By Katlyn Stephens
Two days into a mission trip to Tanzania, I found myself riding along bumpy African roads toward the village of Matangizi. Our purpose was to construct a roof for the village church, a small building with no door that sits beneath the brutal sun. The entire village looked as if it has jumped from the pages of National Geographic. The ground was bone dry, scattered with scraggly shrubs, and barefoot children ran about beneath a huge, blue sky.
After working for a time on the roof, I understood that I am not the best at wielding a hammer. I knocked a total of three nails into the boards! I worked for about three minutes pounding on one nail, until a Tanzanian man bent down, took my hammer, and whacked the nail in with six hits. He laughed, and I joined him – realizing that I obviously don’t have a career in construction. But where better to discover that than in Tanzania?
So to make myself useful, I went outside to play with the children. I could hardly look at their bloated stomachs, the flies swarming around their eyes and open cuts without tears welling up in my eyes. . Their clothes were colorful, but I could tell that they had been worn to the extreme. Most of the children had no shoes, even while running through the hot sand. Some of the girls had their ears pierced, but a few had just a piece of string through the hole, which looked infected.
I greeted many of the children, but most times they looked at me oddly or snickered to their friends, probably at my Anglo accent in Swahili. Nearby, boys were playing soccer with a ball we brought for them. It was a real treat as they usually play with a “ball” made of plastic bags wrapped around each other. One of girls in our mission team had brought bright nail polish to paint the girls’ fingernails, and they loved it! Even a few of the boys wanted theirs painted! We played “bata, bata, kuka,” (duck, duck, goose), ring-around-the-rosy, red light green light, tic-tac-toe in the sand, and hop-scotch with dried reeds. A teammate and I taught a few girls “Miss Mary Mack” and they enjoyed clapping their hands to the English words.
After awhile we ran out of game ideas; not to mention some of the kids were looking tired. I wanted to tell and ask them so much and it was frustrating that I wasn’t able to with my limited Swahili vocabulary. The only way we could think to convey our feelings was to hold them in our laps and rub their dry hands. I wondered how much physical contact the children got at home because the girls I held made no move whatsoever to get up. Many times the older women, possibly mothers, would tell the girls to get up or the women would come and take the younger ones who had fallen asleep in our arms. Maybe they thought the kids were a hassle to us, but I couldn’t think of any place I would rather be than in that Matangizi village playing with those kids.
The next day we returned to the same village to finish putting on the tin roof for the church. The children were waiting as we drove down the dusty path, anticipating the soccer ball and people to love on them. The missionaries we were working with brought a few more games for the children to play. We showed them how to play cat-and-mouse with a huge parachute, their joy was inexpressibly etched on their faces. It was so uplifting to hear their laughter and know that they experienced such happiness in their lives of poverty.
It was easy to recognize many of these children because they were wearing the same clothes as the day before. The boys playing soccer would often share a pair of shoes to kick with or just use them to mark the goal. We put crayons, a coloring book and a toothbrush in bags for the children which the missionaries gave out during a health promotion.
While the men were finishing up the church, our team leader went in groups of four to the houses in the Gogo tribe, scattered throughout the village. We invited them to church—“Karibu kanisani kesho san ne.” The people were so welcoming; one woman hugged each of us and dragged us into her home to meet her family. A few of the children led us along the barren path to the next home. We saw huge holes in the ground — wells from which the Matangizi village draws their water. The water was so dirty that is was no wonder I hardly saw any of the children drink water. The missionaries told us that they have grown used to drinking scarcely anything. It was eye-opening to contemplate not being able to go to the sink and get a glass of clean water.
After inviting a few more people to church, we began walking back, except we weren’t quite sure what direction we were heading. This could have been a slight problem in the middle of a dusty plain in 90 degree heat with no water. But we didn’t panic and trusted that the children leading us understood that we needed to head back. And they did know exactly where they were going.
The hardest part of the day was handing out water bottles to the children. We had a lot of plastic bottles with a little water in them, but not enough to go around. I had bottles to give away. This was one of the toughest things I’ve ever had to do – deciding which child should get the water, looking into their big eyes, knowing that I would crush some of their hopes. At the same time, I was giving two children such a precious gift here, but something I would never think twice about at home.
I watched them swallow what little water was in the bottles, cherishing every drop of it. Remembering the dirt brown water that some of the kids brought from the well, I will always appreciate the clean, pure water that I am privileged to drink in America.
Tanzanian culture doesn’t center so much on time, as it does relationships. When we arrived at the Matangizi church for the Sunday service, we had to wait an hour and a half for people to greet one another before the service began. We sang songs outside with a band of women playing handmade drums and shaking tambourines. Then everyone filed into the tiny chapel. What a sight! The children outside were poking their heads through the windows to listen to the pastor’s message because there was no room left inside. It was incredible to know that I was worshipping God in this little, remote church, unknown to the rest of the world, while my family was on that same day in a beautiful church building praising the same God. The Lord can hear our worship no matter where we are.
After the church service we had to say goodbye to the village of Matangizi, a place where I discovered God lives despite the poverty, unsanitary conditions and lack of food and water. As we drove down the dusty path for the last time, we looked back to see the Gogo tribe waving and smiling. Even though our purpose was to minister to them, the people of the Matangizi village ministered to my heart in those three days that I was privileged to be a part of their lives, opening my eyes to the world for which Jesus died.
Katlyn Stephens is a student at Liberty University, majoring in Children’s Ministries, with a minor in Intercultural Studies. She enjoys spending time with her family and friends, playing with kids and delving into a new novel. She is looking forward to the future that God has for her, and hopes to travel to see more of His creation around the world.