Love & Poverty in an Orphanage on the Other Side of the World

Here, a story about love & life in an impoverished orphanage outside Arusha, Tanzania. Love heals and unites us—no matter who we are or where we live, from Connecticut to East Africa and beyond.

To get to Ndemno's house, we turn north off the single tarmac Moshi road in Arusha and four-wheel-drive it 20 minutes out of town north towards the foothills of Mt. Meru.

Shortly after entering the small village of Olakiri, we arrive at Ndemno's place. The gates are painted with a mural of children holding hands and dancing on the Earth. The precision and beauty of this brightly colored artwork appear in stark contrast to what lays inside.

Dozens of little boys and girls come out to meet us. Two small boys, perhaps 6 or 7 years old, take my hands and guide me into their home. I bend over so as not to hit my head on the low door frame.

At home

This small cement structure with a single narrow wooden doorframe is the boys' living quarters. The tiny entry room has a pool of dirty stagnant water under a small cut out open window.

There is no screen or glass. A pile of old, ripped dirty shoes, few of which match, lays next to a floor-to-ceiling stacking of brown boxes on each of which are the printed words "Outreach International - Food Relief Program."

Ndemno, who has followed us in, explains that the children's daily meals of porridge and maize are supplemented once a week by this donated protein powder.

Beyond this room I step down into what feels like a coffin. I am too large for this cramped, dark, damp space and feel that it is a dead end. Even though it is daylight, it is near pitch black here inside.

Boys' bedroom

One of the boys, barefoot and dressed in rag shorts held up by a string, takes my hand again and leads me directly to the right into another tiny room in which two full-sized bunk beds are crammed.

Four slats on which 16 boys sleep. A mirror room lays to the left. There are no sheets, blankets or pillows to cover the eight thin foam mattresses, many of which have been hauled out to dry in the sun.

"Many of these boys are still very young," says Ndemno. With no electricity, adults or toilets nearby, the mattresses are soiled nearly every night. "We need better living quarters for these children," he continues with a sad smile.

I am relieved to get back outside and breathe the fresh clean air. I have not been in Tanzania 24 hours yet this trip and already I am hot, tired and feeling nauseated.

The girls' house

We continue the tour. Now, we are surrounded by dozens of children, and since the area is small we move as a swarm. We head into the girls' house—another cement block, but this one is longer and larger.

I duck my head and step into a long thin corridor. At one end is Ndemno's room. It's difficult to open the door fully as the room is so full of beds, boxes, and clothes.

He lives here with his wife and 10 of the girl students. In another small room are three bunk beds and two small pack-and-play foldable cribs. The oldest girls—who I am guessing are between 11 and 14 from their obvious signs of early puberty—take care of the babies.

'Baby' Bryson

When we crowd at the door one of the girls hands baby Bryson to Meghann Gundermann, the American founder of The Foundation for Tomorrow—the woman who brought us here. Meghann and her organization has been supporting Matonyok for years.

"How old do you think Bryson is?" Meghann asks. His head is clearly too large for his emaciated body, his eyes are looking two different directions, and he can walk—although not steadily.

"16-20 months," I guess, thinking that I was likely wrong as Bryson is half the size that my three daughters were at that age.

"He is five," she says, and tells us the story. Bryson was brought to Matonyok the year before by a Good Samaritan. His mother is insane and carried him tied to her back from birth, rarely feeding him. No one expected him to survive.

"We are so proud of him," chimes in Ndemno with genuine joy. "He is doing so well."

Mama's bedroom

I am now taken to the last room of the living quarters. Here again bunk beds fill the space. Except in this room there is a large covered window and a single flat bed with a bed net and a yellow bucket propped next to what looks to me to be a pile of blankets.

"There's Mama," says Ndemno. "Where?" I ask, seeing no signs of human life. "There," he says, pointing at the bed. I think Ndemno thinks he is seeing a ghost. "She is 100 years old."

Ndemno then says something in Swahili in a sing song voice, and the blankets begin to move. A skeletal black head rises, and I nearly scream.

"How long has she been there," I ask incredulously. "For years," Ndemno says smiling. "The girls take care of her."

Baby 'Giftie'

Outside the building the children play by a long clothesline on which dozens of shirts, dresses, pants, shorts, socks and underwear that look as old as Mama sway in the breeze.

The girls toss an old ball back and forth, some crowd around the single wooden swing, others relax on the ground. Laughter fills the air.

Baby "Giftie" is standing next to me in only a T-shirt. I am not too surprised when urine begins to pool around her bare feet in the dirt below.

Ndemno calls out and one of the girls, who is not much taller than Giftie herself, comes over, picks up Giftie, places her on her hip and walks towards the house.

Biofuel for stoves

Ndemno is proud to show us his biofeul tanks. They have one cow and four goats, not enough livestock I think to create enough manure to fill these tanks—to create the methane gas needed to power the stoves for the 60 plus orphans and handful of adults who live here. 

"We use the choos as well," he says. The children shovel out their own pit latrines to fill these tanks.

As I am trying to process all of this, a little girl falls off the swing. She hits her head hard and starts to cry. Ndemno rushes over to her and picks her up.

She wraps her arms around his neck and legs around his waist. She buries her head in his shoulder, and he coos to her. He stands before me holding his daughter with all the love and tenderness that I hold my three.

After at least five unhurried minutes, he puts her back down, and she is better. The tears are gone. The other children run to her, hold her hands, throw their arms around her, and the playing—and laughter—continues.


This June three families from Darien—Anne Wells, her sister and Unite Managing Director Kim Merriman and her oldest daughter Lila Wells (12); The Quinn Family (Hindley, MMS & DHS) and the Crosby Family (MMS & DHS)—will travel with UNITE to Tanzania and spend time with Ndemno and his children at the Orphanage.

In response to their greatest challenges we are now raising funds to purchase 100 chickens and to build their coop (for an income- and food-generating program) as well as for cattle (for milk and manure—so the children no longer have to shovel out their own latrines for biofuel). We WELCOME all support. If you are interested in learning more or participating in any way, please email anne@unitetnz.org.

ASANTE SANA! Thank you! 

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Leslie Yager December 27, 2012 at 06:37 PM
Beautifully written, Anne. I could visualize the stark conditions in the orphanage and am glad you will return. Keep us posted about the trip and fundraising.
Carherine Murphy December 28, 2012 at 11:09 PM
A good article Anne..I know how awful it is there I saw it in Nairobi 2 years ago. I am now sponsoring a little boy Daniel to go to school there. It is so rewarding to know that I can help at least one child. The end of Jan. I am going to Tanzania for two weeks with a friend of mine. I would like to visit this orphanage if I can.


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