Muffy Fox was ready to take on a new challenge. She was a wife and mother of three grown sons, active in the community, and had a job she liked. But the longtime Riverside resident wanted to get back to the type of work and activities that were closest to her heart.
Since she was seven years old, Muffy wanted to be a teacher, so she went out and became one. She also hails from a charitable family; her parents are well into their eighties and still volunteering. Yet between raising her children and other responsibilities, she had become separated from her passion for teaching and working with kids.
Then one day last October, Muffy had an epiphany of sorts: She made up her mind to leave her position as senior editor at Greenwich Magazine and commence the process of getting back to helping youngsters. “And in the meantime, I decided that what I really wanted to do was to take a trip of a lifetime,” she says. “I’d launched all my kids; they’d all had great adventures, but I hadn’t. I never did a junior year abroad or anything like that. So that’s how this all came about.”
“This” was a journey to Africa, where for more than a month last winter Muffy served as a volunteer at the Rift Valley Children’s Village, an orphanage in Tanzania. There she would throw herself open to the experience, tackling whatever task she was assigned—be it preparing breakfast, sorting donated clothes or assisting in the classroom. More important than her duties was the opportunity to connect with the children, to learn their stories, and to be part of an organization that was saving youngsters from a living death on the streets, if not a worse fate. “I wanted to do something that I thought could have a really marked effect on people’s lives,” she says, “and it ended up having a marked effect on my own life.”
To get to the orphanage, Muffy would voyage more than 7,500 miles. But the greater journey was within herself. “I tend to play it rather safe,” she says. “My children’s reaction to all this was to say, ‘I don’t know what Mom’s been smoking.’ At first they laughed and said it was totally out of character for me, because they only see me as this one-sided Mom. They really didn’t see the need I had to do something more.”
She also had to stare down her doubts. Tanzania is one of the more stable countries in Africa. And the orphanage is a well-protected facility, with a full-time nurse and a hospital that is relatively close. Yet this was still a world away from Greenwich. “You’re a woman, you’re traveling alone or with another woman, not a man, where women are of no value,” Muffy says. “Along the roads, there are checkpoints, where they basically try to squeeze money out of whoever is driving the car. You never know what’s going to happen there. They have machine guns. It can get a little dicey.”
Cleanliness would also be an issue, Muffy knew, along with the potential for contracting disease. And there was the cultural divide that she would have to cross. Everyday habits of Western living had to be set aside. “Those go right out the window,” she says. “From a hygiene standpoint, for example, nobody washes their hands. And in talking to men, you have to be respectful; you can’t really joke around with them because they’ll interpret it as flirting. There are just some things we do here that just don’t fly over there.”
THE SEED IS PLANTED
It took a while for the change in Muffy to come full flower, but the process had begun two years earlier. A member of the board of trustees of the Boys and Girls Club of Greenwich, she decided to do one-on-one volunteer work for the organization as well. So it was that she began guiding local high school students who lacked the support and resources at home through the thickets of the college admissions process. That’s when the old feelings resurfaced and she remembered how good it felt to have a direct impact on young lives.
Now, with the newfound energy that epiphanies bring, she set to scouting for what exactly her midlife answer to “junior year abroad” might entail. It had to be something that would take her out of everyday experience, Muffy thought, something involving a different culture. She looked into American Indian reservations in the United States and some groups in South America, but none seemed to be what she wanted.
Then she made a call to a childhood friend, Susan Rohrer of Old Greenwich, who heads Children of Tanzania, a nonprofit group that focuses on education for impoverished kids in that East African nation. Muffy explained what she was after and asked Susan if she might have any suggestions. “I have just the place for you,” came the reply.
Three months later, Muffy arrived at the Rift Valley orphanage. (Susan, who had business in Africa, accompanied her much of the way before heading off to her own destination.) Located in the Karatu region of northern Tanzania, the children’s village is surrounded by coffee plantations as well as staggering poverty. Muffy remembers how on the final leg of her lengthy sojourn to the orphanage—on the ride out from her hotel—she saw some ramshackle brick buildings amidst such squalor that she prayed this was not her stop. It turned out to be a section where plantation workers lived, some of them without so much as a roof over their heads. Farther down the dirt road they came to the orphanage, a gated sanctum with more than a dozen sturdy buildings and a security force of fearsome-looking Masai warriors.
It was late afternoon on February 4, when Muffy finally pulled in, along with a hundred pounds of donated supplies she had collected from friends back home. The staff showed her the house where she would be living, allowed her some time to unpack, and then she dove in, all of her doubts behind her. “It started before I even got on the airplane,” Muffy says. “I was asking myself, ‘Can I really do this? Am I brave enough? Am I strong enough?’ And I finally said, ‘Yes, I can do this; I’m strong enough, and I want this.’ When I got there I never really looked back.”
