Written by Jami Staples

Where I come from when someone says “family-style” they are describing a quaint little restaurant where mashed potatoes come with every entree and the fifteen items on the dessert  menu all end in “-obbler”.  But to Dan and Bethany Tanner, the directors of Mavuno Village in Mwanza, Tanzania,  “family-style” means a revolutionary new approach to orphan care.

Family-style orphan care isn’t exactly a new concept.  If I briefly view myself as an orphan, I quickly realize that God’s solution for a world full of disoriented toddlers is a family unit.  There’s a mother and father figure for leadership and guidance, siblings for personal growth and development, and of course extended family members, just to make Christmas dinner interesting.  As early as Adam and Eve  “family-style” has been proclaiming itself as the model approach to child rearing.  So what, then, makes Mavuno Village appear so innovative?

As I listened to Dan and Bethany discuss the plight of orphans in Tanzania, I was somewhat shocked at my own fascination with their vision for Mavuno.  Why did the concept of family-style orphan care sound so monumental?  Then I realized that I was having trouble holding the elusive notion of “family” in my politically correct palms.  In so many countries the idea of a family unit is convoluted at best.  Likewise in Tanzania, the Tanners explained, the members of a family come and go as if they are woven together with elastic thread.  Father (a term, by the way, serving only as a physiological description) finds a job and several female companions in distant cities leaving the mother (defined as the one who gave birth but may or may not actually parent) to resolve the lack of income with starvation in whatever means profitable.  On holiday, when they may all be together for a brief period, Mom and Dad pretend monogamy is still the standard.  But the comings and goings of both parties subjects the “family” to discord and disease.  Before you know it there are five children from various, and perhaps infected, gene pools sharing the days only meal.  Then the news arrives: Dad has died of “unknown causes”.  The burden of hopelessness pushes Mom over the edge.  Once Grandma realizes Mom is not coming back from her quest for help in a nearby village, the children are abandoned like unwanted puppies, but without primal instincts.  The extended family offers their sympathies to Grandma.  After all, who can expect a 65 year old widow to care for five more mouths?  So each child begins a life dependent on compassion and hand-outs, oblivious to the edifying gift of a days hard-earned wage.

Now, ask one of those children the definition of “family”.  Ask them to explain the role of a father or a mother.   Ask them what they want to be when they grow up.  Ask them to identify with God, our Heavenly Father.  For the 980,000 orphans in Tanzania, their past is a mirror to their future.   But for the 35 children currently under the care of Mavuno Village, these questions have new answers filled with the luxury of hope.

Mavuno Village is all about going back to the basics.  “We wanted to give these orphans an environment that would enable them to be godly, self-sufficient citizens of Tanzania”  Bethany tells me.  “We knew that just taking care of their physical needs would not accomplish that – we had to do more.”  So Dan and Bethany designed a plan that aims to redefine “family” for every member.

John and Milka Mbugua are currently serving as the ministry’s prototype.  Less than 2 years ago they were invited to move into a four bedroom concrete home built on Mavuno’s 200 acres of lakeside property.  Within a year they received nine children; five 4 year olds, two 5 year olds, a girl who is 10 and a boy also aged 10.  In order for these children to grow up with an understanding of work ethic, leadership, and the persona of God, the Tanners believe John must be employed and empowered to model that for his kids.  Therefore, the vision of Mavuno Village is to build a home for each qualifying couple and immediately give them a plot of land for them to farm.  Through the process of professional and spiritual discipleship, Dan will teach the men to plant and harvest unique crops that can be sold locally and exported internationally; like sunflowers, mangos, loquat, and the increasingly lucrative, Moringa Tree.  They even have their own dairy barn to provide fresh milk for each family on the premises.  Mr. Mbugua is currently serving in an administrative role for the ministry.  But on the weekends you will find him, his wife and their children in the garden.  Together John and Milka teach their kids to plant seeds under little mounds of untreated soil, cover them with grass, and nourish each crop using water from Lake Victoria, just a stones-throw away.  In a more subtle manner, though quite by design, John and Milka are also planting something deeper inside each little life.  The seeds of hard work, God’s provision, moral accountability, and the concept of family, are strong sprouts already taking root in the adoring eyes and peaceful smiles of each child.

As the mother of two boys, I can only marvel at Milka’s outstanding ability to thrive in her role as Mom and teacher.  Every morning her quiet spirit patiently instructs all six of the little ones around a 3×5 foot wooden table.  In her concrete school room, there’s absolute silence as each child stares at Milka respectfully, waiting for their individualized assignments.  As a family, they quietly celebrate each other’s every victory by singing a “good job” song and clapping in delight.  For Milka, education of these little ones is not only about learning the ABC’s.  Teaching them to value one another as brothers and sisters, respect her as their figure of authority, and praise God for their daily bread is a job she described to me as “awesome and tiresome”.  After some much needed nap time, they all march down to their garden so the kids can be (muddy) kids and Milka can tend to the weeding.  Often you will find Bethany there, tending her own veggies.  It is imperative that the mothers of these orphans are supported with Biblical and practical mentoring from their sister-in-the-Lord.  And what better classroom for a mother of nine to learn about the essential ingredients for growth, than in the middle of a garden toiling beside a veteran “gardener”?

The tan Land Cruiser bounced and jostled as I struggled to photograph the breathtaking landscape Mavuno calls home.  Meanwhile, Dan paints for me a picture of what is to come.  On every hillside there is a watermark – a soccer field here, a primary school over there, a dorm for short-term missions teams situated just next to the current office building.  The framing has already begun for two more homes waiting for new families.

Each evening I sat in the Tanner’s home and listened to the hope-filled futures behind each painful story of the Mavuno kids.  Ericki and his brother, Besa, for example, ages 8 and 11 respectively, were rejected by every relative after both parents died.  They spent months on the street begging for their next meal before coming to Mavuno and into the Madata family.  I was there – I saw them as they came home from school and sang songs about Paul and Silas with their “sisters”.  I marveled as these, once self-made, boys obeyed their “mother” with respect and confidence.

Mavuno Village is still in its infancy.  Every day they look for provision and direction from the Lord and every day they find it.  But recently they also found an exciting measure of success.  “Not long ago,” Dan tells me, staring shyly at his hands, “we asked 4 year old Michael Mbugua what he wanted to be when he grows up”.  He pauses, and Bethany, making no effort to hide her emotion, continues, “Michael didn’t even bat an eye.  He looked right at us and said ‘I want to be a daddy’!”

**Currently all Mavuno children are supported by sponsors.  The monthly contributions go to the child’s family to care for the unique needs of each child.  To learn more about supporting Mavuno Village or to sponsor a child, please visit their web site at www.mavunovillage.org