Decorating Truths from A 15-Year-Old Tanzanian Boy

Warning:: Moms of boys may experience uncomfortable, unexplainable side effects while reading this post. Side effects are treatable with a prompt visit here to sponsor a teenage boy.  In order to alleviate the discomfort, take one or two of those and email me in the morning–for real, you should email me after you do this.

Flashback about four weeks ago.  I get in bed at my normal bed time one Sunday night (yes, it is actually still in the 8’s have I told you I am 97 years old?)  and I happen to remember to bring my phone upstairs with me and I see a text from Caroline.

What luck!  So I watch and I learn one thing about Tanzania; I learn what CBS decides to tell me about the Maasai Tribe. I mean, I didn’t even realize that Tanzanite comes from Tanzania–I really should have researched this country I was going to visit.  I must have doubled up on art class and skipped Geography in school or something.  But now I’m armed with a tiny bit of knowledge about Tanzania and it feels good. Note to self:: Maasai Tribe.

Amazing Race on CBS

Flash forward to today.  It’s the day I get to meet our sponsored child, Topiwo. We just started sponsoring him right before this trip so all I have is a photo of him and a name I’m not sure how to pronounce so I call him “Topo” to myself and the initial information that Compassion sends, but we hadn’t corresponded through letters yet so, you know, we didn’t really know each other.

I was lucky enough to get to be there when Amy met her sponsored child and it was breathtaking.  And I knew every meeting is different and I am a 97, I mean 38-year-old mom who has Wynonna Judd on her iPod meeting a 15-year-old boy in Africa.  Worlds are colliding people.  I was prepared for lots of awkwardness and maybe not even a hug or anything, maybe a thumbs up or something or a rock throwing contest at lizards or whatever.  I’ve been around 15-year-old boys before at my own house,  they are their own special people and I’m good with that.

So we leave the city of Arusha, and we drive an hour and twenty minutes into the most beautiful land I’ve ever laid eyes on–sorry North Carolina.

Vast green grasslands with big huge-attention stealing, Mt. Kilimanjaro quietly watching over the entire last 45 minutes of driving.  Mt. Kilimanjaro is an introvert but one you can’t help but notice.  It was breathtaking.  And on the way, our guide, Mary tells us that many of the children at this Compassion location are Maasai. Wait, what? Maasai?  I know that word! The ONE thing I actually kind of heard of about Tanzania?  I have to put on my sunglasses on the bus and make Maggie tell me funny stories because how do I explain that I’m already tearing up that Topo might be Maasai?

So we pull up to the site and they sing to us because they want to make us cry.

And we get out and we start shaking hands and laughing and introducing ourselves and I make my way around scanning the crowd for a boy that looks like this …

 our youngest holding our photo of Topo

And finally, I make my way around to a group of boys and a sassy girl with some kind of transition lenses glasses…

and they are all circled around and pointing to a boy standing in the middle of the group with his head down….and he is smiling.  And I ask him his name and it starts with “Top” which is the only part of his name I know how to pronounce.

And there he is. Wearing the same clothes as in the picture.


I hope he could tell I was happy to meet him?

And I am so happy that I didn’t cry (Maggie was praying for that specifically) because who wants to meet a 38-year-old mom with Wynonna on her iPod who is also CRYING? No one!  Everyone would much rather meet a 38-year-old mom with Wynonna on her iPod who is making a face like they are going to eat them.

So he is absolutely adorable (15-year-old boys everywhere now hate me but whatevs, they are not my demographic anyway and he was TOTALLY adorable, people!).  I pulled out a little photo book we made for him and showed him pictures of my family.


He loved this one…

Then it was time for them to sing another song because they wanted to see me cry again here’s a 25 second clip if you want to hear.


back row, right corner, a little off rhythm, purple sweater, yellow shirt–oh wait they all have that on

Then we went into the Compassion office and, y’all, he grabbed MY HAND.  I promise I did not in any way try to hint for him to hold my hand, I wanted to make sure I gave him space to be his own personality (clearly, I held back all of my emotions which you can tell by the stoic look on my face in the photos) but oh my word he held my hand and sat by me in the office and he looked at the photos about 23 times while running his finger over parts of them and asking me what that thing was (a street light) and then he raised up the book and kissed it–right on the photo of our dog!

