How did we get here? Good question! In 2010, after finishing my undergraduate studies at Tufts University and at twenty two years old, I arrived in Tanzania for what turned into a year of volunteering, little expecting to fall hopelessly in love with the children of Nkoaranga Orphanage. I suspected even less that I would end up adopting two of them, my daughter Zawadi and son Saimoni, or that I would wind up in Tanzania for six years - three years on and off, followed by three years full time. A chance encounter, a mention from a fellow volunteer about this little orphanage I should check out so I could volunteer on my day off from teaching, ended up turning my entire life upside down – in the best possible way.
Mama Pendo (Martha Ayo), whose name literally means "Mama Love" in Swahili, has managed and run the orphanage since 1987, starting several weeks before I was born. She has provided the most incredible, loving environment for hundreds of children, many of whom would have died without her help. During the early years, due to financial constraints, they could only care for kids up to age three, after which time they were returned to the village – whether or not there was anyone there who could care for them. Between a third and a half ended up abused, neglected, or dying within a year. Although Mama Pendo personally adopted several children, there were many more she could not save, and it is clear that that loss still haunts her, decades later.
In about 2008, an organization was founded that helped to send the children to boarding school after they aged out of the orphanage at five years old. However, it was clear to Mama Pendo, to me, and to many others that the kids were suffering. Abuse is rampant in these environments, and our children were not exempt. During that first year, we had many teary heart-to-hearts, dreaming about real, loving homes and bright futures for the kids we both adored, but unsure if it would ever be more than a pipe dream.
The Small Things was founded at the end of that first year, with the help of several other former volunteers and professionals with relevant experience, with the initial goal of providing supplemental support to the orphanage and the incredible and dedicated mamas who have spent their lives caring for children in need. In the first two years, while I was finishing my degree, we funded projects including installing a well and water filters, solar lighting, and hiring supplemental staff to cook, clean and look after premature infants. It was a start, although far from enough for me to be satisfied.
After the stint spent earning a Masters in Public Administration in International Development at the London School of Economics, I returned to Tanzania full time to see if we could empower the community, and the orphanage leaders, to do more than provide a band aid of temporary orphanage care. But more important than anything, I was going to become a mom to Zawadi and Saimoni. To take home the two children who had stolen my heart, who had neither father nor mother to be reunited with later, who I had spent years bonding with, who broke my heart every time I left. Adopting them actually made my commitment to all the other children even stronger – I couldn’t take each of them home, no matter how much I wanted to. But I could give them homes, even if not mine, and I was (and am) determined to do so.
Today, Zawadi and Saimoni have been home for more than three years, and have zero doubt in their mind who Mommy is, and how deeply I adore them. We have grown from the original orphanage partnership to provide deeply loving homes with committed, long-term caretakers, for as long as the other children need, at Happy Family Children’s Village. We now have over a 50% reunification rate at Nkoaranga Orphanage, which means more than half the children entering our care will eventually be able to live with relatives, thanks to TST’s Family Preservation Program. This represents an increase of over 1000% compared to 2010, when I began this work! The children’s morbidity and mortality has plummeted and achievement of developmental milestones has steadily increased. Between children in residential care and those living with relatives, we now support over 100 kids and have created pathways out of poverty for more than 30 families. Even better, our team is now managed by incredible Tanzanian staff on the ground, including Mama Pendo - empowered leaders stepping up to make a difference in their community. I couldn’t be more proud of the work my amazing team has achieved, and we have so much more to offer, with your help. Thank you for joining us on this journey!
For more insight and articles direct from Bekka, check out her Huffington Post blog!