I once stayed a few months in a Tanzanian city called Mwanza. I’d spent most of a year trying to find ethical volunteer opportunities overseas. In the process, I’d learned that was a mostly-impossible task, at least for someone without relevant training/skills. That conclusion was one of the reasons I eventually pursued a master’s degree in social work, where I learned words and theories to support my newfound beliefs about “voluntourism.”
Here’s an example of what I’m talking about. Many so-called orphanages will take international volunteers who pay to cuddle and care for cute kids. The volunteers are often unqualified, and the orphans are often not orphans. Instead, there’s a “business model” that says if you go around to your poorest neighbours and collect their kids, you can put those children in a building for foreigners to play with (or abuse) in exchange for a substantial fee. Even some organizations that take school supplies or other in-kind donations will later sell those items at market. If you’ve ever wondered about zoo animals being kept in zoos, imagine doing the same to children – but with visitors allowed in the cages.
I promise you this blog post will end more happily than it’s beginning.
The above info may help you understand why I thought I’d found a gem when I learned of the Forever Angels Baby Home in Mwanza. They’re in compliance with Tanzanian Social Services, and take direction from the ministry. While they’re also guilty of letting volunteers like me cuddle the kids, they require a police check from the volunteers’ home countries and mandate a minimum stay to reduce the number of people who come and go from the kids’ lives. They care for children mostly under the age of 5, often babies whose mothers died in childbirth. Without a supply of breast milk and with the need to work outside the home, others in the family can’t look after babies. So, Forever Angels cares for the newborns until fathers or other relatives can provide support.
Similarly, when abandoned babies or toddlers are sent to Forever Angels, they stay until relatives can be found or until the government can approve an adoptive family (note that Tanzania’s laws require adoptive parents to be locals or expatriates who have lived in the country for several years). If the kids get older and family hasn’t been found, they are moved to an orphanage with access to schools.
Sonia and Joseph were two of those toddlers. They had arrived at Forever Angels after someone had noticed their mom had been gone for a few days. No one knew where she was, or if she was alive. I can’t remember how long Sonia and Joseph had been at Forever Angels before I’d arrived, but it was long enough that everyone had developed soft spots for Joseph’s kind, quiet seriousness, and for Sonia’s defiant spunk and good humour.
Near the end of my stay, the government notified Forever Angels that it was time to transfer Sonia and Joseph to an orphanage on the other side of the city. The management of Forever Angels pleaded with the ministry to make another choice; they’d not seen good outcomes from other children having to go to this orphanage. It was highly-rumoured that the director and other staff were involved in child abuse. The pleas fell on deaf ears. Sonia and Joseph had an older brother who was already at the orphanage, and the ministry wanted the siblings to be reunited.
When it came time for the transfer, the Forever Angels managers asked if I wanted to come. I knew it would be hard, but I said yes in case it would help the kids to have another friendly face. Or maybe I just selfishly wanted one last cuddle. I sat with Sonia and Joseph in the van we’d previously used for trips to get ice cream and spent afternoons at the swimming pool. They were in good spirits; outings were usually exciting.
When we arrived at the orphanage and the kids realized what was happening, they sobbed and reached for us as they were taken away. Sonia was screaming. It was as horrible as you’d imagine. On the silent drive back to Forever Angels, I did my best to hold back my own tears for later. The two Tanzanian women in the front seat had just lost two kids they cared about, and they had to do this kind of trip regularly. The last thing they needed was to calm down the emotional white girl who was visiting their world.
I promised you a happier ending.
Shortly after this awful day, I was scheduled to leave Tanzania. I made my way through a few other countries back to Canada, trying to re-adjust to the rich world.
When I got home, I further researched the orphanage where we’d left Sonia and Joseph. I learned that it had been taken over by a Canadian organization, and the director had been replaced. I wrote to the Canadian office and shared the rumours I’d heard while in Mwanza. They responded, partly reassuringly. I signed up for their weekly newsletter, and each week scanned the updates from various places around Africa – always looking for Sonia and Joseph. A few times, I saw their faces and zoomed in, trying to figure out if they were okay.
A couple of weeks ago, as I scrolled through the latest news, I saw them again. This time, it was in a story about them and their older brother. Their mother had been found, and all four were smiling. The family had been reunited! I read the short update multiple times, over and over. I sent it to a friend who had also volunteered at Forever Angels. Underneath our excited texts back and forth, I could tell we were both trying to focus on the happiness of the news and not the many underlying questions about what had happened to these people in the last decade, and whether they would be okay in the next decades.
I’m continuing to do that. With all that’s wrong and difficult these days, I don’t want to lose the happiness that is a family being reunited. I want to remember that sometimes women who are missing and thought to be murdered can be found. I want to notice that pre-schoolers who are spunky and funny or kind and serious can maintain those expressions even as they grow older in an unfair world. I want to remember that even when I can’t do anything to change a situation, I can continue to care about it, monitor it. And I guess, in sharing this with you, I want you to know these things too.
To learn more about Forever Angels Baby Home or make a donation, visit www.foreverangels.org.