How a white American woman “adopted” 97 African children for life

The entire family, in 2016

The entire family in 2016


The small, shy Tanzanian boy was four; easily old enough to understand the next words of his father. Father and son stood together, facing India Howell, then a middle-aged Caucasian lady from New York. “This is my son,’ the father began. “His mother is dead. He lived with his grandmother, but she is dead. I want you to take him.”

In his heart, the little boy must also have heard the words that remained unspoken: “I don’t want him.” The father then turned and left without a word. Neither father or son said goodbye.

Small African children normally shrink into silence when faced with an adult Mzungu (white person). India and the little boy locked eyes. As she told me the story 15 years later, she simply said “We both felt the earth move.” The little boy flashed across the room, put both arms around India’s legs, buried his face in her knees and then scrambled into her arms. Fourteen years later, she sent him to college.

At first, India Howell had no interest in Africa. She was once accepted into the Peace Corps, but rejected each assignment because it was in Africa. In June 1998, she joined friends climbing Kilimanjaro, not even bothering to add the obligatory post-climb safari.

On leaving the plane, she was struck by a feeling that she had come home.

The night was hot. The bugs that flew into me were as big as birds. Somebody had a fire, and the smoke smelled like garbage. And yet. . .it was the same feeling I got when coming home to see my parents. My foot hit our driveway and I knew I was home. I felt the same that night in Africa, except that it was irrational.”

She tried a short safari: same feeling. It felt like home. She ignored it.

Back in America and homesick for Africa, India applied for work at the firm which had led her safari. Thousands of Americans apply for safari jobs each year, without even a response. Amazingly, she was accepted. Three months later, she was managing a mobile safari tent camp overlooking Tanzania’s Great Rift Valley. The little boy’s father had been one of her employees.

Months later, a silent, frightened African girl appeared, timidly following a male kinsman. She seemed about seven. This man’s spoken message was essentially the same as the first one. Could India take her? India took her. Now, she had two. Coincidentally, the day I arrived, this one also left for college.

Children three and four were sisters. This time, a village headman came: “Their mother just died,” he explained. “Her baby is 27 days old and has no milk. The child’s sister is 11 months, and so near starving that she cannot yet sit up. The grandmother is too old to even pick the children up. The father neither speaks to nor touches his daughters. He does not want them.” The unspoken message…“because they are girls.” India took the sisters.

India Howell holding one of her 97 adopted children

India Howell holding one of her 97 adopted children

By this time she had learned more about the African community with which she lived: Tanzanian mothers die in childbirth from sheer poverty. In her rural region, most men find no work beyond herding livestock. Some women pick coffee. They work for $1.72 per day to fill three 25-pound buckets with coffee beans. However, there are only 40 picking days per harvest. Thus, women average $68 per picking season. That is 82 cents per day. Women this poor have no access to modern medical care, even when pregnant. Medical fees may actually be low, but the women fear them, give up in despair and never leave home. Nor is it always physically possible for a sick or pregnant woman to walk to a hospital. Thus, they never go.

Consequently, many die in childbirth, often of conditions that could easily be treated. The fathers follow tribal tradition and pass them to relatives—where the tradition often breaks down. Having accepted a new-born child, the adopting family may come to resent, reject and even hate it. Such children learn from birth that they are unwanted and unloved. Little girls withdraw into a shell of silence, living out childhood as house slaves. Little boys may dream of escape to a town, away from adults who reject them. By age seven, many boys flee the villages, walking vaguely in a direction that someone says will lead them to “towni.”

India meets them—or others like them—each time she visits Arusha, the region’s biggest town. As she parks near a supermarket, the car is swarmed by competing gangs of little boys, all 7-12 years old. Initially, they shout at her to let them guard the car. However, if she leans toward one—any one—he will touch his fingers to his lips, signaling—silently—that he is hungry.

India initially responded by becoming “Mama Machungwa” (Mama Orange), carrying oranges out of the supermarket to give to every boy. Over time, she began to talk with them, learning that even one month on the streets could “addict” them to the point where they can never leave. In that time, the gang becomes their family; its leader, the nearest thing they can imagine to a father. Yes, they were hungry, but never lonely. To leave that family for an orphanage (which they saw as a prison) would be treason.

India then wondered: “If runaway kids won’t leave the streets, why not identify ‘pre-runaways’ before they leave the villages?” Villagers gossip, and everyone knows which kids are abused. Everyone knows which kids sneak out to neighbor’s, begging for food. The question that stopped her was what to do with pre-runaways once she found them.

Peter and India: two private dreams

Peter Mmassy with one of the happy children.

Peter Mmassy with one of the happy children.

Peter Mmassy was a waiter in India’s tent camp. He grew up in a home where his mother was dying, and his father was often absent. By fourth grade, he was the household head, working his father’s farm to take care of three younger sisters. He joined a church, then placed first in a competitive mission exam. That gained him access to a mission secondary school, where he excelled. Unfortunately, neither his excellence nor the degree guaranteed him a job. He decided he could make most money waiting on tourists in a game lodge. He joined the Safari Tent Camp where India subsequently came to work, and they met.

India quickly saw that Peter both spoke wonderful English and seemed more broadly educated than his secondary school degree would suggest. She promoted him to manager of the mobile tent camps. Over time, they talked about ideas beyond their work. Peter had a private dream: to replace subsistence farming, in his entire home village, with earth-friendly cash crops, attracting government grants to subsidize the change.