The Tanzanian Children’s Fund, which operates the orphanage, was founded in 2003 by an American woman named India Howell. The Long Island native had no particular interest in Africa when she traveled to Tanzania in the late nineties to climb Mount Kilimanjaro. But from the moment she stepped off the plane, she knew she was home. She landed a job with a safari company running a hotel out in the bush. But it was on her weekly trips into the city of Arusha that she discovered her calling.
“In those days every time you got out of the car you would be swarmed by these ragged, starving little kids begging for food, money or help of any kind,” India says. “I started asking questions and found that the vast majority were orphans who found themselves with relatives who didn’t really want them. Rather than live in a home where they were being abused and/or neglected, they would run to the streets and face a life of starvation and violence. Even worse, once these kids have been on the street for as little as a month, the odds of turning them back around into civilized adults are very slim.”
India wanted to help but was uncertain as to how. It finally came to her that early intervention was the answer. So she created an organization that would identify and rescue the unwanted kids before they reached the streets. Today, eighty-three children call Rift Valley home. (Sixteen of those youngsters attend boarding school and only stay at the orphanage during vacations.) Two dozen more live with relatives but receive food, clothing and the like from Rift Valley. What’s more, India’s group manages the government primary school and supports 100 youngsters who are in secondary school. There’s also a microfinance program and free medical clinics for the local community.
Donors number close to 2,000—and counting. Greenwich resident Anne Mosley, a sophomore at Yale, teamed with a friend to raise money for the Tanzanian Children’s Fund through an arts camp for youngsters that they ran during their summers in Maine. Over five years they collected upwards of $6,000, through program fees and an end-of-summer show, for the kids in Africa. “We didn’t want to do it in a way that involved us going around and asking for money,” Anne explains. “It was less about fundraising and more about doing something with kids in our community, and then using the money to donate to kids in a different community.”
Shari and Ted Seides, who live in Riverside, take another route. They donate through Susan Rohrer’s Children of Tanzania, sponsoring a girl named Neema, who is at secondary boarding school and who stays at Rift Valley during holidays. Neema had been removed from her home because of abuse by the men there. “We get pictures and updates from Sue,” says Shari. “And to see where Neema was when we started supporting her to now, it’s an amazing transformation. She has this bright smile and her eyes glow. We can’t help an entire country, but we can help this one little girl.”
When Susan Rohrer, whose charity often works with India Howell, told Muffy she had just the place for her, she hit the bull’s-eye. Volunteers play a key role at Rift Valley. Every year eighty to 100 unpaid helpers, many from the United States, stay at the orphanage anywhere from three weeks to six months. Most are in their twenties, but some are in their sixties and seventies. They assist in countless ways, but one of their biggest contributions is in simply speaking English with the kids. That helps the youngsters learn to annunciate and understand the language free of a Swahili accent, improving their chances when they enter the job market. Beyond that, India asks that volunteers shower these kids with love.
For Muffy that part was easy. Before she left Greenwich, her husband, Andy, a builder in town, made her promise not to bring any children home with her. Muffy says he was joking; Rift Valley allows no adoptions. But Muffy’s sister, Boo Huth of Riverside, says that given Muffy’s soft heart and newly empty house, she was surely thinking about it. “Do you remember when 60 Minutes did the exposé on the Romanian orphanages, and the babies who were just lying in cribs on their backs with nobody holding them or loving them?” she asks. “I was watching that and my phone rang. When I answered I heard this sobbing. I said, ‘You’re watching 60 Minutes.’ And Muffy said, ‘I am. I just looked into flights and the cost is about $2,500. Do you think we can go?’”
A DIFFERENT WORLD
At Rift Valley, Muffy and a fellow volunteer in her twenties were assigned to a house with thirteen girls between six months and thirteen years of age. Her days started early. She would awake at 6 a.m., help prepare breakfast for the kids, then once the youngsters did their chores, walk them to school. After the volunteers ate, they started their own assignments, which ran the gamut. Among other duties, Muffy wrote profiles of the children to be sent to donors who sponsored them. She helped with crafts, took her turns separating the donated clothes, and sliced homemade white bread for meals ad infinitum. “Muffy is the ideal volunteer in that she doesn’t need to be center stage,” says India Howell. “She just came and said, ‘Put me to work. What do you need?’”
Lots of cleaning went on in the houses, but a layer of grit blown in through open doorways was ever present. And cockroaches, rats, and bats were a way of life. “The bats I never really got used to,” Muffy says. “We had a bamboo ceiling, which was slatted, and they could come out whenever they wanted. The first couple of days I’d kind of grin and bear it, but then I asked for mosquito netting. I was in the bottom of a bunk bed with no one in the top bed. I put the netting down around me, so if a bat flew out of there, which I always had a feeling one was going to do, it would be harder for them to get to me.”
Walking back to her residence in the pitch-black night from the volunteer house, where she ate her meals and socialized, with just a flashlight to guide the way, Muffy was always cautious. Large animals were unlikely to get into the compound, she knew, but feral dogs and other small creatures might find a way. “I was always worried that I could encounter an animal I wasn’t really ready to encounter,” she says.