Next we got to go to Topiwo’s home.  And this part needs its own series, people and I’m going to do my best to cram it into one long, everwordy post. So grab a coffee, run to the bathroom  and get ready to be astonished…. this is gonna be worth it, as long as I don’t wreck it all up.  I will never forget this as long as I shall live…

And for the record, I’ve always said, you never really know a person until you’ve been in their home or at least I’m saying it starting today.

After four days of walking over urban dirt roads and paths littered with trash, visiting children in concrete homes crammed close together we found ourselves in this pristine, pure, open plain at the foot of some mountains…

here’s a few seconds of our walk – it’s shaky but you get the idea::


And then we get to his home.

A handmade home.

And it is breathtaking.  He LIVES here. And it’s a simple hut made of stuff of the earth and it is humble and glorious all at the same time.  OH my goodness this child lives in a mud hut!  A real one!

And we meet his aunt (I think?) who he lives with.  Topiwo’s mother died when he was young.  His aunt is absolutely wonderful and we do not speak the same language in words but we do have an interpreter and I can tell by how she speaks and her eyes and her face that she is nothing but maternal and I am in love with her.  And disclaimer: they do not smile when they pose for photos so even though she looks a little stern as soon as she started speaking and the camera was down she came alive.

So Topiwo had a sponsor since 2005 (before our family) but for some reason they cancelled so now we get to be his sponsor.

She talked and talked and told us how Compassion has helped their family over the last seven years, and oh my goodness this is the part where I tried to hold back tears. That area of Tanzania has experienced drought so Compassion has supplied the family with food. Maasai live off the land so they are immediately affected by drought. Even though Topiwo is the one sponsored, Compassion visits the home of all their children (his last home visit was in April) and they assess any needs of the family because they want to make sure that no one goes without food and basic health care.

Because of Compassion, now Topiwo can go to school, have a uniform and a pair of shoes and even get tutoring for his studies.  I ask her what she hopes for Topiwo’s future and she says for him to do well in school and succeed in life. And Compassion gives him that chance.

Meanwhile all the neighbors and family have gathered. There are babies and children and men and women and they all seem to know that Topiwo’s sponsor is here and they want to meet us all and shake our hands and they are so gracious and mild mannered. I am so grateful for the community that Topiwo is surrounded with–there are so many people here that know him and love him!  Such a different feel from the home yesterday.

We went inside the circular mud hut, it had a fire pit in the middle, a damp dirt floor, no windows at all–just a small hole and it’s really, really dark. There were two rooms and you could see thick branches like pillars holding up the structure from the inside and twigs and grass on the roof.  This is where they live.

he tried to look stern but this man was a sweetheart, patting Topiwo on the back from time to time

And we walked outside and you know what? As we were getting ready to leave I didn’t feel sad about where Topiwo lives.  I actually was incredibly happy for him because he is rich with love and community and joy and gracefulness.  Richer than a lot of people that I know.

Now if you have read this far this is where it gets worth it. On the outside of the home Topiwo had painted Psalm 23 and then his name and the names of others who live there.

Topiwo lives in a mud hut.

Do you remember how the 23rd Psalm starts?

Did I happen to mention that Topiwo lives in a mud hut? And that his family lives in Tanzania and didn’t have any food until Compassion stepped in?  This young man quietly declares his faith and I wondered about what message I am sending people when they walk through my front door?  Do I really believe that I have everything I need, or do I immediately launch into declaring what I don’t have and what isn’t good enough as soon as someone walks into my home?

This 15-year-old Tanzanian boy who lives in a mud hut is teaching me about how I think about my home and my life.

So I might get in trouble with Shaun Groves for doing this, I don’t know if we are allowed to be partial to a certain group of children but, I remember that Shaun said teenage boys are always the last to get picked for sponsorship.  So, as a mom of 3 boys in tween and teendom I stand on my soap box on behalf of the teenage boys who don’t currently have a sponsor and ask my fellow moms of boys :: will you and your boy sponsor a teenage boy today?

They are the near future of their community and are patiently waiting for us to release them from poverty.

And they also might teach you a thing or two about decorating.

**Photos by the fun and quirky and photogenic Keely Marie who does a great Kip voice.

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  1. What a beautiful story of your visit!! Thank you for confirming that we are bringing hope to these children. Thank you!!!

