How Mama Warra Nnko is changing the lives of orphaned children in a remote village of Tanzania despite all odds.
Roughly three hours from the nearest city, Karatu is surrounded by some of the most breathtaking displays of scenic terrain that you will ever see on the African continent. The northern horizon of this village is blocked by the Ngorongoro Crater, which looms in the distance a plush, green mountain. It once boasted volcanic glory, but is now a dormant home to a host of wildlife that attracts tourists from around the world.
South of Karatu lies Lake Manyara, which was said by Ernest Hemingway to be the loveliest lake in Africa. Between the Ngorongoro Crater and Lake Manyara is several hundred kilometers of rolling hills and valleys. Out of this pristine countryside arises the mud huts and grass roofed homes of Karatu’s villagers.
Karatu is a busy village, crowded with men on bicycles and motorcycles, women carrying goods on the tops of their heads, and children playing in the streets. The people of this region mostly come from the tribe called Iraqw, a tribe of Tanzania historically known for their agricultural and irrigation skills.
Although their surroundings are exquisite and their lives seem pleasant from an outsider’s perspective, Tanzanians face enormous struggles. Approximately 68% of the population of Tanzania lives below the international poverty line of $1.25 per day. HIV is widespread, having orphaned more than 1.2 million children in Tanzania. In Karatu, a shockingly large number of people turn to alcohol to ease the pain of their circumstances, only creating more problems, broken homes, and abused or abandoned children.
Superstition and deeply rooted traditional beliefs add to the Tanzanian struggle, especially in small towns like Karatu. Witchcraft, taboos and folklore have a strong effect on the majority of the villagers in Karatu. If a ritual requires it, they will go so far as to abandon or harm a child. Perhaps, the worst alleged curse is one that affects the family of a mother who has had a child outside of marriage rituals. It is said that the mother of the child will bring a curse to the entire family. This leaves many mothers with a devastating choice when her baby arrives: keep the baby and face family and societal exclusion or abandon the child to avoid “curse.”
In 2003, a pastor and his wife from Arusha were visiting a church in Karatu. They spent the night in a local hostel where they had planned to rest and then make the three hour drive back the next morning. The night was cold and rainy. During the night, Warra heard a faint sound at the door of their guest house. She walked to the door and opened it. There lay a helpless baby boy. The child was only a couple of months old. Warra scooped the child into her arms and brought him in to her husband. The child was deathly ill, most likely due to being left in the cold rain, so they rushed him to the nearest hospital. Warra never left the child’s side that night. The next morning her husband insisted that they had to leave for Arusha. But, Warra gave the doctors money and told them that when the child was better to let her know and she would come back for the child. Warra remembers how grieved her heart was on the way back to Arusha. For days, she wept over this child and that someone would reject such an innocent and beautiful baby boy.
Several days later, Warra received the heartbreaking news that the child had died. But, that night would live in Warra’s memory for the rest of her life. That night added fuel to the fire in Warra’s heart to rescue orphans. Because of what they had seen in Karatu, Warra and her husband decided to move from the city Arusha to the tiny village of Karatu and begin what is now known as Shalom Orphanage.
Shalom began in a tiny little room not far from where the orphanage exists today. Warra and her husband faced extremely challenging circumstances when they started this work. They had little room, little help, and no money. At times even her husband found it difficult to understand Warra’s relentless passion, and cautioned her that this mission carried tremendous responsibility and garnered little return. Yet, for 10 years God was faithful to Warra and Shalom Orphanage.
Today, Warra is known to most as Mama Warra. 65 orphans call Shalom Orphanage their home. The vision Mama Warra had to care for the most vulnerable in their society has spread like wildfire in Karatu and impacted the community, the region, and even a few government officials in Tanzania.
But, Mama Warra’s greatest impact is not legislation or cultural influence or community support. It is in the smallest moments of joy, love, and laughter with the children she cares for. Many of them have suffered unbearable circumstances in their short lives. Stories of rape, physical abuse, abandonment, and loss are not uncommon amongst these children. It is because of this that Mama Warra makes an unrelenting effort to remind these children that they are loved.
“They are not orphans. They have a family, they have a home, and they are loved. That will always be here for them,” Mama Warra says. “They will always be able to call Shalom their home. They will always have a mama waiting to see them. We will always have room for them in this home.”
In the evenings, local villagers and passersby along the road can hear the sounds of worship ringing out from Shalom’s evening chapel. Mama Warra leads 65 children in songs about Jesus and His love and a testament to God’s ability to restore and redeem all things fills the Tanzanian sky. It is as immeasurable, as awe-inspiring as the African night sky itself.
Story and Photography by Josh and Mia Baker