Early Sunday morning, I embarked on yet another adventure. This adventure wasn’t taken for adrenaline-related reasons, nor even for the desire to travel and explore new places. Instead, I planned a weekend trip to central Tanzania to visit two boys that I sponsor through Compassion International.
[As a side note: I worked with Compassion International to prearrange the visit, which included a background check and other pre-approval steps. Though it might seem a bit of a process, I personally appreciate the steps that Compassion takes to ensure the safety of the children in their care through the sponsorship program.]
Sunday morning, I got up before dawn to make my way to Ubungo Bus Station, the primary hub for cross-country busses in Dar es Salaam. While walking to the corner to get a boda boda to take me to Ubungo, I got called “the most racist white person,” which occupied most of my thoughts for the bus trip there (Read all about that conversation here!). At Ubungo, I made my way through the massive crowds of people, and boarded my bus that would take me to Singida. Thirteen hours later, I arrived in Singida and met my host, Salome, one of the area project directors with Compassion International. She helped me find a place to stay for the night, and we arranged to meet the next morning to travel to the village where Shabani lived.
Monday morning, Salome and I took a smaller, local bus to a small village about sixty kilometers outside of Singida. Alexi, the project director for Shabani’s village, met us there, and explained that Shabani and his grandfather were waiting, as well as Emanuel and his project director, who had traveled from their village, about thirty-five kilometers further.
To be honest, meeting Emanuel and Shabani was different than what I expected. And I don’t even know what it was that I did expect! The boys were terribly shy, though no different that I would have been in the same situation. They nodded when asked questions, and barely smiled or talked for the majority of the day, though I did convince them to play a bit of football with me. On my part, it also felt a bit weird to be told, “These are your children.” The idea of, “you can ask them anything because they are yours,” though culturally normal, is still strange to me. Just because I am helping these kids doesn’t mean I own them–my goal is to empower and enable, not control. Even Shabani’s grandparents, who are his guardians and caretakers (well, kind of–his grandfather is 95, and not strong) told me, “We cannot take care of him. We are old. He is your son now.” There is some weight to that, even if I know it is not entirely true, and just his Bibi’s (grandmother’s) way of expressing her gratitude.
I have enormous amounts of respect for the Compassion project directors (and their staff), who are the ever-present hands and feet of Compassion International in the villages, partnering with local churches and individual families to best aid these children and their families. I heard recently, that at one point Compassion International had tried to switch from a child-based donor system to a family-based system, to better support the entire family, but had so many difficulties finding donors, that they discontinued the program. I don’t know if that is true, or just a rumor that I heard somewhere, but after talking with the project directors in Singida, it was evident that they are doing their best to support the families of these children as well as the children themselves, both through personal support (guidance, physical assistance, etc.) and by raising support from the local church (financial and physical assistance).
When you read stories of visits by international sponsors, it seems that it is always the poverty of the children that most shocks the visitors, and maybe I should have been surprised by the poverty, but I wasn’t. There is no question that these children and their families are living in poverty, but it is no worse than what I have seen in Sala Sala and other communities in Dar es Salaam, and in some ways, in the village, at least there are the fields and rivers and trees and open spaces that provide a distinct contrast to the trash-covered, dirty, and crowded streets of Dar.
In the weeks leading up to my visit, I spent considerable time considering whether to get the boys a gift, and if so, what it should be. The need is so great, that anything, from rice and beans, to school supplies, to clothes, would be appreciated and needed, but I wanted to get something special. Something that the sponsorship wouldn’t necessarily provide or allow for, so I settled on footballs. I brought bright, new footballs for each of the boys from Dar, and realized, as they carried them around in their hands, that those footballs might be the only thing they have that they can call their own, and the only thing in their lives that is not entirely practical. Was it a wise gift? I don’t know. What I do know, is that in almost every letter I receive from them, the boys always mention how they enjoy playing football with their friends…and what kid who likes playing a sport doesn’t want a ball of their own?
Was it worth thirteen hours each way in a bus? Definitely.
Note: I didn’t take tons and tons of photos because I didn’t want the experience to seem like I was a tourist coming in, taking pictures, and then just leaving again. One of the things I appreciate about Compassion International is how they encourage building relationships between sponsors and the kids through writing letters and sending photos (and visits, when possible). I didn’t feel like being a camera-happy tourist would promote that relationship, so I didn’t get my camera out except when encouraged to do so by the Compassion Project Directors. But here are just a few photos that were taken that day of me, the boys, and of Shabani with his grandparents.