Heartbreaking faith in a mzungu

Neema John has her mother's smile, her shyness - and her immediate, total, heartbreaking faith in me.

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    Neema John, desperate to get to her family in Atlanta, sees no future for herself or her son in Tanzania.
    Mary Wiltenburg
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    Neema walks in her slum neighborhood.
    Mary Wiltenburg
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  • Briton gnaws a beef rib at a neighborhood outdoor barbecue joint.
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Neema John has her mother's smile, her shyness - and her immediate, total, heartbreaking faith in me.

Today and yesterday, as we walked the grit-and-boulder footpaths of her neighborhood, and sat in her tin-roofed room with dusty light sifting through the window screen, we talked about her life and hopes. Neema's desperate to get to her family in Atlanta; she doesn't see any future for herself or her son here in Tanzania, where she's living illegally, without refugee status, in constant fear of discovery.

She has told neighbors that her family is from Arusha, Tanzania, the home of the Rwandan genocide tribunals - where, in fact, Dawami did partly grow up. Some know too that her mom is in America. So when I showed up, it wasn't just Briton who made assumptions .Wednesday morning, Aloisia, our interpreter, asked Neema what her neighbors thought the day before of the strange, grinning mzungu with the camera who tromped with her all over the slum. She translated the exchange to me. I was prepared for ridicule, hostility even.

"They think you're my mother," Neema said.

It's hard to overstate the implausibility of my having given birth to this gorgeous, cocoa-skinned, Swahili-speaking 20-year-old, so I asked what she meant: was this "mother" in the way many Africans use "sister" and "brother," to signify fondness rather then blood?

No, she explained: They had seen us smiling together as we walked, and the degree of our happiness left no alternative. Her son Briton called me "Bibi" (grandma), which seemed to confirm the theory. And there was this:

"I told them, " Neema said proudly.

"This is a great honor," Aloisia explained.

It is hard to imagine a greater one, and I now answer proudly to "Bibi Mzungu" througout the warren of shacks where Neema lives.

But it's also a problem. Because I'm neither mother nor grandmother to this sweet, lonely pair. If I were, how much I'd do differently - spend all my time with them, for one thing. As it is, I have to leave them daily, to interview UN folks, NGO workers, anyone who might actually have the power to help them.

My goal is to transform their lives - but my job is to write about them. Never has that job been harder than it was today.

Briton, it was clear from the moment I arrived, was glad to see me. In our brief acquaintance, he's struck me as an independent, smart, often oppositional little guy. But when he saw me coming down the path, he sprinted over to hug me. We had a good morning, while he mostly played with friends, then shared a lunch of beef bits and fries at an outdoor restaurant.

After lunch, he started crying, saying he didn't want to go home, he wanted to go to "Bibi's house." We tried in vain to explain that I don't live here, or have a house. "It's over there! I know it!" he insisted, pointing toward downtown. It was a long, stormy walk home.

In the afternoon, though, we made up, and I tickeld him, hung him upside down, and played with him and his now-treasured toy dog until he was nearly beat.

Then, it was time to go. "I think Briton will cry," Aloisia predicted.

I pictured another tantrum of the scope we'd seen, and figured it would be sad, but we'd weather it and see each other in the morning.

But when Aloisia and I climbed into the taxi, Briton came unglued. He flung himself into the backseat, screaming, "Bibi! Bibi!"

Neema tried to pry him off of me, but he clung, shrieking. I rocked and tried to soothe him, which helped for a moment. But when she tore him away, he was hysterical, gasping for breath: "Bibi! Bibi!" The neighbors stared in confusion. I wondered: What kind of grandmother - what kind of person - leaves a 4-year-old like this?

"Come, Mary!" Aloisia urged. And I did. Blocks away, we could still hear him screaming, "Bibi!"

It was like no child's cry I've ever heard. It sounded like he was on fire.

Travel in Tanzania for this project is supported by The Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, in Washington DC.

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