  2. You have moved me to tears and pierced my spirit. Heading to the Compassion website to find my kiddo!

  3. Thank you for this post, loved it. You seem so full of life, I bet he fell in love with you too.

  4. Cam Ragland says

    Thank you for changing me today. I love your heart and your gift to express it. <3

  5. With tears streaming from my eyes, and an actual laugh-out-loud and the last sentence, consider it DONE! I’m about to be a teenage boy’s newest sponsor!

  6. Thanks for a great post. I’ve been to Africa once. I think everyone who goes there leaves part of their heart there. The people are wonderful aren’t they?

  7. Thank you for sharing. My oldest daughter sponsors from Tanzania! I loved TOPO!!!! Amazing.

    Much love

  8. WOW! what an awesome post!! As a result, we are now proud sponsors of two Tanzanian boys, Erick (17) and Hosea (16). Thank you so much:)

  9. I love your heart!

    I’m in South Africa and we sponsor a boy too, not from Tanzania but from our Western Cape where boys really need direction and help.

    I just really LOVE this post – thanks for writing and reigniting my passion for sponsorship.

  10. What an amazing story that puts us in touch with this other side of the world that goes so unnoticed. Topo is an extraordinary kid, one of probably many.

  11. What a beautiful post, and thank you for the reality check. It’s beautiful what you do.

  12. Wow!!! What an experience!!! I shared this with my 2 children. Thanks for sharing!!! And for the record my daughter says you look like a teenager!!!

  13. Amazing. Simply amazing.

  14. “….. I actually was incredibly happy for him because he is rich with love and community and joy and gracefulness. Richer than a lot of people that I know.”
    Amen to that!!
    Western people often mistake things for happiness, but it’s not the things that make us happy but the people we are surrounded by!

  15. And I quote (insert Nester in frantic, cute, worry voice) “What if I come back from Tanzania and I am NOT changed?!?” He he he ;) Looks like God had that one covered.

  16. michelle s. says

    Thank you for posting this. We have sponsored two Compassion kids for several years now and while we do exchange letters frequently it’s still hard to really grasp where and how they live. Our kids are 12 & 14 and your post simply provides encouragement for our family to keep sponsoring these kids all the way to adulthood. It might be easy to justify letting that financial commitment go as it’s hard to “see” the money working but your post really speaks to my heart of the need for these older kids to be sponsored as they are the next adults in their communities. :)

  17. Words escape me. Thank for sharing all your incredible God moments.

  18. We sponsor two little boys (same age as our boys) but if we’re ever in a position to sponsor another, I’ll make sure it’s a teenager.

  19. Lisa Frank says

    Now I’m welling up with tears! This post brought back so many memories for me. As a junior in college, I took a trip with about 6 other Education students to Kenya. Luckily, a wonderful Maasai student from our college came with us, so we were treated to all the “insider” experiences! We visited rural villages just like this one, taught students in local schools for a few days, and had the incredible opportunity to actually spend the night in a Maasai mud + dung hut just like the ones you saw. You can see how tiny it is, yet they have stalls inside the huts for their sheep/goat/cow and bring them inside during the night. They also keep their fire pit smoking, so during the night I was in a pitch-dark hut, sleeping on mud and straw, and surrounded by smoke. Let’s just say I don’t know how they do it with such grace!! My time in Kenya {right next to Tanzania} was probably the most dramatic and heart-touching of my life and the pure joy of the people, even in the face of such hardships, will be forever imprinted on my soul. Count yourself blessed, Nester. :)

  20. Hi Nester! I wanted to come back and tell you that I followed through and felt lead to sponsor one of these Tanzanian boys. I looked at the link to it a few days ago and then looked again last night and my heart was moved to see that previously there was two pages full of boys to sponsor and now it is down to one! Praise God! And how amazing that you have been used and felt it on your heart to call us to consider these older boys. Tanzania will be different because of YOU.

    I have known in my heart for awhile that I needed to be giving some of “my” money. I watch my nephew twice a week and blog and this is my “fun” money while my husband’s income pays for everything else. Honestly, the money I make usually gets spent on myself…on decorating our home or on clothes. It allows us to prepare for the future so that I can stay home with our kids one day and frees us from arguing about spending money on some of these “unnecessary” things. It works for us. But over the past month or so I have been feeling the Lord pull on my heart. This is money I am making and keeping all to myself. It doesn’t get tithed…it isn’t given away very often. So though we already sponsor another child on my husband’s income, I knew I needed to be sponsoring one on mine. So I picked Emmanuel…and how appropriate that his birthday is December 24!

