Posted by: katieperez | August 20, 2008

Finding Neema (Grace)

Something happened five weeks ago but I haven’t been able to write about it as it is just so hard to try and “sum it up” or even really process it.  I’ve tried to sit down a few times but it’s truly impossible to really capture the experience or the emotions.

Upon arriving here you start to really see the  conditions that people talk about in Africa. Children and People with Aids, families living on less than a dollar a day, children so skinny they look almost half their ages. I knew that children here had to pay for secondary school but I wasn’t aware that primary school (Kindergarten – 7th grade) also had costs. The government schools are “free” but the parents need to pay a fee of 20-40 US dollars a year to support the school. If they want their children to be feed porridge at lunch that’s another 30 USD per year. Uniforms are another 20 USD per year. Pencils, and Exercise books about another 10 USD. If the parents can’t pay these fees the children can not go to school. The lucky ones end up in a free pre-school for years trapped with toddlers but the majority are kept home all together. If the parents are able to come up with the school fees they still have the daily challenge of making sure the child can get to school and has the correct supplies.  Many children walk for HOURS to and from school. It’s a common sight to see children as young as 4 walking alone along the busy streets home from school. Even after they make the grueling walk to school (most often an empty stomach) they will be turned home if their uniform isn’t to code, their hair is too long, or the y don’t have pencils or exercise books (notebooks) in which to write their lessons and homework. It’s simply heartbreaking to know that so many little ones won’t get even the most basic levels of education.

After about a week here of seeing the conditions and learning about the gender roles in Africa and what lays in store for the girls here that don’t get an education (genital mutilation, marriage at a young age, etc) I put in a sobbing call to Pedro in which I explained the conditions and talked with him about us sponsoring a child. As most of you know my husband has a heart of gold so I’m sure you can guess his reaction. So with his blessing I set out to find the little girl.

My daily volunteering here has been at Moshi Primary School and at orphanages. Sue and I teach 1st & 2nd Grade classes English and Math in the mornings at Moshi Primary. About 25% of the kids there are orphans and school has very limited resources. The orphanages that we volunteer at in the afternoon are full of CCS volunteers past and present and although the need sooooo much more a lot of people are already putting a lot of effort into helping those kids. So when thinking about finding a little girl to sponsor I wanted to make sure it was someone who wasn’t getting any help right now. It was also important to do it independently of the volunteer program I am with. If I just walked up and sponsored a child at the orphanages that we volunteer with then an expectation is set that the next volunteer will do the same. It seemed really weird to me at first that we were told not to give things but once you are here it makes more sense. One of the orphanages has actually taught the kids a song in which they sing “We are very need children, we need food for our tummys, our parents are dead” etc. Sue got to hear that lovely tune after volunteering there at the end of her stay.  

So after asking around a bit I learned of a family that was in desperate need. They were living in a 2 room house behind one of the schools here. The mother is sick with TB (almost died actually) and there are 4 little girls. They had a little boy but he died. The oldest girl, Neema (which translates to Grace) is 7 years old. She gets one meal of ugali (a paste of corn flower and water) a day. On days when her mother is feeling fine and she doesn’t have to care for her younger sisters she makes a 4 mile trek to school and is often turned home because she doesn’t have the supplies needed. So after walking 4 miles she is told to turn around and go home. On days she can stay she sits on the floor as the school has no desks. Her passion for learning is so strong though- she just loves to practice reading and math and she is such a wonderful big sister. She is like a little mama and shares everything she has with the little ones. IN my second week here Sue and I arranged a visit to meet the family with the help of a translator.  We visited their 2 room home in which everything is kept up high to keep things away from the rats. The mother and 4 children sleep in the only bed and the father sleeps on this tiny sofa. There is no bathroom or electricity, no water nearby. During our visit was asked if any of the children went to school and were told about Neema and how she had just been turned home again that day because she didn’t have a notebook. I asked Neema what she wants to be when she grows up and she said a teacher. “Of big kids” in secondary school. I asked her if she could go to any school what type of school she would want to go to and her answer was “English Medium Boarding School” and her parents agreed. [English Medium Schools teach all subjects except Swahili in English so the kids get a much better grasp of English which is critical since all secondary schools and universities here teach in English. Boarding schools are also seen as a huge opportunity for children as the children are then in an academic environment. Any parent who can will send their child to an English boarding school. ]  We talked for a bit and I pulled out a notepad and some crayons for the kids to play with. Neema immediately drew a sunflower. Now if you know me you know that my FAVORITE flower is a sunflower. And not only was it was sunflower but she colored it beautifully- different colors for all of the petals (very cool as most of the kids here follow very clear rules and only color things the way they really are, not how their imagination sees them.) It was a sign- I knew I had found the girl.  