India countered with her private dream: to fill this ecological, cash crop-oriented village with pre-rejected children—a children’s village. It would not be an orphanage, since no child could be adopted—ever. Instead, it would simply be home.

Over time, both private dreams merged. They initially rented a house where it was least expensive—on a coffee plantation, but in mountainous, semi-roadless bush, ten kilometers from any town. They raised buildings using local labor, and fences to block local elephants. The work was also watched—and gossiped about—by people from every village. Not only were these two people entertaining, but the white lady was said to have four African children, whom she sent to the local school.

The first four children had simply lived with India. As they matured, however, India and Peter had to actively protect them against their own kin. As the first boy grew tall and strong, his relatives decided to either sell or rent him as a farm laborer. As the first girl approached puberty, her kinsfolk gathered cattle to form her future bride-wealth. In puberty, she would go to a cattle-wealthy older man, to become the servant of the older women in his family. Then came the certainty of childbirth and the possibility of death. The kinsfolk also talked of how wrong it was for the children to be living with a foreigner, and how police should return them to their families.

Adoption forbidden

India Howell walks some of her children to school

India Howell walks some of her children to school

Tanzania may have 3.1 million orphans. India believes that another one million, now living with kinsfolk, could be classified as neglected, pre-rejected, and sometimes up for sale. However, India was legally forbidden to formally “adopt” the four children in her home. Adoption meant that she could change their family names, give them U.S. passports, and take them with her to America.

The Tanzanian government forbade all three acts. Instead, both Peter and India became the children’s legal guardians. Peter is married, with three children of his own. Nonetheless, he and India assumed joint, life-time responsibility for the children’s physical safety, health, education, and happiness. It also meant that the children had a life-time home and two life-time parents: Kaka Peter and Mama India.

Over time, other villagers approached India: community elders, church leaders, neighbors, fathers, and sometimes a mother. Each had the same plea: someone did not want a child. A mother was sick. A father was alcoholic. A grandmother was old. Each messenger feared that a child would sicken, die or run away. Couldn’t India and Peter “take it and send it to school?”

Without exception, the spoken core of each message focused on “school.” In theory, India and Peter could have sent all these children to school simply by paying school fees, while the pupils lived at home. However, what they listened for was the unspoken message: “I do not want this child. Take it!” So, they did—93 times more! The original four children now have 93 sisters and brothers who range in age from kindergarten to college. The original compound has become a village of children, now known as the Rift Valley Children’s Village.

Children helping with chores

Children helping with chores

Mama to everyone?

How does one “really” become a Mama to 97 children? “One way,” says India,

is to get up at dawn and walk the entire horde of skipping, chattering kids to primary school. Another is to walk them back. A third is to invite them all home (in groups) to watch movies and eat popcorn.”

Sometimes, all-girl groups are invited in for “popcorn and pedicure evenings,” which may include instruction on standing straight, eye-contact and louder voices. Class-groups that win special awards—such as the “Cleanest Residence Contest” become her house guests for a week. If any child is sick, he/she stays with Mama. If any child is troubled, he/she joins Mama for “quiet talk”, which means no interruptions from other children—or adults.

The results are startling. One evening, India invited me for dinner at her home. She forgot to mention that she had invited 12 of the children to meet me, watch movies, play games and eat snacks. As previously mentioned, most African kids, when meeting an adult Mzungu, transform themselves into little lumps of shyness, murmuring only the required formulas of introduction (How-are-you? I-am-fine.)

Not these kids. Some were lined up standing on a sofa when I entered, waiting to shake hands. The first one surprised me: “Everyone says you speak Swahili. True?” I answered in Swahili. We shook hands. The next one was ready: “So, how did you learn Swahili?” I told him in Swahili. We shook hands. And, so it went, as I moved down the line. Each kid had a big smile, a real question and a firm handshake.

What happened to the 1,000-year-old African tradition of childhood timidity?” I asked India. “It doesn’t last here,” she replied. “Our kids grow up confident.” As each one enters the Village for the first time, India teaches them what will become the central lesson of their future lives: “This is not an orphanage. You are not an orphan. I am your mama. You are home.”

Mother worries?

India worries about her 97 children. “The more you have, the more you worry,” she told me. She has exactly the same worries as every other mother. Small worries deal with what they eat, wear, are clean, all in bed? A huge one is the delayed effect of early childhood trauma. Often, as the children reach puberty, their behavior grows irrational and even dangerous. One child, until then a model for the youngsters, spoke of suicide. India’s solution: a puppy—something to love and be loved by.

She also worries that the children will get ill—a worry intensified by living in very rural Africa, miles from medical care. India’s solution was to convince a Los Angeles doctor to move his practice to her region. And, like other mothers, India worries about early pregnancy and HIV. Every child is taught sex education, and every girl learns birth control as she reaches puberty. “Incidents occur”, India says, “but we are a family, not an institution. We treat each incident like any other family—with love.”

Finally, India worries about the children’s future. Getting into college is only the beginning. What happens after graduation? The next problem will be job hunting. In Tanzania, male employment is low and female employment is near zero. How do other mothers help their grown kids find jobs? What if they can’t find jobs? Where and how do they live? None of India’s children have yet left college. For now, she only has the first of what may one day be many answers:

I am their mama. We will solve things at home.”


Professor Jeff Fadiman

Professor Jeff Fadiman

Professor Jeff Fadiman has sixty years of African experience. In America, he has taught at the U.S. State Department and spoken at the Commonwealth Club of California. In Africa, he is the only White Elder of the Meru Nation—people who have rediscovered their lost tribal history once crushed by British colonialism.

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