surprise and have influenced me in ways I could not have imagined. I went to Tanzania to touch the hearts of as many children as possible, and came back feeling more whole and enlightened than I have ever felt before.