“Honored Guests” – Ginny’s Home Stay Experience

Written by Ginny Whitney

I recently visited Path of Hope, one of Lahash’s partners in Tanzania. During my time there I had the opportunity to do a home stay with some of the kids in the Lahash sponsorship program in the rural village of Mwamalili. My home stay in the Mwamalili community was such an incredible experience that I find it hard to put it into words. I have to admit though, when the Lahash team first left me and team member, Rebecca, at our home for the evening, there was a tiny bit of panic in the back of my mind that I fought very hard to repress.

Ginny arriving at her home stay in Mwamalili village, near Shinyanga, Tanzania

To set the scene: There were 3 mud homes.  The roofs were made from straw and the floors were dirt. There was no running water or electricity. The women cooked over an open fire in the same room that we later slept in – which left the room hot and smokey.  The children’s clothes were heavily worn, and the babies and toddlers were naked from the waste down, because they do not use diapers.  They spent most of there time outside, and were only inside for cooking and sleeping. The men and women/children were separated, and that trend continued throughout our visit. The men gathered in front of one home and the women/children in front of the another.

Initially, there was a few minutes of just looking at each other before we started interacting. I’m pretty sure we were all thinking “What do we do now?” Then the women started to prepare dinner. Part of this process included sorting through the uncooked rice to pick out the rocks. Rebecca and I offered to help, and that was our first bonding moment. Some of the children helped too, and others watched with curiosity in their eyes. It is possible I was the first white person many of them had seen. Who would have known picking rocks out of rice would be such a good ice breaker.

As we talked I started to learn about the family structure. The parents have ten children ranging in age from two to twenty eight. The three oldest children have children of their own. The two oldest males are married with children, and each has one of the three mud homes. The other adult child with children, Liv, had been married, but her husband had died, and so she and her children live with her parents.

I really connected with Agnes. She is the wife of the second eldest son. She is nineteen years old. She has a two year old boy and a nine month old girl. She chose to get married at age sixteen, because she didn’t want to continue her education. She said she regrets the decision now. She said she would like to learn how to make clothes. Agnes is very bright, and she asked me and Rebecca to teach her a few English words: hi, bye, thank you, and sister. She asked if she could call me sister, and I said yes. She called me sister and I called her “dada,” which is Swahili for sister.  Agnes was surprised I was married with children. She said I looked very young, maybe nineteen or twenty. I thought to myself “I like this girl.” She was shocked when I told her I was thirty.

When they asked what I did for work I told them I was like a doctor.  “Doctor?” I tried to explain, “No, like a doctor,”  but after a few minutes I gave up and finally said “yes, doctor.” Most people back home in the US do not understand my profession as a Physician Assistant, so I don’t expect Tanzanians to either.  After that they stopped calling me Ginny, and my new title was Doctor, except for Agnes who called me Sister.

We were treated like honored guests. The women served us both dinner and chai (breakfast) in a separate house with the only table they owned. We were served before all the others. Dinner consisted of rice, potatoes, and greens. We had actually supplied the ingredients for dinner as part of our “gift” to the family for inviting us into their home. The food was very good, but I didn’t want to eat too much, because I knew there were many children to feed. I ate enough to be polite. The next morning one of the women milked a cow to prepare our chai. Breakfast was rice and chai, and I can honestly say that was the best chai I had ever had. I had 2 cups!

Sleeping was difficult.  We had brought a new mattress to sleep on and mosquito netting, however, an hour before going to bed dinner had been prepared five feet from where we were sleeping which left the room very warm and smokey. It was probably eighty five degrees in the small house. There were about 15 people in the house, plus chickens and cats. Thankfully they left the goats and cows outside. There was no ventilation once the doors were closed, and consequently the smoke and heat triggered a migraine. I laid awake most of the night just praying for morning so I could get out of the house and breath some fresh air.

Before I left home I had prepared small gifts to give away throughout my travels, and I had brought one of these gifts with me for this family. The gift was simple and consisted of a small bottle of scented lotion, a pen, tea, a small journal, and candy (Smarties and Jolly Ranchers). I hadn’t anticipated so many kids, or else I would have brought more candy. After breakfast I gave my small gift to Mama Emanuel. She thanked me, and asked me how to use it. I carefully explained each item. A few minutes later two kids came out of the house and gave each child one piece of the Smarties. It was fun watching them enjoy their candy. Then, one of the children, Rachel,  opened a jolly rancher and the children took turns licking the piece of candy.

I was so touched when one of the women told me she wanted me to stay for a whole week.

Rachel, Emanuel, and Frank pose in front of their home

During my home stay at Mwamalili I tried to get to know the three children that were in the Lahash program. Emanuel is probably in his early teens.  He is a hard worker.  I didn’t get to spend lot of time with him, because he was out working with the cows and goats. In the morning he hooked a trailer to two donkeys, and went to gather the family’s daily water supply. I learned during program, as i watched him draw pictures for his potential sponsor, that he is an amazing artist. Rachel is probably 7ish. She was one of a couple girls who followed me around everywhere. She is incredibly sweet. She has sickle cell anemia, but appeared pretty healthy at the time. She told me, however,  that the teachers wouldn’t let her go to school because of her condition.  Frank is 8 years old. He is very shy but I could tell he was curiously watching from a far. Frank told me he doesn’t go to school, because it is too far away.  He stated that perhaps he will go to school when he was ten.

None of the kids at my home stay go to school. I discussed this with both the local Path of Hope leaders and some of our team members, and the issue isn’t distance, it’s priority. The school is a thirty minute walk from the home. We stopped and visited the school on the way to the home stay, and it was very nice. The issue is that the school age kids are useful on the farm, and therefore the parents do not see the value of sending the children to school. Path of Hope is trying to educate parents on the value of sending their children to school.  The best way to decrease poverty in their community is to educate the next generation.

Ginny says goodbye to Rachel and Frank

Life in Mwamalili is hard. These people have almost nothing, but as I talked with them and watched them interact with each other, I saw that they seemed overall happy despite the hardships in their lives. My home stay family was incredibly generous and kind. Thinking about poverty from the comfort of our every day lives is very different from allowing yourself to be fully immersed into the uncomfortable realities that poverty inflicts on those who live in it every day. I definitely have a greater appreciation for all we have in the United States.

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Editors Note: Many of the children Lahash is connected to in Mwamalili are still in need of sponsors. If you are interested in sponsoring a child in this area, visit our Sponsorship page.