The Death of Pollyanna

The point of living and of being an optimist, is to be foolish enough to believe the best is yet to come. –Peter Ustinov

I’ve never liked little kids; I teach 16 year-olds for a reason. Even at home, the peeing the pants, snotty noses and general lack of intellectual discussion or ability to slam a vodka soda gets to me. So I’d never volunteer to work with small children.

Instead, for my African volunteer stint, I would work with the Masai women, an indigenous tribe of East Africa, whose females are severely disenfranchised. My task, according to the volunteer organization, was to help the women create their seed bead crafts they sold at the market, teach them English and assist them with a business/marketing plan. All of it, right up my alley. I was eager for my Cultural Immersion course to begin upon arrival in Arusha; over the course of a week, I would learn Swahili and become acquainted with the pulse of the city.

So imagine my surprise when I found out my $400 cultural program simply didn’t exist. No language, no tour around town; nothing.

No matter, I thought, I’ll get my money back and spend an extra week volunteering. The other six volunteers at the house started to grate on my nerves anyway–their projects didn’t seem to be working well, if at all. Some people had nothing to do, and they idled their time away at the house. Surely, my project existed, as it was in a rural village, and a home stay was involved. Certainly, that was all sorted and organized.

Turns out I couldn’t volunteer a week early if I wanted to. The company–IFRE (Global Crossroads)–wrote in an email to the volunteers, “under no circumstances” should you obtain a volunteer visa. Bureaucratic nightmare, they claimed. But a day earlier, two volunteers had been arrested for not having the proper visa. The proper paperwork was an additional $120 and took a week to get–and that was after a bribe at immigration. We sat housebound until we had the visa, and after an hour’s spat on the phone, IFRE agreed to pay for half of the cost. Only six days lost.

Monday was a new day and I was eager to head to the village, to meet my family and to shower from a bucket. Except on Monday, my transportation (the only person who knew how to get to the project) didn’t arrive. Ah, not a big deal, I thought, I have plenty of errands to run in town.

Tuesday awoke sunny and promising. I carried my huge pack on my lap as the daladala bumped down dirt roads. I jumped off at the dusty, barren town of Ngarantoni. A fifteen minute walk on dirt footpaths curled out of the dust and into the forest: banana and coffee trees hung heavy and plots of mnfuz, the local spinach sprung from the ground. Mt. Meru towered a few hundred meters away. My patience had paid off. I lept over a stream and headed into the gate of my host family, where Baba (Father) Goodson and his lazy eye greeted me. “Caribou (Welcome)!” he nearly shouted. Sister Sarah, with her bare feet and a wrap around her closely cropped hair made us chai and chips over the fire in the mud hut kitchen out back.

The next three weeks held such promise. And later that evening, Sarah led us to the base of the mountain to a local church to see “The Prophet.” (Not to worry–a crazy story to follow!) My new home, the village of Olevlos, with its single file footpaths, streams and reams of green, appeared to be the perfect home. And Mama Neema even cooked meat for dinner that night.

On Wednesday I would go to meet the Masai women who gathered at Mama Safi’s nursery school. As I headed out the back door, four small children ran up to me: “Teacher, teacher!” they called, grabbing my hands and pant legs like I was Brangilina’s new babies. Together, the five of us jumped puddles and scurried to the school yard, the whole way, the children saying, “Teacher, tree. Teacher, cow. Teacher, sky.” I couldn’t help but smile.

Until I got to the nursery school, where 70 three-to-five year-olds–all orphans–saw the muzungu (white person) and stampeded. They crawled on me as though I were a jungle gym, pulled my (comparatively speaking) fair hair and jangled my bracelets, all the while, thick mucusy snot nearly dropping in their mouth and open wounds bleeding or pussing. Not a single one of them hand clean hands, and I watched several of them pick their noses before grabbing me. I shuddered. And I tried–I mean sincerely tried–to look past the grim and the grit and the fact that they were children. I let them hug and cuddle with me, thinking the whole time that this could be a moment of personal growth andsimultaneously thinking that I was wise to have chosen the women’s project.

Except that like the other projects back in town, the women’s project didn’t exist. “Hakuna Matata,” Mama Safi said. “You can teach a nursery class.” I explained that I interacted better with older kids, and suggested that I could go to a secondary school in the village the next day. “Sure, sure,” Mama Safi said. “We’ll go tomorrow.” But the next day she couldn’t be bothered to show me the way to the school.

And I’d already been lost twice that day, led home, of course, by my little nemesis, the smiling, dirty-handed children. Of course, them saving me from jungle rot all the time made me seem even more of an anti-Christ when after 50 minutes of trying to teach three of them to count to five, I gave up. Instead of counting, they ate pencil shavings and boogers, erasers and stones from the ground, like any three or five year-old would. I was not cut out for three to five year olds.

Mama Safi deemed I should do “busy work,” stamping books and hole-punching. I deemed, finally, that since the beginning of my interaction with IFRE, I had been fleeced: no cultural immersion, no project, no women. I had to get out of there and get my money back.

But I hated to leave my family and the village. And I was a terrible human being for walking out on–in all honesty–beautiful children who really needed my help. But I’d been looking for the positive for too long, and I was tired of dreaming of the potential around the next banana tree. I percolated in my moraldilemma. Maybe, because it caused such great angst in me, I should stay and work with the children; stay till they were lovable. At which point, I’d be miserable. I hopped a daladala to Arusha to clear my head.

In that single afternoon, I found free accommodation for the rest of my stay, a secondary school teacher interested in modernizing his English program and an AIDs organization who need help on teaching teens. Ah–meaningful work. Opportunities that would make a difference and did not involve counting to five. I stopped fretting about finding the silver lining in the looming thunderclouds. Stopped waiting for me to fall in love with the dis and for my allergies to the house cat to end. I had to stopbelieving in the goodness of possibility and instead, find the goodness that actually existed and made me feel worthwhile.

Yesterday I went back to the village to say goodbye. When all was said and done, when I’d given Mama Neema her kitenga and Sister Sarah her CD and Baba Goodson his cakes, they told me, in Swahili–the only language they could speak–that I was always welcome in their house. And the five five year olds who picked me up each morning–bless ’em–ran alongside me, barefooted, holding my hands all the way back to the daladala.


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