Plates Full of Love

by Jen Johnson

Nutritious food is the best way to satisfy a hungry child’s stomach. Add the right ingredients, and it can fill their hearts up, too.

If you happen to be in Dodoma, Tanzania, and pop in to Iringa Road Church on a Friday afternoon, you will see a lot of kids in blue shirts. From the little ones with their gap-toothed smiles to the high schoolers arriving straight from class, their outfits show that they are part of the Lahash Sponsorship Program. You will see games, worship, Bible teaching, and social time. You might also notice quite a few mothers and grandmothers sitting in the courtyard, hard at work preparing huge quantities of food. One of those ladies will most certainly catch your eye. She’s hard to miss in her tall chef’s hat and full apron, crisp and blinding white. She is often giving instructions, taste-testing dishes, and adding seasonings. She keeps things moving along with a warm smile, quick laugh, and close attention to the details of the meal. Her formal name is Grace Chiboni, but to every child and volunteer at the church she is “Mama Neema.”

Back in 2005, a group of 12 women began holding weekly gatherings under a large tree in the church yard. They prayed fervently for the suffering people in their community, especially the many children whose lives were endangered by poverty-related illnesses and HIV. As a group, they had minimal formal education and few resources, yet they began visiting the children in their homes to pray for them and offer what little they could. They called themselves Wamama wa Upendo, the Mothers of Love, and Mama Neema was one of them. Soon they had an official organization called Grace & Healing Ministry. Lahash partnered with them, and the life-changing process of connecting extremely vulnerable children with caring sponsors began.

Mama Neema and the other Mothers of Love were thrilled to see the children being sponsored and coming to the church every Friday for “program day.” A wonderful meal was served each week, yet they knew that the children’s ongoing health struggles were often due to poor nutrition at home. As they visited the kids, it became clear that many of them to ate only one meal a day or even less. The profound nutritional needs of the Grace & Healing Ministry families compelled Lahash to create an event in 2010 called Rice & Beans Month. That first year, the participants were mostly staff and some faithful volunteers. For the month of March, they simplified their meals to focus on rice and beans, eating in solidarity with the vulnerable. Then they donated the money they saved on groceries during the month, and it was enough to offer some critical support to many struggling families. Bags of beans and maize meal were distributed by the Mothers of Love, enough to last families for several days or even up to a month. It was a start.

As the Rice & Beans Month event grew each year, so did the Mothers’ vision of what it could accomplish in the lives of the kids, particularly those living with HIV. They knew that increasing nutrition for these kids would enable them to take their medications consistently and without the harsh side effects of taking them on an empty stomach. Their fragile bodies needed more calories, and specifically more protein, in order to fight off illness and maintain growth. They created a Nutrition Program specifically for these kids, funded by Rice & Beans Month. It ensured that these kids were getting hearty protein-rich meals more than just once a week at program day. Mama Neema considers protein and nutrients vital elements, but they are not enough for her. The children’s food must be high quality, fresh, and delicious. It must be prepared and presented with care. And as she serves it, she pays close attention to the children whose health status tends to fluctuate.

Gabriel was one of the very first children sponsored through Lahash, and at that time he was near death. He is now a young man, still under the watchful eyes of the Mothers of Love. When his health took a downturn last fall, Mama Neema knew. After walking through the serving line for a regular program day meal, he turned to go sit with his friends. Mama Neema called him back. She added extra food to his piled plate, admonishing him to eat even more. When the main ingredient of a meal is love, every helping says, “You deserve to be strong and healthy.”

Grace & Healing Ministry has grown to include many more kids, and Rice & Beans Month has grown to help with many more projects. Mama Neema now oversees the feeding and nutrition programs at two different ministry sites in Dodoma, and holds an official salaried position funded by Rice & Beans Month. Fulfilling her passion to nourish children now helps provide for her own family, and this is no small task!

Mama Neema and her husband have a modest home that is full to overflowing. In addition to their biological children, they have several foster children, too. Children like Dotto and Kulwa – twins who were living on their own at much too young an age, struggling to find food or make it to school. Children like Claudia, whose unhealthy family dynamics left her physically and emotionally wounded and in need of safety. As much as Grace & Healing Ministry values supporting children within their own home setting whenever possible, there are instances where it simply isn’t wise to do so. “Let them stay with us” is often Mama Neema’s response.

When the Lahash Media Team last visited Grace & Healing Ministry, Mama Neema hosted them for an evening in her home. She could hardly contain her joy at having visitors. “Welcome, welcome, you are very much welcome,” she repeated as she rocked back and forth with excitement. During an evening of warm fellowship and delicious food, she shared how God has put a deep love in her heart for children, and she doesn’t know what else she could possibly do with her life other than care for them. She fervently prays that she will be able to care for even more kids, and humbly asked the team to join her in that prayer. She dreams of someday purchasing a plot of land and building a larger house, so that they can fill it up.

There are millions of vulnerable kids in East Africa who need love and attentive support in order to survive. God has prepared Christians from across the region to minister to those children, and Lahash is honored to come alongside them and join in that work. The way Mama Neema pours her life into caring for these kids is an inspiration, pushing us to do all we can to partner well with these faithful ministers of God’s love and grace. While Mama Neema waits for her prayers to be answered, she faithfully feeds all those kids in blue shirts. Every meal is a reminder of their place in the Sponsorship Program and their place in her heart. As people across the world participate in Rice & Beans Month, they make their compassion as tangible as a plate of food. As long as Mama Neema is in charge of filling those plates, they will be piled high with a mother’s love.