The t-shirt never fit. It’s always been too small and, although I’ve squeezed into it a few times, I’ve never worn it outside. It’s mustard yellow with dark stains under the armpits and “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” emblazoned across the back. I think its crumpled up in a ball in my closest at home, but I haven’t seen it in a couple of years so I can’t be sure.
When I was volunteering at an orphanage in Tanzania, the compound that we stayed in was secured by a locked gate and we were instructed not to leave. It wasn’t safe for mzungu’s like us to be out and about. For the most part we followed the rules, but one afternoon after we’d finished work for the day our trip leaders took us for a walk down the dirt road our orphanage shared with small farms and roadside bars that consisted of a few broken stools and a tarp strung up between piles of cement blocks.
We visited a farm started by a European man who married a Tanzanian woman, it was rustic but high performing compared to the surrounding operations. As the sun started to set we headed back, nervous about the prospect of being out after dark. It was a race against time, the sun inching towards the horizon as we speed walked the 2Km’s back to the compound, every few minutes a group of kids calling to us to take pictures (which they liked to see on our cameras) or teach them some American slang.
Three-quarters of the way back to the compound two girls approached us. In almost perfect english they told us that they went to a boarding school far away, but were home for holiday. As the rest of the group kept walking, one of our trip leaders and my High School Advisor, Laura Danforth and I stayed chatting with the girls.
As the sun brushed the edge of the Earth, they asked us to join them in their home for tea. We, two women in the middle of rural Tanzania, desperately wanted to say yes but we’d been warned not to stay out after dark and so, to our chagrin, turned down the offer. As we walked away we told the girls to come by the orphanage the next day, fully expecting to never see them again.
Around 8am one of the students on the trip came running into our bunk room. A girl was at the gate and said that she knew me but they wouldn’t let her in until I confirmed that she wasn’t a stranger. Confused and forgetting the previous evening, I walked towards the gate wondering who in the world it could be.
She had come. Her sister had to work but she had come and had brought gifts. This young girl whose parents struggled to scrape together the funds to send her to school and who works in the fields when she isn’t studying to become a doctor, had made me a necklace and brought me the very t-shirt she had been wearing the day before as gifts.
I ran back to our bunk house and, digging through bags of things we’d brought for the orphanage, threw together a gift bag with some colored pencils, notepads, hair clips, and bracelets. Zipping up the big duffels of stuff I had rifled through, I couldn’t stop thinking about how she, who had so little, had decided to give some of it to me who had so much. I felt conflicted. Like I shouldn’t accept something when I knew she didn’t have a lot. At the same time, since she had so little I had to accept, to turn it down would have been an insult.
She gave me her email. Once a month for almost a year after that trip I emailed her hoping for a response that never came. I don’t know what happened to her. She might be in college, or married with kids. She could be working on her parents farm, or have started her own business. It’s likely that she doesn’t think about, or even remember me. I will never forget her. Every time I see “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” on a sweater, bumper sticker, or on a crumpled up sweat stained t-shirt I remember how magical it is to give, especially when it is unexpected.
This piece is a follow-up to The Problem with Little White Girls (and Boys) focused on the positive personal effects of conscious and open-minded travel. It was also published on The Huffington Post and One.org.