    I feel my heart changing…letting go of my agenda to be available to my nephew…reading your posts and sensing a need for a greater calling…my heart is becoming passionate for these sweet boys…and perhaps being a mom in the next few years. The Lord has used this specific post to change my heart. I just wrote my first letter to our other sponsored child that we have had for about 4 years. And I look forward to seeing Emmanuel’s sweet face come in the mail soon.

    Thank you for being willing to be faithful to a higher calling. It is time for me to take that courage and start living it out as well. xo

    • OH ASHELY!!!!

      if only i had words, but I don’t. I cannot tell you how I am in awe of the Nesting Place community. You are all so giving and gracious and it’s a pleasure to know you. You just gave yourself a gift and I am so excited for both you and that child!!

  21. Kqren Noble says

    I am balling my eyes out-thank you for chronicling your visit and the insight and wisdom that you gathered while you were there. I am going to share this with my teenage son and I believe he will be moved on to be a sponsor too.

  22. This story was such a blessing to me. Can we all say…:we have everything I need” Such contentment. I didnt think Compassion really helped the children–I really though it was anotherr scam. Thanks for sharing.

  23. I am totally teared up, and wanting to drop everything to go to Uganda to meet my sponsor child. He is a teenager boy now who I have been sponsoring for 14 years. What a beautiful story. I am so glad that you had the chance to go meet him, what a gift!

  24. Nester – i check out your blog regularly to pick up some decorating tips and to just enjoy your posts. today, thanks to you, we- me and my 3 little boys (7, 5, & 3)- picked up sponsorship of 2 teenage boys (tanzania and bolivia). thanks for leading me to more than i expected. god bless you and safe return home!

  25. Loved your Blog about Tanzania. I am currently a sponsor of a young man there, too. He is now 19 so I don’t know how much longer he will be under the Compassion roof. But, God knows his needs and the desires of his heart. I trust He will continue to provide for him and give him grace. Your blog was so well-written—made me feel as though I was there myself. Joy! PS I just signed on to sponsor another 14 yr old girl from another country.

  26. You are amazing in the way you tell your story. I KNEW about people in Africa living in mud huts and needing assistance but I didn’t KNOW it, or rather FEEL it. Does that makes sense? You wrote it so poignantly. It made me laugh it made me cry….. :) You were the right person to go on this trip. Thank you for sharing.

  27. words, smiles and tears…you have made me want to sponsor a teenage boy, thank you!

  28. Kim Kamchan says

    M – What a Mother’s Day story. Thank you for sharing it with us all. Bless you and your family as you enjoy the sponsorship. Kristin and I sponsor a little girl in Haiti thru World Vision. It is amazing to love others we might never meet and know our help gives them a better life. Enjoy those boys of yours…every minute counts! Love, Kim

  29. I was just sitting here feeling sorry for myself because I can’t afford a new super cute desk and have to use an old desk. One that doesn’t really look good in the room I wanna put it….you know the room with the sofa, love seat and the 52 inch TV? Then I read this post and I just got over myself. I’m bookmarking this and reading it any time I forget that I don’t need more….I have everything I need. I seriously needed this right now. Thank you for reminding me.

  30. Amazing story! You made me cry! Thanks for sharing! :)

  31. So I read this on a day I’m at a “job-job” at my husband’s studio … sorry UPS guy – it’s not you, it’s me (or Nester). :) seriously, I’m so glad because we’re in the process of “shopping for a house, not building one out of mud and it all seems perfectly ridiculous – is the kitchen big enough? What about the number of bathrooms? We’re still going to get a house that’s massive in comparison to what our sponsored kids in Zambia & Kenya have, but posts like this help me remember how God’s provision and grace cover us much more than any newly-shingled roof. Thanks for sharing your experience! Thanks for using your gifts for Him!

