Long Journey Home

Life lessons of the “baby home” in Tanzania

By Samara Wright

When I arrived in the small village of Mwanza in the summer of 2017, I walked slowly through the tiny market, my eyes taking in each small shop made out of dirt and clay. I watched girls my own age baking “chapati” and “mandazi,” similar to our tortillas and doughnuts. Some sold fruits and vegetables, including the largest avocados and mangos I’d ever seen. The village, and the people who would become my friends, quickly felt like home to me.

For six of my eight weeks there, I worked in a baby home, an orphanage, called Forever Angels. Neshibu, one of the mamas, or care workers, invited me to her house for lunch, the first meal of her day. We walked the twisted path between dirt walls that she walked every day. Her home, one of the nicest in the village, was one room, with a tiny bed. It was beautifully cluttered with things she had collected, clippings from local magazines, pink tinsel saved from baby home parties, a large wooden cross. I was welcomed by her two young children, who immediately introduced me to their neighbor friends. After Neshibu cooked rice and beans on the tiny stove she shared with her neighbors, we sat around her bed and ate together, showed each other our favorite photos, laughed and sang songs.

On Tuesdays of every week as many as 150 families came to the baby home, some traveling as much as five hours to get there. We would teach them about nutrition and what to do if their child had a fever.  For most of them baby formula represented an entire week’s wages and was impossible to afford. We gave them formula and peanut butter and, usually, that was enough to keep them from abandoning their children, to keep their children from being the ones we cradled in the baby home each day. I played photographer and took family photos which we printed out and gave to each family as a gift. A picture they could hold in their hands meant more to them than I would have ever imagined.

But mostly I remember the babies. I held them each and every day, giving them baths and hearing their giggles. And I remember the music. The baby home had very few CDs but one of them was the soundtrack of the musical Mamma Mia. I laughed until I cried watching 30 or 40 African toddlers gyrating wildly to the song “Dancing Queen.” They sang “Happy Birthday” at the top of their lungs to every single insect we found because they loved singing one of the few songs they knew in English. I read stories to them, both in English and Swahili, and they begged for more. I walked down to Lake Victoria with a baby strapped to my back. And when it was time to eat, I watched them sit around the dinner table together, like real family.

Every night when I put them to bed, straight out of the bath, all cozy and clean in their pajamas, they lined up so I could kiss each one on the head and say “kulala” or “goodnight.”

I learned their stories. One had been left in a graveyard, one on the outskirts of the baby home, some in hospitals. Many had starved, some with both parents dead, some whose mothers died and whose fathers couldn’t take care of them. I cried nearly every day, of gratitude and heartbreak. I felt like I was walking exactly where I was supposed to be, a feeling like I had never felt before.

I left Mwanza wanting to know what was in the best interest, not just of the orphans I’d held each day, but also for the 8 million additional orphans in care institutions. I connected with professionals in the international adoption field, something that keeps me close to the place that feels like home, even when I’m not there. I’d seen the joy of international adoption but also became aware of the corruption that plagues it. Today 80 percent of children in care institutions around the world aren’t orphans, but have been either taken or bought from their families to meet the demand First World countries have for orphaned children. Not all orphanages and adoption processes look like the baby home in Mwanza.

Though much of what I have learned was shocking and scary, I am encouraged because I saw it done right at Forever Angels. I’m certain of one thing — the importance of being culturally diverse as individuals, families and communities. In all of my conversations with both advocates and opponents of international adoption, there has been one common denominator: We must respect and promote cultural awareness and sensitivity. We must champion it.

The babies I held in my arms every day are the voiceless. They have nothing, not even a mother or a father. Regardless of whether they grow up in Tanzania, East Africa, or Southern Pines, North Carolina, they need a community that is inclusive, that sees the beauty of diversity and the value of every life.

I am thankful for all those who made it possible for me to walk where I have always dreamed of walking, thankful to this community that taught me, the community that I am proud to call home. I’m thankful to Young Life Africa and Forever Angels. I hope we can continue to dream together and know that what is cultivated in our community does, in fact, have the power to change the world.

Samara Wright is a 2016 graduate of Pinecrest High School and a sophomore at Appalachian State University, majoring in communication studies. An intern for Young Life Africa, she plans on returning to Tanzania after graduation.

The Fabric of Life

In room 104 at the Pinehurst Resort, seamstress Wanda Capel holds forth, one stitch at a time

By Haley Ray

In the Carolina Hotel, on the ground floor of the east wing, a sewing machine clatters. The hum comes from room 104, the last stop at the end of a hallway full of guest accommodations. It’s the office where hotel seamstress Wanda Capel holds court daily with fabrics that need her mending.

