On our first morning at the Tambo Tambolani Tambo festival site in Nanhimbe village, near Pemba, we found the kitchen had not yet been set up, so the two of us sallied out into the village to find some breakfast. We found a few ladies selling bread, doughnuts and fried bean patties, but alas, no hot water for the teabags we’d had the foresight to bring along. Then a young woman who spoke Portuguese offered to heat up some water for us at her house nearby. When we arrived there, we were greeted like long lost friends by a young American woman who was sitting on the ground near the house surrounded by a group of dusty skinny children. ‘Oh hi there, so good to see you, how ARE you?’
[Oh dear, who’s this? did we meet her somewhere and forget her name already? No, she was a complete stranger.]
This wide-eyed twenty-something was exuding goodness and light, telling us excitedly that she and her colleagues (there were two others in a neighbouring house) were here to ‘do some loving’ (sic). She said that the little girl sitting mute beside her, whom she was incessantly hugging and kissing, had been left deaf by malaria. The girl had also suffered polio and had no use of her legs, nor any means of moving around. “We’re just waiting for the miracle that will cure her”, she said, as if this were the most natural thing in the world to expect.
We smiled lamely and went into our host’s house for the tea, chatting to her as she fed her baby. Afterwards we greeted the other young Americans and the mothers of the children, and went our way.
The following day while enjoying a beach stroll, we spied a lone white man coming out of the sea wearing a snorkel mask. We’d been hoping for some snorkelling, so called out to ask him if he’d seen any fish or coral. He said this was not a good place to snorkel, adding that he was one of 270 trainees at the nearby Ministry of Arco Iris (ministry of what??). “Yes we’re here for school for 3 months, but it’s like being on vacation in this kind of place. We’re learning how to spread love and god’s message here and in the world”, he told us.
Speaking in an unfamiliar formula… what can this be? Two hundred and seventy American twenty-somethings doing what in Pemba? That must cost a fortune.
Some days later we were in the only restaurant that had coffee (our camp had none), and saw two American girls hosting lunch for ten boys in their charge: prawns, steaks, chips, fizzy drinks. [We considered this place too expensive for ourselves to eat at.] They did not even finish their meals: they may have been more used to eating a pile of rice and sauce. All the while the girls proudly talked to others in the restaurant about what they were doing… along the lines of ‘we’re saving these godforsaken kids’.
We thought about the food a hundred of us were eating in the Tambo Tambolani camp twice a day: a mountain of rice, noodles or xima (pounded yam) topped with a small bit of chicken or fish and a slosh of sauce. After getting through half the rice/noodles/xima, there was an orderly system for the hungry village kids to polish off any leftovers. The restaurant bill these American girls ran up for ten could have fed an African meal to 200 kids! Or bought some crutches or a wheelchair for the deaf lame girl.
Africans like to go and hang out at the beach at sunset on Sundays, when the heat is down. The Arco Iris girls do too, we saw them colonising the beach-front of an expensive restaurant, not the public beach. They all wore the same ‘modesty’ calf length shorts over one piece bathing costumes. A couple of older women were with them. We saw they were all reading religious books.
So what do the local people make of the ‘Ministry of Arco Iris’ (Rainbow) and the ‘Village of Joy’. Some of the beach boys, who sell beads and handicrafts and boat trips, laughed about their interaction with these young women. When the boys asked them ‘do you have a boyfriend?’, they would reply ‘I only love god’, ‘I only love jesus’.
Other local people told us that Arco Iris was a well resourced set up for providing educational opportunities for AIDs orphans and street kids. The kids in the Pemba “Ministry” are not from the area, they may be from Maputo or anywhere else – they are usually moved away from where they were picked up so they won’t leave, get back into “crime” or otherwise “get lost”. The ‘education’ is christian: they are to become pastors (why not? better than starving), but at least they learn literacy and other basics that they missed from school. Some get to travel abroad, to the USA, some to be placed eventually in childless homes; a kind of long term fostering or adoption….?
Hold on, this sounds a bit like slow motion child trafficking, with palms well greased. Well, this organisation is allowed to operate openly in this mainly muslim province of Cabo Delgado. And some official or other approved visas for the 270 young white people to come to Pemba for their 3 months training.
As soon as I got internet access again, I googled Arco Iris and saw that it’s all about a rich blond saviour called Heidi who stars in her own ongoing movie. She delivers bibles by the plane load to the African bush and hosts mass river baptisms. Check out the website of Arco Iris Ministry here.
An enduring image for me from Nanhimbe village is seeing the deaf girl with atrophied legs sitting alone outside her home, abandoned by all the able-bodied others. Still waiting for that miracle.