  32. The first child I sponsored back in 2001 was a young boy named Jerson from Guatamala. The reason I chose him? He was the same age as my son at the time, 11, in fact they had almost the same birthday! We were blessed to sponsor him until he turned 18. We now sponsor another little boy from Haiti and a girl from India. We’ve always tried to pick children near the ages of our children. Thanks for sharing with us!

  33. Thank you for sharing about your mission to Africa. Our church reached our vision for Manilla. We started preschools, trained leaders and pastors, and lives that excepted Christ as their Savior.And provided the funds that were needed to reach that vision.We will now pass the baton on to those that God has touched and will carry on the vision. Our Senior Pastor retired and now our Pastor has a vision for Peru. We have children our church will be sponsoring through World Vision. Our Pastor and two other Pastors from our church this September will go to Peru. Then we will hear from our Pastor what God has laid on their hearts when they return. It is really exciting to see The Hand of God moving in lives that have so little yet like you shared $35 a month can change a life for God’s Glory. Thank you

  34. Were your guides by chance Vernon and Mary Smith? Missionaries to Tanzania who are friends of mine. Mary and I attended church camp and youth rallies together years ago. God bless!

  35. Thank you for sharing your beautiful story! You touched my heart. I’ve read about others that sponsored children through Compassion and it has me praying as to whether or not now would be the time for me to sponsor. God bless you for your heart.

  36. Fabulous, wonderful, moving. Thank you!

  37. Girl, I don’t know how I had missed this post, but I’m so glad you pointed me in this direction this morning. I wish I was there to give you a big hug. Thanks for telling Topiwo’s story.

  38. Wow – this really touched my heart <3. Thanks so much for sharing Topiwo's story! I will never forget the verse written on his hut.

  39. Like many others I don’t really have the words to say. I will always remember Psalm 23 written on Topiwo’s hut. Thank you so much for sharing even though you didn’t think you could.

  40. Betg Williams says

    What a truly amazing story! Thanks for sharing such a wonderful heartwarming story!

    It always amazes me how people in this world who don’t have much–appreciate what they have & feel as though they have enough. While those who have much–mainly us in USA–do a
    majorioty of the complaining about circumstances, not having everything that others have. We need to be more Christi like–Tanzanian like & appreciate ALL that God has blessed us with–His grace, mercy, love & the essentials Food, clothing, shelter!

    The pictues are just georgous–thanks for sharing when you thought you couldn’t!

  41. thanks for putN our broken air conditioner in perspective

  42. Michelle says

    This is soooooo beautiful!!! Laughing & crying, all at once… Thank you, THANK YOU, for sharing your journey. You have moved me to take action! My 7yr old son & I will be visiting Compassionate today to choose an “adopted brother/son” to sponsor.
    Bless you, as you continue to Bless so many others!!

  43. Truly eye-opening. Straight to the heart! Thanks for sharing your trip with us!! Forever changed…

  44. Thank you for sharing the beauty of meeting your sponsor child. Isn’t it wonderful that God allows us in the rich west to share what we have with a family like Topiwo’s?
    I’m going to write to our sponsor child in Equador today.

  45. We do–and we pray for him all the time and I would love nothing more than to go to Ethiopia and meet him . . . and the tears are running down my face.

  46. I’m almost speechless (writeless?) as I poise my hands to write this comment. I’m full of emotion – for the boy who wrote Psalm 23:1 on his mud home. Thank you for sharing this. I can’t write any any more words – but thank you. My heart is full.

  47. Crying over my breakfast reading this. It looks like your boys have sponsored a child about their own age, I think that’s a wonderful way for them to connect. And I love the quote on the back of his house. So incredible that he feels this way. I hear it over and over again happiness can’t be bought, it comes from within. Thanks for sharing.

  48. Stephanie says

    WoW!!! I will embrace the truth that I have everything I need and more than enough – your article hit me very deep – I knew this truth – I went to Haiti and had a similar response – but some how I have moved away from the truth that I had embraced. Thank you for the reminder – WOW!!!

  49. Christine says

    You look like you’re about 21 in these pictures, not a 38 year old mom! So glad for the joy that radiates through you from this experience!

  50. Cecilia Poole says

    Thank you for blessing me with this story, I am from South Africa and am now living in the States where I feel like a refugee in many ways, though this post reminds me of how fortunate I am and of the truth of Psalm 23, hope this dear boy will know how much he has blessed us all!
    Thank you for sharing this story, so well!

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