Encouraging faith in Tanzania
Featured photo (above): Jonah Simon, minister for the Esilalei Church of…
ARUSHA, Tanzania — Bernadette clutched the gate of Neema Village, a finely manicured campus on a hillside overlooking East Africa’s majestic Rift Valley, and cried for her daughter.
Tanzania’s social services had taken Zawadi, a Swahili name that means “gift,” away from her.
For Bernadette, the loss marked one more cruel chapter in a hard life. At age 12 she witnessed the brutal murder of her mother. She fled her home and spent most of her teen years on the streets of Arusha, a tourist hub between Serengeti National Park and Mount Kilimanjaro.
“I felt like I lost my mind,” she said. “I was running crazy.” She got pregnant. She struggled to feed and care for her daughter.
Now her one and only Gift was living on the other side of the beautiful gate, at a home for orphaned and neglected babies.
But God saw her, just as he had seen Zawadi. Workers with Neema Village, a nonprofit supported by individual Christians and Churches of Christ, took Bernadette into the ministry’s Mothers Against Poverty program, known as MAP. She learned to sew and use a computer. She attended classes on women’s rights. Finally, after an assessment by a nurse, she was reunited with Zawadi.
“This beautiful woman has made an incredible comeback,” said Dorris Fortson, who launched Neema Village a decade ago with her husband, Michael. “Her story is a testimony that none of us can ever go so far that we can’t come back to God.”
That includes Dorris, who grew up at a Christian children’s home in Oklahoma. Her teen years were tough — though not as tough as Bernadette’s, she said. Dorris tried to run away a few times, but she came back and finished high school.
That’s when she said to herself, “You will never see me in church again.”
“MAP moms,” as Dorris calls them, told their stories to The Christian Chronicle during a reporter’s visit to Neema Village. Several shared that they felt unseen until Dorris and other Neema staffers introduced them to “the God who sees me.”
@christianchronicle Malika (on the left), who’s blind, and Joycie are are in a boarding school program at Neema Village, a rescue center in East Africa supported by Churches of Christ. #rescue #childrenshome #africamission #hymns #cocnews #churchesofchrist #christiantiktok ♬ original sound – The Christian Chronicle
That’s the first name in Scripture (“El Roi” in Hebrew) given to God by a human — a woman whose life mirrored many of these Tanzanian women. Genesis 16 tells the story of Hagar, an Egyptian slave of Sarai who was given to Abram after Sarai grew impatient for the child God had promised them. Hagar became pregnant, and Sarai mistreated her. In desperation, Hagar fled, but an angel told her that “the Lord has heard of your misery” and would bless her child.
Related: Encouraging faith in Tanzania
El Roi also saw Dorris.
“I wasn’t really excited about being in a children’s home when I grew up,” she said as she and her husband shared a meal with a group of volunteers at the Neema Village guest house. “I couldn’t wait to get out of there.”
Getting out of the Tipton Children’s Home in southwest Oklahoma meant crossing the state line into Texas to attend Abilene Christian University. The home covered her tuition.
There she met Michael, a preacher in training, on a blind date. A friend of his said, “I’ve got these girls, and we want to go to a movie, five girls. If you drive us, you can have your pick.”
He picked the one who loved singing — a love she gained at the Tipton home. In the back of the car, Dorris belted out the lyrics: “Does your chewing gum lose its flavor on the bedpost overnight?”
“You were the prettiest girl there,” Michael told his wife between dinner and brownies at the guest house, “and I just said, ‘This is the one I want.’”
Michael’s cool, calm demeanor was a perfect balance for Dorris’ fiery intensity. In 1963 he was recruited by missionary Eldred Echols to join a group of 12 aspiring preachers on a “Safari for Souls.” He spent six months in southern Africa, camping in tents, surrounded by lions and hyenas. The students cut paths with machetes to reach remote villages, where they hung sheets on the side of their Land Rover and showed gospel filmstrips by evangelist Jule Miller.
Once, while using a latrine he and the students had set up in the African bush, Michael found himself in a staring contest with a cobra. “So finally, you know, I just said, ‘You have to wait your turn.’ Then he turned around and slithered off.”
The safari yielded more than 1,000 baptisms. Michael returned to ACU with a desire to do full-time mission work in Africa. He graduated, married Dorris and found churches to support them.
Dorris, despite studying at a Christian university and marrying a preacher, still felt disconnected from faith, unseen by God.
“The church really ought to vet their missionaries better,” she said with a laugh. “They basically sent a pagan to Africa.”
The Fortsons moved to Tanzania in 1965 with their newborn daughter, Kim. Two more of their children, Rob and Bekah, came into the world in Africa. The family worked with Chimala Mission, helped plant congregations and served an 80-student preaching school.
Dorris fell in love with Africa and the African souls she encountered. Despite her lagging faith, she found herself in Bible study groups with fellow mothers.
“Those African women and I found God together,” she said. She may have gone to Africa as a pagan, she came back “a lover of Jesus. He’s had my heart ever since.”
They returned to the U.S. in 1971. Michael preached for congregations in Texas and spent a long stint as a campus minister at Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches.
In 2008, the Fortsons took a trip to Tanzania with their grown children. HIV/AIDS had ravaged the continent. The family was appalled by the number of children, orphaned by the pandemic, who were living and begging on the streets.