I showed them a photo of Pedro and explained to them that we would pay to send Neema to boarding school. They were excited and clapped. Then they asked “for how long”. They were ecstatic when the reply was until she finishes school. So after hugs and photos I was off to try and find a school for Neema.

CCS had a field trip scheduled for the next day to hike a waterfall so I stayed back and decided to go on a hunt for the perfect school. As we pulled up to the first school I was full of hope. The grounds were nice and the kids looked nice but I quickly lost faith. I was speaking to 8 or 9 year olds and they could barely talk with me in English, even though they should have now been speaking English for several years. They mixed up their colors and couldn’t respond to basic questions. If we were at a government school this would have been normal but it was not what I expected from a school in which you are paying for all classes to be taught in English. The school thankfully didn’t have any room in her grade anyway (there were already 41 kids in each class) so we left. I was very discouraged at this point as I was afraid we were going to pay all this money to send her to school and she wouldn’t really be any better off.  The second school rekindled my hope in terms of Speaking English but the physical structure itself looked like something from Born into Brothels. The kids spoke wonderful English and were full of confidence but the dorm rooms and bathrooms were so horrible there would just be no way I could send that sweet little girl there.  Thankfully stop number 3 paid off. Ebenezer, which is pronounced here like Ibeneza is a haven for children.  (  The gounds are beautiful; the dorms have this wonderful orange tile that is clean and cheerful. The children were very smart- the nursery school class knew all of their colors and could do math. The Kindergardeners were already speaking great English and reading words like Toothbrush and Ostrich. But most importantly the teachers LOVE the children. IN every other school I had seen here the teacher is a symbol of authority and they are respected and in many cases feared because of corporal punishment. But Ebenezer is totally different. The teachers are friendly, hug the children, encourage and reward them, and you can see that they love the children and that the love is returned. I fell instantly in love with the Kindergarten teacher named Leah- I just knew she would be perfect for Neema.  

Neema had been in 2nd grade in school but it’s common for the kids to go back when switching into a English school. I had been planning on putting her into 1st grade but after seeing how advanced the kindergarten class was and seeing what a wonderful teacher they had I decided to put her back into kindergarten. There are other children her age so it’s not as bad as it would be if you did that in the US.  Also their school years run by the calendar so starting in January she’ll be in 1st grade.  I paid the school fees, picked up all of the paperwork to be filled out and received a “shopping list” of all the things that she would need.

The shopping list wasn’t by any means long or abnormal. Neema just didn’t have ANYTHING and it’s not like there is a 1 stop shopping store (like Target) in Moshi so shopping was an adventure. It however was INSANELY fun!!!!!  We picked up Neema and started off. She had never been in town before (she lives about 20 mins away by car) so she was peaking out the taxi and  trying to take everything in.  Over the course of 2 days and some help from local people (including Mama Grace, Fortunata, and my awesome Taxi driver named Msafari) we were able to track everything down. The best part of course was buying her nice weekend clothes and her dress for Sundays. It was like a scene out of pretty woman. This shy little girl took off her tattered rags and turned into Cinderella as she tried the first new clothes that she had ever had. After a few stops she quickly got the hang of shopping ( it is in all of our blood) and she would light up as we pulled out things for her to try on. Now I know I am biased but she really is one of the most beautiful little girls you have even seen. She’s soooo tiny skinny but she has such a beautiful face and she just came to life in her new outfits. She would proudly pose for us in her new clothes and took a picture with Sue in the Sunday dress that Sue & Gary bought for her.  

During the shopping spree we visited an outdoor market to pick up things like shower shoes, etc. One of the stalls had used toys and stuffed animals. Neema is such a good little mother to her sisters that I thought she would need a doll for school. I let her pick the one she wanted and she just light up- I’m sure it was her first doll. When I was riding home with her that day I said “Jina lako” aka “What’s her name” and pointed to the doll. She just smiled. We stopped at a grocery store on the way home to get some food for the family and when I got back in the car I again asked her the dolls name- this time I got a huge grin and she answered “Mezanna”.  I was in love!

