The Meaning of Happiness

A letter from LOHADA’s first volunteer

By Tina Ashamalla

When I think about LOHADA, I feel as if I blinked and a decade of my life flew by.

In August 2001, my friend Alicia and I left for Tanzania to volunteer.  We had both recently been laid off from our first jobs out of graduate school, were broke (by American standards) and felt that we could use a bit of an adventure. So it was incredibly disappointing to realize that the American man running the organization was using much of our “volunteer fees” to further his own lifestyle as well as the African family he was living with. Alicia figured this out right off as she is from New York but I was a little slow — some may call it California optimism.

Somewhere along the way, we met an African woman named Happiness Wambura who was — and still is — truly the real deal.

In 2001, LOHADA was still pretty much in its infancy. Happiness was collecting the children of beggars off the streets of Arusha and teaching them in a small classroom, having convinced a local man to lend it to her. She would visit the bread factory to ask for day-old bread in order to feed the children she gathered. Pure genius! She did all of this while raising her own five children.

LOHADA children in a classroom in 2001
LOHADA children in a classroom in 2001

Happiness had hoped that this American man running the organization we signed up for could help her grow LOHADA, but she hadn’t seen any results. She turned to Alicia and me and asked how we might help. “Why not just start your own volunteer organization?” we suggested. So that’s what she did.

In November 2001, my brother, Michael, built the first LOHADA website and became its webmaster for the nine years. I wrote content and Alicia edited. We all looked for ways to promote and link the website online. Fast forward to April of 2003, and LOHADA had hosted nearly 25 volunteers from around the globe. Happiness moved the 20 children she cared for to a larger house and provided them with not only an education but three meals a day and a bed to sleep in. Camp Moses, as she named it, had two teachers, an official newsletter and a steady flow of volunteers. So it was more than unfortunate when the landlord decided to sell the property Camp Moses was on and Happiness was asked to vacate.

By this time, there was a small army of volunteers who had come and gone — some staying only a few weeks and others staying for months. No matter how long their stay, each left with the children of LOHADA permanently in their hearts. I had moved to Madrid, Spain, with my husband, would soon be pregnant with my first child but still managed to be closely involved with LOHADA through the current and past volunteers. We gathered online in our first Microsoft Network group, called each other and brainstormed how to raise the much needed $4,000 Happiness needed to buy a permanent home for the children. Volunteers from Canada, England, Ireland, the Netherlands and the United States banded together. Along with the $300 Happiness was able to raise locally, everyone raised $7,630 (it truly took a village), enough to buy some land and start building what is still today Camp Moses. In December, they broke ground. In the meantime, past volunteers sent boxes of gifts for the children at Christmas, a new computer was donated from eBay, and boxes of shoes and supplies arrived from all sides of the world. The names on the email list of the LOHADA newsletter grew longer and longer as the stream of volunteers continued.

In July of 2004, our “A Night for Africa” wine tasting and silent auction fundraiser in San Francisco raised $13,000 and we showcased LOHADA’s first video created by volunteer Bonnie. Friends and family made the event a success by donating everything from their services to vacation timeshares for the auction. Past LOHADA volunteer Georgina was able to secure Global Alliance for Africa in Chicago as an umbrella organization for LOHADA, allowing tax-deductible donations for the first time ever. In Arusha, volunteers led by Michelle launched the “Sponsor a Child” program. My nephew arrived as a volunteer for a month, followed by his sister the next summer.

The money from the auction was used to buy a second, larger plot of land in what was then a rural area of Arusha. Happiness started planning her second school, Camp Joshua. It officially opened in 2007 and within a year, there were 107 children. Happiness was a quarter of the way to the 400 children she told me she would care for by the next time I visited. They started with only a couple classrooms but soon took in “day schoolers,” who paid a small fee to supplement costs.

By this time, I had minimal contact with LOHADA since I’d moved back to the U.S. and had two small children. My involvement mainly took the form of sending a laptop or a box of shoes once in a while and reposting all the links on volunteer sites each year. By the end of 2009, I was down to only one email exchange with Happiness, LOHADA was pushed to the back on my mind.

What happened? How could I forget Happiness and those sweet kids? This is where I mentioned at the beginning that I blinked and an entire decade flew by. I’ll give you the abbreviated version of my story because I have already rambled. My husband was diagnosed with bladder cancer and six months later, my daughter Alessandra, who was only six years old and has Down Syndrome, was diagnosed with brain cancer. (They are both healthy now.) It had already taken me a while to adjust to the routine of having a “special needs” child with all of her therapy appointments. Then we were forced to spend much of our next couple years in and out of hospitals and doctors appointments. Fast forward the next 10 years and I spent much of that time finding doctors, therapists etc. for issues that Alessandra has as a result of her cancer treatments, fundraising for better pediatric cancer research and trying to keep it all together.

LOHADA may have been pushed to the back of my mind but it never left my heart.

So with all of this in mind, I’m sure Happiness thought it was quite strange when I emailed her out of the blue this past mid January and suggested I come out for a visit two weeks later. A cousin of mine had mentioned at our family New Year’s day party how he loved telling people about LOHADA and suddenly, it was right there at the forefront of my brain again. I quickly found a ticket and was on my way to Tanzania for two weeks.

I can’t describe how strange it was to be back. What I remembered as a small town with mainly dirt roads was now a bustling city with paved roads and 1.6 million inhabitants. It took me more than a few days to adjust and it was overwhelming driving into Camp Joshua for the first time.

To see everything that Happiness has been able to achieve with my own eyes was amazing. The new enormous dining hall was getting its roof put on. There are seven classrooms, a girls and boys dormitory, a library and soon to be computer room. Not only does Happiness run two schools with 193 children but there is a new clinic in Shinyanga up and running and a soon to be working farm. Incredible!

I think Happiness might expect that now that I’ve left, I will forget about them again. I can’t though. She  and those children have once again filled up my heart and made me realize that with all the hardships my family has endured, we are so very very lucky to have access to great hospitals and schools, money for treatments and all the other luxuries we enjoy. We are so very fortunate and if those sweet kids can stay positive and happy with all their misfortunes — so can we. Thank you so much to Robin and Doral Chenoweth for keeping things going from this side of the world since 2010 and to all the past LOHADA volunteers from 2002 until today. Your continued support of this amazing woman and  organization has given it the “leg up” it needed to succeed all these years.   The smiles on all the kids faces show your efforts. I will not forget again!