“Mom and Dad,” said their oldest son, Rob, “you can do something about this.”
They did. In 2011 Michael and Dorris surveyed 22 orphan centers in Tanzania, Uganda and Kenya. Most could not accept newborns. So Michael started building custom, double-decker baby beds and buying diapers while Dorris made arrangements for the move.
In a rented facility dubbed Neema House (the Swahili word for “grace”), they began serving the most vulnerable of Tanzania’s vulnerable while they looked for land to expand the ministry. They found a 10-acre property, whose owners envisioned it as a safari lodge, and bought it.
Today Neema Village serves more than 60 children, from infant to age 4, in three homes on the property. Some are found discarded in gravel pits or garbage dumps. Some are the children of addicts and have serious medical conditions. Some thrive and grow, but others don’t make it. A team of Tanzanians feeds, changes, bathes and cradles the children around the clock.
“They have bath time down. It is amazing,” said Katie Martinez, a member of the Memorial Road Church of Christ in Oklahoma City and one of about 250 Christians who volunteer at Neema each year. “Those nannies have everything down to an art.”
Since its opening on July 12, 2012, Neema Village has grown to include training facilities for mothers and midwives and a small farm that produces vegetables and milk for the babies and the nonprofit’s staff, which has grown to about 60.
“Michael is calm, a hands-on worker, and Dorris is passion and ideas and enthusiasm. And she’s fearless,” said their niece, Connie Penick, who served at Neema with the group from the Memorial Road church. “They both are thinkers and doers. I’m sure that’s why God has used them in such a noticeable way.”
Despite the growth, Dorris knows each of the babies’ names. She still loves singing and leads devotionals for the littlest ones with songs like “Moto Ume Waka” (“Shine Your Light” in Swahili).
Children don’t stay at the village for long. The ministry works to return them to a family member or places them with adoptive families.
“We are not an orphanage. We’re a rescue center. They go home knowing that there’s a man named Jesus who loves them.”
“We are not an orphanage,” Dorris said. “We’re a rescue center.”
Some children return to Christian homes. Others are raised by Muslim families. Regardless, Dorris said, “They go home knowing that there’s a man named Jesus who loves them.
“I never in my wildest dreams thought I would end up in a baby home,” she added. “But I can tell you, it is the most fun thing I’ve ever done.”
Dorris’ past gives her insight, said Janice Phelps, a recent volunteer at Neema Village who grew up in Tipton and worships with a Church of Christ in Chickasha, Okla.
“I think the reason Dorris is such a good director is because she was abandoned herself and knows what it is like to be raised in an orphanage,” Phelps said. “I think her full-circle story is interesting and uplifting.”
The Tanzanian staff feel the same way, said Nicholas Baraka. For years he tried to scrape together a living on the streets of Arusha before Neema hired him as a guard a decade ago. He also has worked as a gardener and a welder for the ministry.
“It helps my family,” he said of his job. As for Dorris, “I’m thankful she remembered where she came from.”
In recent years, Neema Village has added training classes for midwives in Tanzania’s Maasai villages to help lower the infant mortality rate in rural areas.
Through Neema’s MAP program, women learn skills that help earn an income, feed their families and pay their children’s school fees.
Leaving the ministry’s picturesque campus, Dorris and program coordinator Ana Kimambo traveled into Arusha to introduce the Chronicle to a few of the program’s success stories.
Lynette, age 25, was working at a sewing machine as her son, 5-year-old Isaac, played with a pull toy made of a juice box with bottle-cap wheels. She’s had the business for about four years.
“When I gave birth to my son, I had nothing,” she said. “Sometimes I thought that God had abandoned me.” Then, “I felt a voice inside of me saying, ‘Calm down. Just wait.’”
A friend introduced her to Neema Village, and the staff there “really cared and saw my situation,” she said.
Eva, 33, has a burgeoning salon that brings in enough money for her three children, ages 9, 5 and 3. She came to Neema at the end of an abusive marriage.
“All the day he was beating me,” she said of her husband, who didn’t support her and eventually “ran away and left.”
She has an open Bible on her counter. One of her favorite verses is 2 Chronicles 16:9: “For the eyes of the Lord range throughout the earth to strengthen those whose hearts are fully committed to him.”
As for Bernadette, she runs a successful business designing clothes and styling hair. When volunteers from Georgetown, Texas, brought her new signs for her shop, she was too busy with her clients to pause for photos.
Dorris calls her “Mama Zawadi” in honor of her daughter, now 8 years old. When the Chronicle visited Bernadette’s shop, mother and daughter were again separated. Zawadi and several other of Neema Village’s “alumni” were away on a safari. The ministry provided a vehicle and a guide to take them.
Few Tanzanians, and fewer Tanzanian children, get to go on the excursions and see the wildlife that tourists fly halfway around the world to experience, Dorris said. She wanted Zawadi to experience it for herself.
“I’m happy for her,” Zawadi’s mama said. “I hope she’s seeing lions and elephants.”
Subscribe today to receive more inspiring articles like this one delivered straight to your inbox twice a month.
Your donation helps us not only keep our quality of journalism high, but helps us continue to reach more people in the Churches of Christ community.