The Small Things Garden – On Vision and Life: A Reflection on My Timein Nkoaranga. By Zsuzsa Mitro

The Small Things Garden – On Vision and Life: A Reflection on My Timein
Nkoaranga. By Zsuzsa Mitro
Here we have a wonderfully personal guest blog by one of our volunteers, Zsuzsa, who just recently completed her time with us in Nkoaranga. She tells us of her garden project that she spent time and effort in perusing whilst she was in Tanzania, and of her vision for the future of her project. Thank you, Zsuzsa for your hard work and inspiring words!

My volunteer experience with The Small Things Orphanage in Nkoaranga was at its most challenging phase just about a month ago, around the third-to-last weeks of April… When I am writing this text, however, all I have is gratitude and appreciation for the lessons I learned. Some time has passed, and I have been able to reflect on these lessonsThe month I spent with TST is almost beyond-words rich as a life event for me. And before I settle with my focus in this note, which is: vision, I must express my complete respect and admiration for those who are immersed in the work, revolving around beautiful and remarkable kids, for extended amounts of time in Nkoaranga – and beyond.

When I decided that I wanted to be involved in volunteer work with The Small Things, I had plenty of help with imagining what to expect. The organization has a very accessible website: it is easy to navigate and find useful information. Once I established contact with staff, I had only positive experience in getting my any and allquestions answered promptly and in detail. The volunteer coordinator, Emma Hemsley, and of course Bekka Ross Russel, TST’s director on the ground did a wonderful job on preparing me for my time with the organization. Andfinally, embarked on the whole ‘adventure’ because I know a returning volunteer. Sarah Zack is practically my neighbor in Vermont, US. Her insight and encouragement turned out to be crucial, and absolutely wonderful in my making the commitment to volunteer.

Working hard in the garden

I remember that during one of our first conversations with Sarah back in December 2013, I had doubt over the fact whether one month was going to be enough volunteering time – but that was all I could do. For anyone seriously interested in signing up to help, the time commitment is indeed a serious matter to consider. And to make the best decision, for everyone’s benefit, you need to have a vision, and keep asking questions until you clearly see what is realistic, and what is possible for you.

Work in an orphanage was not something I had ever tried. But I wanted to be around children who needed me – and lots of them! The more love and care was needed from me, the better! I carefully assessed the factors of age groups among the kids, different needs related to that, and the time commitment needed. I understood, well before I signed on, that the work was going to be demanding, challenging and require my all. But I was ready to give exactly that. At the same time, I had to be honest about thepart of my vision that tended to issues of self-care. Make no mistake about it: work at the orphanage is hard. But it is often in such circumstances that immense personal growth happens. That was a very attractive aspect.

So was going to Africa – a first time for me. And Tanzania, and specifically the Northern region, where I was going, has so much to offer! Mountain hikes, safaris, getting to know a different culture, ways of local life, and language – imagination goes wild with the possibilities of what to do with any spare time! A month, however, is a very short period. What was possible for me, for recreation? The picture got clearer when I found out the orphanage had a garden! In Vermont, I have done work with volunteers in a gardening project that inspired my consideration of implementing at least some of what I learned with Willing Hands in East Thetford on site in Nkoaranga. And gardening is a wonderfully regenerative activity.

Even before I left, I wanted to discuss this detail with Bekka and Emma, and again: all I got was their positive, supportive ‘go ahead!’ responses.  After I arrived and settled into a regular routine with mostly early morning6-9 AM, and 5-8 PM evening shifts four times a week, I wanted to get started in the garden. Everything was falling into place beautifully. The garden did need help – and a vision! –, which I already had. Local helpers quickly got involved too, and I even found a fellow volunteer, who showed a lot of genuine interest in growing food for the kids. Sidsel Henriksen, from Denmark, is also a fantastic photographer. We planned a visual documentation of our TST gardening project.

An hour or two in the garden after demanding, unconditionally caring work around the mamas and the kids at the orphanage worked wonders. The first day we started preparing the beds for planting with Baba Nikki and Kaka John, two men in charge of anything food- and gardening related, my Swahili also took off. What we could not figure out in language, we demonstrated in showing each other. Smiles, content, and great physical workout were but a few immediate rewards I can mention. And although I was not going to be there and witness the growth and enjoy the fruit of our labor some weeks later, I am glad I thought of starting this project on the side of my volunteer work, right next to the orphanage.

There was one more dream, one more strong wish I had when I envisioned my stay in Northern Tanzania in April. Nkoaranga is in the vicinity of some gorgeous mountains, the envy of all hikers. Besides Kilimanjaro, MtMeru is right above the village, enticing the courageous for a true adventure. It is a shorter hike than the six-day commitment Kili takes, which is why I wanted to climb Meru. Three days at the end of my trip, on the last week, I thought, was a reasonable goal and vision. And it almost happened…  But in the end, life overruled everything. Or rather, death did; the loss of two baby girls, an extreme and unusual event at the orphanage!, with funerals to attend and drawing closer as a community at TST kept me back from completing this dream.

I am not sad, though. Sidsel and I chose a tree to commemorate Lulu and Hope’s memory, and it is now planted in the garden. This tree is also a testimony to our reverence for life, constant change, growth, connection, and commitment. If other volunteers, future, or returning ones come to Nkoaranga, it is my genuine hope and wish that they become inspired to help the garden project along, and find true joy and peace of mind and heart there. Only good things can come out of a place that is loved and well taken care of, just as a child who is given those things will be all the richer, and better person in life. May the garden bring joy to all involved! I hope to return to see it thrive.