She’s saved weddings like Cinderella’s fairy godmother from bridesmaids dresses gone bad and put more stitches in golfers’ pants than there are range balls on Maniac Hill. Boxed in by three sewing machines, surrounded by spools of colorful thread and cloth, Capel has spent 26 years working at the Carolina. An Employee of the Month trophy sits high on a shelf among pictures of her children and grandchildren. She grasps a piece of fabric with a fashionably gloved right hand. More utilitarian than stylish, the glove helps manage the pain in her palm, the arthritic remnant of a car accident.

Capel nonchalantly explains the quick fix for the pain. “I just put some numbing medicine on it because it hurts right there, and the more I cut the worse it feels,” she says, pointing to her palm. “So, I just put the glove on there and the medicine to work my hands. Just the sewing is OK, but it depends on how much cutting I do. Sometimes at night my hands will ache and I know it’s nothing but arthritis. But once I get them going in the morning they’ll last all day. I refuse to let them shut down on me.”

Before taking over room 104, Capel had a gig at Quality Mills in Carthage, drove a school bus, picked up the odd sewing job here and there, and taught an evening sewing class at Sandhills Community College. “I had a girlfriend who worked here . . . and she kept telling me that the lady they had was leaving and they were looking for somebody,” says Capel. “She kept telling me to go and apply. I said, ‘I’m not going over there. I won’t get that job.’ I was in one of those times where you don’t think anything is going to work out for you.” Finally, frustrated with her daytime boss, one Friday afternoon she plucked up the nerve to submit an application at the Carolina. Four days later she had the job.

Flying solo on a sewing machine is about as far from workplace drama as a human being can get. Capel mends alone and couldn’t be happier. “When I came here it was like the best thing that could have ever have happened to me,” she says. “Now I don’t have to concentrate on nothing but what I’m doing. I don’t have to worry about anybody that don’t like me, because it don’t even matter.”

Peaceful surroundings are not all Capel gained from the job. She also found her husband, Walter. He was working in transportation at the hotel and needed his uniforms fixed. After bringing them to room 104, he kept pestering her for a date. “I wouldn’t talk to him, though,” Capel remembers with a smile. “I don’t date people I work with.” He quit his job to work elsewhere, and before long they were married.

Capel mends and cares for family members as carefully as she stitches a frayed collar, working through personal tragedy and long-term illnesses. It was a car accident in 2000 that left her with a broken arm, a broken pelvis and the injuries to her skilled hands that would eventually turn arthritic. Recovering at home, in traction, Capel stubbornly refused to miss the high school graduation of her daughter, Alycia. Her doctor told her she wouldn’t be able to attend the ceremony unless she obtained the proper medical transportation.

Talk about an entrance. “My youngest sister, she got up with the rescue unit and she got me a rescue squad,” she says. “The nurses came out and showed her how to take me out of traction and put me back. So that graduation morning she came and she got me dressed and everything. The rescue unit came to get me, and I went to the graduation by ambulance. They rolled me out on the ball field and that’s where I watched her graduate.”

While the accident forced Capel out of work for a time, not much else has. A two-year battle with an illness required her to take a handful of pills a day and have a shot once a week. One of the medications caused memory loss and Capel still feels the effects, admitting to randomly forgetting names or stories she’s known her whole life.

In 2005, Capel lost one of her three children, the daughter whose graduation she rode in an ambulance to watch, when 22-year-old Alycia McKinnon was babysitting at her half-sister’s home. A vengeful boyfriend hired a man to kill the sibling that night. Neither the boyfriend nor the hit man had accounted for Alycia’s presence, and she was the one murdered. The killer was sentenced to life in prison. Only months before the tragedy, Capel’s mother had succumbed to cancer.

To cope with the twin losses, she turned to her work, making the mends and alterations of a hotel seamstress. “I worked through the whole time,” she says. “It’s like, after I lost my daughter, all I could hear her saying was, ‘Mama, you know you gotta work. You know you gotta work.’ From that point on, I have needed something to keep my mind occupied because I don’t need to think about certain things. Concentrating on my work is like my way out.”

So Capel stitches a life together, clattering away at her machine in room 104, fixing what others cannot. PS

Haley Ray is a Pinehurst native and University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill graduate, who recently returned from the deserts of Southern California.