Likewise for disease. Muffy took to heart the orphanage nurse’s warnings about illnesses for which she hadn’t been inoculated. One of the volunteers contracted ringworm. Another had stomach issues. Shoes had to be worn everywhere, inside as well as outside. “You could get these worms that burrow through the soles of your feet,” Muffy recalls. “So you had to constantly be scrubbing your feet—raw.”
Swahili is the main language used in the primary school at Rift Valley, especially with the youngest children, so Muffy was unable to teach there. Still, she had plenty of interaction with the kids, whether it was pushing them on a swing, playing soccer, or just getting to know them. “I meant for it to be a completely new kind of experience, but children are children and they still require the same love, attention and set rules.”
Although language could be an obstacle, it was nothing that a sense of humor couldn’t overcome. The kids understood English, but figures of speech like “hold your horses” would have them looking around in wonder. Muffy, for her part, received on-the-job lessons in Swahili. For a while, she was baffled as to why the children found her name outrageously funny. Preppy Handbook aside, it turned out that “Muffy” sounded dangerously close to “mavi,” which has bathroom connotations in Swahili, as in the old number two.
Fitting in took time. Most of her fellow volunteers were in their twenties and seemed reluctant to open up around a woman of their mothers’ vintage. “I had to kind of work with that a little bit and figure out how to gain their trust and not make judgments on what they were doing or saying,” Muffy says.
Getting close to the kids, meanwhile, required patience. Many had been brutally mistreated by adults before they came to the orphanage. Plus, Caucasians were still something of an oddity. And the revolving door of volunteers only made it that much harder to establish a bond. “They make you work for it,” says Muffy. “You’ve got to earn their trust, you really do. They kind of avoid you a little bit, to begin with. They watch you and listen to what you say. But once you’ve won them over and you show that you have a good sense of humor and that you really do have their best interests at heart, they’re very warm and fuzzy.”
It took two or three weeks—slowly but surely—to feel accepted. Working on crafts with the kids in the afternoons was one activity that helped break down barriers. It was an opportunity to talk with them as individuals while they were busy with their projects. “That’s where you really see their personalities,” Muffy says. “You can see who can take their turn and who is a hoarder and is going to take everything right off the table and never share it. All of that is a product of being kids who came from nothing and who had been scrounging for every bite of food they could eat.”
So many children and so many stories tugged at her heart. Hosiana, a thirteen-year-old albino girl who lived with family but received services, had suffered mightily because of superstition and fear of albinos. Her mother, Muffy says, tried to burn her alive.
Then there were the twin girls, Ericki and Gericki, who were among the children who lived under India’s immediate care. Gericki had been repeatedly sexually assaulted by an uncle, while Ericki inexplicably went untouched.
And from her own house, Muffy tells of an eleven-year-old named Fatuma, who was HIV positive. Both of her parents died from AIDS. The girl had been separated from her siblings and living with an aunt who had six kids of her own and no money coming in. Because Fatuma didn’t want the other kids at the orphanage to know she had the disease, she would take pills in secret.
Muffy also tells of sisters Natalie and Lucia whose mother was mentally ill. While she was pregnant with Lucia, the woman’s relatives kept her chained to a post outside their home to prevent her from running away. She gave birth to Lucia there. As a result of being raped by someone in the area, she proceeded to have Natalie. Both kids had lived outside with their mother.
In some ways, Natalie, who was about four, could be a challenging child. Muffy witnessed her loving, endearing side but also her manipulative ways. “Natalie is so smart,” Muffy says. “She was doing second-grade math. But she always had to push the envelope just a little further than you wanted. She couldn’t take no for an answer. Her immediate needs had to be met right then and there. You had to tell her to sit back and that you would take care of her as soon as you were done with X, Y, and Z.”
But in the end, Natalie was also one of the toughest kids to leave. “Natalie and I worked it out,” Muffy says simply. “We worked it out.”
By March, life back home was calling. Muffy’s father-in-law had taken ill and passed away. But when she left Africa, she found herself changed. She was proud that she had pushed herself past her old limitations. Away from the immediacy of our society, she came back calmer and more relaxed. And for a month or two, the usual squabbles of everyday life and the importance that we bestow on fashion seemed a little absurd. “When I was there, I might see a boy wearing pink shorts, and it wasn’t because he shopped at Vineyard Vines,” she says. “They’d be pink, girls’ shorts. To them, clothes are clothes. And it doesn’t matter who’s wearing them, be it a boy or a girl. When they get something really cute, they love it. But if they don’t, they know that clothes are just there to be functional.”
She often thinks of the kids in Tanzania, once lost but now found, and of their futures shining brightly. Muffy is already talking about going back, and urging family and friends to try something similar. “What is stopping you?” she asks them, with newfound understanding of some bigger question. “What is stopping you from doing this?”