This past month has held some unusual and difficult ministry challenges.
Not so much with the daycare, as that program is running like a well-oiled machine. About six weeks ago we were contacted by a man that we used to work with regularly when we were the directors of an orphanage. His name is Edward, and we have known him since first coming to Tanzania in 2013. Edward functions as the liaison for his community, which is a group of Masai villages about 3 hours from Arusha. Now when I say Masai village, you should definitely pull up every stereotypical mental picture you have associated with that phrase. Here, let me help you:
Edward contacted Matt to let him know that there were a set of twins who were struggling with malnutrition and sickness. Could we help? Matt and I were both nervous, as this would be our first attempt at such a feat without the resources of an orphanage at our fingertips. Matt told Edward to bring the family to town and we would see what we could do.
The next day, Matt met Edward, along with the family at a local hospital. Both Mama and Baba (father in Swahili) were there, along with their twins, who were approximately 1 year old. Their story was heartbreaking. This family lives in a boma (family grouping of huts) very far out in the bush. They have been severely affected by drought that has afflicted Tanzania for the last few years and subsequently lost most of their livestock. The mama has to walk hours each day to fetch water, leaving the twins with a blind grandmother who is unable to do more than sit and hold them. The babies were still exclusively breastfed. The twins were actually triplets, but one baby did not survive the first month. These two babies are the sixth and seventh children of this mother and father. That day they weighed 8.8 and 9.25 pounds. Remember, they are 12 months old. Camille weighed 8.8 pounds at birth. They actually checked out relatively healthy, except for a respiratory problem. There are so many complications related to malnutrition on this level. The doctor gave us a very specific feeding plan for both the babies and the mama, and instructed her to return in one week.
At this point we were scrambling to try to figure out what to do next. We had helped so many families like this in the past, but we always had facilities and staff to aid us. This mama had never left her village. She only speaks Kimasai, the tribal language. She was terrified, but determined to help her babies. After a little bit of searching, we contacted a local family we have known for years, and asked them if they would be willing to house and care for a mama and her twins for a few weeks. We thought of this friend because we knew that she spoke Kimasai and has a heart as big as an African elephant. What we got was a resounding “yes” to the need. Our friend, Bibi (Grandma in Swahili) Enoch, threw open her house to strangers. As soon as they arrived at their new ‘home’, they were instantly embraced as family. You want to know what we did after that? Almost nothing. For six weeks this mama and her boys, named Meshack and Isaya, stayed in a room at the home of Bibi Enoch. We provided the funds, but Bibi Enoch and her family did all the work. We (by we, I mostly mean Kelly Mollel who is neighbors with Bibi Enoch) would check in, do weights, and monitor progress, but Bibi Enoch and her family lathered so much love and hospitality on this family.
Over the weeks, the trio began to come to life. The babies went from weak and barely moving, to sitting with support, to sitting without support, to attempting to crawl. They progressed from being exclusively breastfed, to eating all kinds of nutritious local foods. They started to smile, and grow hair, and teeth. They started laughing and making eye contact with their big bright eyes. They each gained over two pounds. Meshack had to be treated for pneumonia, but thrived under the treatment of our local pediatrician. Mama’s cheeks lost their sunken look, her breastmilk came back, she started smiling. She is a good, good mama. She was affectionate and funny with her babies. She radiated love for them. She WANTED them. She did not just want them to get better, she wanted to be with them; to be their mother.
Here was our great struggle, one we wrestled with for all of the six weeks that the twins stayed at Bibi Enoch’s house. The time they had in town was limited. This mama had five other kids at home needing her. She has a husband who was doing the best he could, even going against all cultural norms and carrying water for his family. However, what do they do next? They have nothing: no livestock, no water, no resources. They gained weight, but 10 pounds for a one year old is still severely malnourished. How do we help? It was never a question of if they would return to their boma. The question was: What could we do to prevent the same situation from reoccurring?
This, my friends, is an unsolvable problem. The solution is not to take these babies from their family unit and put them into the ‘safety’ of an institution. However, the idea of sending them back kept me up at night. In the village there are no jobs, no water pipes, no help in sight. Every person doing cross cultural work in a developing country will tell you, there are no right answers. There are case by case (sometimes minute by minute) decisions. Difficult, life changing, risky decisions. You hold to your values, and you do the best you can.
So here is what we did. We took them home to their boma. We rented a land cruiser to get us there. We loaded it with more than a month’s worth of food and we took them back. When we drove up the single dirt track, all of the family was there to meet us. As we walked up, the grandmother grabbed Meshack, put her face right up to him, and wept for joy. There were loud greetings, handshakes, and so much rejoicing. The mama went right into her house. She embraced her other children. She showed off her twins with their glowing new health.
In honor of what we had done for this family, they roasted a goat for our group. We sat in the seats of honor, drank chai, and ate meat. We were thanked, blessed, and stared at. I wished that Bibi Enoch and her family could have been there. We talked to the men of the boma about solutions. One thing that was decided was that we would buy the family a donkey to help mama carry water. We also made plans to provide food for the babies over the next year. Most of the kids in the boma did not look (too) malnourished. One of the biggest causes of the problem was that the twins exclusively breastfed and their mama had to spend so much time away fetching water. That along with mom’s poor nutrition and subsequently weak milk, led to the situation. During their stay at Bibi Enoch’s the boys started eating all types of food, and we sent them back with more than a month’s worth of solid nutrition.
Through this experience, here are a few things we learned. First, the community is so ready and eager to help. Bibi Enoch said multiple times how her dream is to open a few rooms so that she could do this sort of outreach on a regular basis. She knows the need is there. She has the heart for the work. She speaks the language. She is a shining example of what local people can do when they are simply empowered. This changed me at a profound level. I am continually trying to winnow down my micro-managing tendencies, because they are rooted in a lack of faith. Here is this great success, and all we had to do was connect the need to the right resource. Everything else flowed from a heart that was already full of generosity and hospitality. I am still pondering this, but I can tell you that this experience has changed the way I do ministry.
Second, keeping families together is the right thing. It could be that by sending those twins back to the village, they might not thrive, or worse. We are fully planning to keep tabs on the situation, to make sure they have food and water, but something could happen, and they might suffer. It was still the right decision to send them back. They belong with their family. They are cherished. They are part of a community. Their mother and father love and want them. It is not, nor will it ever be, our decision to take a child away from their family. There are cases where this separation is the right decision. But those cases are so few and far between. We are living our values. Family is the core. Family is first. Family is best.
Finally, the resources needed to do all this work was $300, for six weeks, including all food, medicine and doctor’s visits. Please let that sink in. Just a little can do so much when you are working with, and in, the community. To support them with food over the next year will be $300, total. The donkey costs $75. It takes so little to change lives. We are so honored to be a conduit for this work. To connect the need with the resource (which God totally supplied!), to receive the funds from you, and funnel those funds to the right places. It is not very often that missionaries get to talk about how little things cost. A little goes a long way. This is community-based ministry. It is awesome. It is working. You can help.
To support community-based ministry, please visit our donation page. Every penny you donate goes straight back into helping families stay together and thrive. Click HERE to join us in this effort.
Also, we are headed to the States in four weeks! We want to see you. So far we know that we will be speaking at Mount Olivet Church in Huron, South Dakota on October 21 and The Vine Church in Temple, Texas on November 11. Please make plans to come hear about the future of family based care with Walk In Love.