By NICHOLE GOLDEN, Staff Writer | Published March 8, 2018
ATLANTA—University of Georgia graduate Maria Harding is spending a gap year before graduate school in Moshi, Tanzania, teaching university classes and volunteering at an orphanage.
Harding made her first trip to the Eastern African nation in the summer of 2016 with UGA’s annual Serving Learning Study Abroad program.
“That’s when the children at the Upendo Children’s Home Orphanage first stole my heart,” wrote Harding in an email.
In May 2017, she served as a group leader for the same trip.
“I absolutely fell in love with the children of Upendo, the simple way of life, the language, everything,” she said.
After watching classmates be anxious about graduate school applications, Harding felt pulled to return to Tanzania before starting the process.
More than anything, it was the children who inspired her return.
“I’ve always loved caretaking for kids, and these kids need so much love,” she said.
Harding, who has a degree in communications sciences and disorders, also said the Tanzanian culture and language click for her.
She calls the time in Africa “a unique and captivating experience reaching so far outside the typical American bubble.”
Harding is teaching English and biology at Mwenge Catholic University.
“The school enrolls about 5,000 students from around the region, and I’m typically responsible for lecturing to and ‘marking’ (their word for grading) the work of anywhere between 500 and 1,000 students,” she explained. “But all the teaching is worth it so that I can at least visit the orphanage every week, usually more.”
She helps the Sisters of the Precious Blood, who run the orphanage, with the feeding and care needs of the children but her favorite part is playing with them and learning Swahili from them.
“Mama Moshi,” a UGA professor from Moshi who directs the study abroad program, arranged for Harding to stay at a compound surrounded by seven different convents.
Hospitality from the sisters
Harding felt a bit isolated when she arrived at the compound, but not for long. Sisters from an adjacent convent quickly invited her to share meals.
Her new friends are Evangelizing Sisters of Mary. The congregation works to spread the Gospel to their own people.
Since Harding had only two hot plates and limited access to a store, she was grateful for their kindness.
“These sisters were the first ones to open their arms to me and show me so much love and support. Being far away from home is not easy,” said Harding.
She also was befriended by Jolanta Kazak, a Society of African Missions (SMA) Missionary from Poland. Kazak teaches mathematics at the university and has lived in Tanzania for a decade.
Kazak asked Harding to start running with her and the two decided to run the Kilimanjaro Half-Marathon, a 13.1-mile race, on March 4. A soccer player, Harding was not a fan of running but realized it could be a platform to raise funds for the orphanage.
Building a place for older children
The Upendo Orphanage is home to 60 children from newborns to 8 years old. After the children reach their eighth birthday, the sisters must take them to other orphanages, which are government run. In the orphanages for older children, young people sleep three to a bed, get only two meals a day and do not have a supportive environment, noted Harding.
One Kid at a Time is a nonprofit working to construct and run a new orphanage into which the older children can “graduate.”
“As of today, the land has been purchased and the building/construction plans have been approved. However, the project is stalled because of funding. The total amount needed to build is $150,000, and we are unable to break ground until all the funds are raised,” said Harding. “While it would be an answered prayer to reach $150,000, I knew that $5,000 to start off with is a much more reasonable goal. So, Jolanta and I have been training a few times a week, so we can successfully finish the race and provide a home for our sweet babies.”
Harding will return to Georgia in late June, after spending nine months in Tanzania. She plans to become a speech language pathologist to provide services for speech, language, social and cognitive communication and swallowing disorders. Harding has applied to graduate programs at UGA and Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee.
“We work in schools, hospitals and skilled nursing facilities. I have to complete two more years of school. So, I hope to be able to finish school and work with the deaf and hard of hearing community for a few years and save up. Then I could afford to return to Tanzania and provide my services to the people here,” she said.
Finding a church home
Harding is the daughter of Joe and Guadalupe Harding and has three siblings. Her family attended Christ Our Hope Church in Lithonia and later became members at St. Pius X Church in Conyers. Her parents volunteer at the parish and at the nearby Monastery of the Holy Spirit.
While studying in Athens, the UGA Catholic Center was always home base for Harding. She joined a Bible study there for the first time, made special friends, napped between classes and ate many Sunday dinners after Mass, ultimately growing in her faith.
“David Briones oversees the collegiate activities of the center and his wife, Persia, is the phenomenal chef who prepares our Sunday night meals. Their family is the reason so many students seek refuge there,” said Harding. “It is our home away from home.”
Her time in Tanzania has also strengthened Harding’s faith. She goes to Mass every morning, and if she doesn’t show up the sisters come looking for her.
“My dear friend Jolanta is always teaching me something new about our faith, but more so from the Polish way of life. Polish Catholics are extremely strict compared to most American Catholics,” she said.
Harding said there are no words to describe being able to experience Mass in a different country and language.
“To truly see and understand how universal the Catholic Church is, is something so special. I’ve learned Mass in Swahili along with almost all our prayers,” she added.
In her first 24 hours in Tanzania, Harding was feeling a bit homesick and unsure if she was meant to be there.
A paperwork mishap caused a delay in her being able to work or volunteer for many weeks, and she said, “I would be of more use back in the States. I am not doing any good here.”
Harding said God must have heard the words, because the following day she and one of the sisters went to the house of a mother, who told them her son, Godfrey, is deaf.
“It was in that moment that I was brought to tears. All the waiting and frustration led to me being able to meet this little boy. I have studied American Sign Language for two years with the goal of serving patients who are deaf and hard of hearing,” she said.
The child’s mother was unable to communicate with him but had two Tanzanian Sign Language books.
“I quickly grabbed the books and begin conversing back and forth with Godfrey. To see his face immediately perk up because someone finally understood him—what a gift,” she recalled. “So, now I am able to sponsor his family and ensure he can attend a school for the deaf.”
When she and Kazak visit the orphanage, the children chant their names.
“While it is easy for us to say we are helping them, I think it is the other way around. Their laughs, their smiles and their love they share with us is what Jolanta and I look forward to every week,” she said. “They give me my purpose. They are my reason for being here. God was right.”