Musings on nature, nurture, and the Nkoaranga kids

Jane Curnow has come all the way from Canberra in Australia to volunteer with us in Nkoaranga.  Back home, she works within the criminal justice system, and she has 7 brothers and sisters.  She has had the dream of coming to Africa to volunteer at an orphanage for quite some while now, and is happy to realize her dream at last!  This week, she shares her first impressions on the kids, their quirky personalities, and ideas about where the future might take them!
“Six weeks ago I arrived here from Australia to volunteer with The Small Things – to lend a hand, learn about a different culture, make some new friends, and although I didn’t know it, apparently I’ve come here to indulge a long ago attained psychology degree, the role of which is usually to lie dusty and dormant as a bit of a postscript on my CV.

I’ve always thought we are more nurture than nature. But observing the distinct personalities of the kids in Nkoaranga Orphanage, maybe I’m wrong. They are all exposed to the same mamas, the same routine, the same toys, the same food. But when faced with the same situation, each of the children reacts differently. The faces of some babies crumble when they realise they’re about to have their nappy changed; others are quite happy to sing, ‘Deh-deh-deh’ and hold their feet while you replace the offending articles. Some squawk with urgency when they see their porridge and others are too busy looking outside to care so much. Some little ones are fascinated by the orphanage cat and others shriek, shake and hide when it gets too close (I’m thinking of one child in particular here).

I can’t help but look at their quirks and mannerisms and traits and think that they’ll turn that curiosity or determination or sense of creativity into making a living one day. I can’t help but look at each child and wonder where they’ll be in twenty or thirty years’ time.

Baby Suleman 

Little Neema – so sweet, so unassuming. She sits placidly handing me toys, making sounds in her soft, satisfied, little voice. She has no burning ambitions, she is perfectly content as she is. Neema is a bundle of affection and whenever I hold her she gently rests her head against my chest. She doesn’t strike me as the kind of person who would ever yearn for fame and importance. Wherever life takes her she will adapt and take new situations on with easy-going calm.

Her brother, Baracka, showed me early on that he is beguiling, intelligent and calculating. He’s quick to learn and knows how to use his new knowledge to best effect. I can see this combination taking him far in the business world.

Johnny and Joakim are quiet achievers. They never demand attention, but display unobtrusive determination and curiosity. They aren’t crawling, as such, but wriggle on their bellies to get wherever they want to be. I’ve no idea what these boys are going to be when they grow up but I’d bet many shillings that they’ll get there; they’ll conquer it, whatever it is.

Baby Olivia is a force to be reckoned with. We have had many tussles over the spoon when I’m trying to feed her and I’m ashamed to say, I have lost some. I have been beaten by a seven and a half month-old. Physically (and mentally, too) she is so strong and is a little frustrated that she doesn’t have the mobility of an adult. She has what it takes to be an Olympic athlete.

Baby Olivia

Whenever I’m holding tiny Mary, who is only weeks old, Vicky approaches me and puts a finger to her lips. I say, ‘Yes, that’s right. Little Mary is sleeping. Shhh.’ Vicky takes a step back and holds her arms as though cradling a baby. She swings them slightly from side to side and with that wonderful rolling ‘r’ says, ‘Mehr-ree, Mehr-ree’, then says something in Swahili, dropping the pretend baby. I look at her with mock horror and say, ‘Oh, no! Don’t drop Mary! Poor little Mary!’ and she laughs and does it all over again. We both know it’s just a game and that she’d never do such a thing. She’s usually such a vivacious little performer, but she displays a sweet sensitivity, too. In her quieter moments she’ll sidle up to me and gently kiss my cheek. I think she could have a fine career in the arts.

Maureen is efficiency and maturity wrapped up in the body and giggles of a four year-old. She speaks to me in English whenever she can (I think she thinks I need all the help I can get). I never consider disobeying when she says ‘Jeh-ni, come!’ Sometimes it’s because a mama wants me and sometimes it’s because she herself needs urgent assistance in securing one of the smaller kids or a teddy bear to her back with a length of material (the way grown women tie their infants to their backs). She is referred to as ‘a little mama’ such is her responsible streak. If her current form is anything to go by, she’d make a wonderful mother in years to come; she could also use her organisation skills, efficiency and initiative to manage people in any number of professions.

Toddler Neema

On the days when I command less respect than a passing gecko (the kids are awed by the geckos), I can repeat an instruction until I’m blue in the face and whichever child I’m speaking to will look me in the eye and defiantly shake his/her head. So fine, it’s timeout for that kid. I’ll be thinking about the incident half an hour later and suddenly, out of the corner of my eye, I’ll see the same child helping a littler kid to put on his shoes or diplomatically resolving a dispute between two others. And the part of me that was so exasperated thaws completely.

So if I’ve learnt anything in the last six weeks, it’s that these children are full of surprises. Perhaps I’ve got it all wrong about what the future holds or perhaps I’ve got it right about some things and spectacularly wrong about others.

Maybe one day Baracka will be sitting at his desk at work, the bright Tanzanian sun spilling through the window, droplets forming on the back of his neck. He’ll loosen his tie and continue to go through his accounts. In a distracted moment maybe he’ll stumble upon this blog and with that same charming grin that has travelled 40 years with him, he’ll send the link to his twin sister with a message that reads, ‘Get this! This volunteer thought you were sweet and unassuming, placid and unambitious!’

Little Neema (twins with Baracka)

And from the President’s Office in Dodoma, Neema will sit back in her chair and patiently read my thoughts about her 16 month-old self. There’ll be a knock at the door and an adviser will enter with those statistics she asked for. And he will make his way over to where she sits in front of her computer, note the expression on her face and ask if she’s okay. In her soft, satisfied, little voice she will say, ‘Ndiyo’ (‘yes’).

But to come full circle and return to the notion of biology versus environment, it’s occurred to me as I’ve been writing that perhaps, despite their individual differences, the role that nurture plays in setting the tone for these children shouldn’t be underestimated, that perhaps, there is more that binds them than sets them apart from one another. It’s something difficult to quantify – something that’s a little more than love (though love makes up a good deal of it) – a concoction of respect and affection for the mamas, a raw and indelible connection with one another, and a shared thirst for the usual pursuits of tiny children in most unusual circumstances.

It’s unlikely that I’ll know where exactly these kids will be many years into the future, but in the meantime (for the rest of the year, while I’m still here) I’ll be watching their development with great interest, and in particular, looking to see whether Isaac learns that the apathetic, small cat really poses no threat to him.”