I spent my last week volunteering in the mornings and spending the afternoons with Neema. Sue had a great idea to make her a counter for math using beads. I would work with her every day on her math skills- she’s just so smart. We often spent the afternoon in town at The Coffee Shop- the name of the muzungu restaurant. We would get a banana milkshake and a grilled cheese sandwich (you should see the smile when she would take a sip of her milkshake- ear to ear). We would practice English, the alphabet, draw, etc. After sitting for an 2 hours we would trek over to the internet café and get some computer playtime. She would type her name and the Alphabet and then she would draw in paint.  

Sadly Neema and her sisters came down with the chicken pox just before I left for Safari. I was so scared when I showed up to pick her up and she and her sisters were covered in bumps. The children weren’t itching them and they looked different on their black skin so I had no idea what was wrong. The first thing that popped into my head was the measles as that is what her brother had died of. I asked and they said “yes- Measles” which only spread my panic. We jumped in the taxi and headed to one of the private hospitals.  Thankfully on arriving at the hospital they quickly informed me it was the Chickenpox which was a HUGE relief. I was able to get medicine for the kids, including antibiotics, which they prescribe in Africa because of the likelihood of the pox getting infected because of the unsanitary conditions.  I took the family home and returned the next day for a home schooling session and ice cream (I had to make sure we kept their fevers down right? ). Amazingly the kids acted fine and it was really fun to get to spend the time with them in their home.

Then I was off on Safari (which was amazing!!! Photo’s are on my flickr). Two days after I left Mama Grace and MSafari picked up Neema and her family and took them to drop Neema off at her new school. Mama Grace said Neema was full of smiles and was so excited by everything she barely paid attention when everyone left for the night. My whole time on Safari I wondered how she was doing.

As planned I visited Neema on Tuesday (the 19th) to see how she had settled into her new school. The school is actually on break but the kids who need to board and the students studying for exams stay at the school during the break. She had settled in well and the teachers and everyone all commented on how smart and sweet she was. Her English was getting better already and we spent the day talking and playing on my laptop. When it was time for me to go Mama Grace came to help me explain that I had to go away for a long time but that we would write and keep in touch. It was heartbreaking to see this little girl who had captured my heart start to cry and just hold on to me. I knew that I had this intense bond with her but I didn’t know how much she felt for me.  It broke my heart to have to leave her. We had spent so much time together in the 4weeks we knew each other and it was horrible to think about how long it would be until I could see her again. We had a very tearful goodbye and then I had to drive away and leave Africa.

I can’t even being to explain the love in my heart for Tanzania, the people, the children, and especially Neema. I wish it were closer and I would just back there for a weekend to check in on her. As much as it hurts to leave I am filled with joy knowing that we have changed the life of one little girl. Over the years Neema and I will write to each other and I will get her report cards and exam scores. She will grow up and Pedro and I will start a family of our own. Hopefully when she is a bit older we can have her come and stay with us for a month so that she can meet her American bothers and sisters. And then hopefully our entire family will be there in Tanzania when she does what so few girls do, graduates High School, and then college.

Our story won’t end here. It will go on for years and hopefully it will grow. As I sit here in Cairo waiting for my 3am flight back to US and back to Pedro (who I miss so much) I am filled with immense loss but also with tremendous hope and inspiration. I have fallen in love with Neema but there are so many children just like her in Africa. I wont be there to teach them everyday but I will work to try and bring them opportunities that they didn’t have before. My first goal is to get computers for Neema’s school. They have built a building for the computer lab and just need the computers. I know it sounds very Microsoft-ie but I honestly believe that by helping these kids learn about computers and technology that we will greatly enhance their abilities to be successful in the world that will be waiting for them when they graduate.

We’ll it’s time to try and grab 2 hours sleep before I start my long journey back home. Thanks for reading and I look forward to seeing all of you soon.






  1. Wow, what an informative post about life in Africa! It’s great what you’re doing for Neema. I wonder if there could be some way to arrange matching donations through MS and the giving campaign to help fund the needs of that school, including computers?

  2. Wow! An amazing and inspiring experience… Thanks for taking the time to share all of that!

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