Stepping out of the airport, Michael and Dorris Fortson immediately noticed a difference. It had been more than 40 years since they had been to Africa, and within minutes, they knew this trip would change everything.
The Fortsons’ life together always has included mission work. They met on a blind date during college, and the couple first traveled together to Tanzania, Africa, in 1965 as missionaries with their 3-month-old daughter to make their home in Mbeya for the next six years.
The family lived in a mountain home built by German settlers in 1900, which they reached by negotiating 52 hairpin curves on a treacherous dirt road. Michael taught in the Tanzania Bible School, which was a training school for native preachers, and he kept the mission’s generators and machines running.
Dorris taught classes for women, including Bible study, sewing, reading and writing, and she helped at the school’s medical clinic.The couple harvested game for the table, grew their own fruits and vegetables, and made their own mayonnaise and ketchup.
While going about their daily existence, they fell in love with the African people, the work and the beautiful continent. Two of their children were born in Tanzania. When they left in 1971, they always knew someday they would return.
After arriving back in the United States, Michael preached for a while in Texas and was later hired as the campus minister for SFA’s Yellow House, a non-denominational Christian student center, where he worked for 29 years.
Dorris worked for 20 years at the SFA student center as the coordinator of events and conferences. She completed her bachelor’s degree in applied arts and sciences in 1992.
In 2008, the couple retired and decided to revisit their beloved Africa. But when they arrived, they noticed a drastic change.
Now, dozens of begging orphans affected by AIDS lined the streets. This terrible disease was destroying the people the Fortsons had grown to love.
“Tanzania is a third-world country with many poor and desperate people,” Michael said. “Tanzanians don’t have the social services we have in America. They can’t apply to the government for welfare. They have so few options. If you are sick, poor or homeless, you are often begging on the street.”
It is estimated that there are three million orphans in Tanzania, and the Fortsons are on a mission to help reduce this number.
In 2011, Michael and Dorris took a two-month fact-finding trip through Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania touring every orphanage they could locate, which totaled 22 facilities.
“We discovered most of the orphanages don’t take babies because it is too expensive to care for them,” Dorris said. “Formula costs about $12 a can, and the babies need 24-hour care. African orphanages cannot manage these high costs.”
Working toward a solution, the Fortsons met with local social workers to try to find a way they could help. In 2012, their dedication paid off when the couple opened Neema House Arusha, a center for orphaned, abandoned and at-risk babies.
In Swahili, Neema means grace, and the Fortsons say it is by the amazing grace of God that they are able to do their work. A registered nonprofit, the center is funded through charitable donations.
The center initially began in a rented house with six babies to care for. Michael purchased sterilizers, furniture, bottles and other supplies. He also designed and built baby bunk beds for the house.
The majority of the babies at Neema House Arusha have been abandoned. Abandonment can occur in various ways.
The Fortsons explained how a mother might deliver her baby at a hospital and then leave it, especially if it is premature. Neema’s smallest abandoned baby weighed 1.65 pounds. There are others almost equally as small, including tiny baby Maxine, who weighed 2.4 pounds when she was abandoned and brought to Neema House Arusha.
Other abandoned babies have been born in villages and later left on the roadside. Babies also have been abandoned at bus stations, gravel pits, airports and hotels.
“There’s just no end to the places desperate parents will leave their babies,” Michael said. “For the most part, you imagine the parents hope a good person will pick up the baby. We believe it is not our place to judge these people. We cannot begin to imagine the hopelessness it takes for a mother to lay her baby by the roadside and walk away.”
Other scenarios may include a single mother giving up her baby because she lacks financial support. Also, having a baby out of wedlock is frowned upon in this culture, and the mother may not be welcome back home, Michael said.
“Our very first baby was a boy named Frankie, the smallest of triplets. He was living in a mud hut in a remote Masai village with five siblings and a calf inside the house,” Dorris said. “Frankie was six months old and weighed only 5 pounds. He was diagnosed with cerebral palsy. He stayed in the hospital for a few weeks before getting strong enough to come to Neema.”
Currently, Neema has 40 full-time employees, including cooks, drivers, nannies and guards. Staff members work 24 hours a day, and only Tanzanian workers are paid. All other workers, including the directors, are volunteers or have raised their own support. The Fortsons do not take a salary for their work at Neema.
Each year, volunteers from around the world come to help at Neema by holding babies, changing diapers and feeding bottle after bottle of formula.
“In 2014, we had more than 125 volunteers from 21 countries come help. It’s amazing and quite an experience for the volunteers. It takes a lot of coordination to make sure everyone is on the work schedule, has a place to sleep, has food and isn’t left at the airport,” Dorris laughed.
In the almost four years since the center opened, 88 babies have called it home. In 2014, Neema cared for 46 babies.
“We are in love with these children. We absolutely adore them,” Dorris said. “When we drive up, the toddlers run to us and say, ‘Bibi, Babu,’ which means grandmother and grandfather in Swahili, and they jump up and down for us to pick them up and hold them.”
Since its opening, there have been 15 adoptions and 17 babies returned home to their extended families. Neema also provides for 12 babies who have been able to remain home in their villages.
“People ask us why they cannot adopt babies and bring them to America,” Dorris said. “According to Tanzanian law, the person adopting a child must reside in the country for three years before being able to adopt, which makes out-of-country adoptions almost impossible. Our goal is to make a better life for the children through education and lots of love.”
Recently, the organization began expansion efforts to build Neema Village, which will comprise a home for about 60 babies. Additionally, a mothering center is planned and will offer prenatal and child care classes. A school and church also are on the drawing board.
Michael and Dorris plan to teach the mothers skills so they can engage in their own small-business opportunities and earn a wage.
Because AIDS widows are sometimes displaced in Tanzanian society, a home for them has already been built on the property. Additionally, a shop and storage area is complete and in use.
“Michael drove all over the country to find the property to build Neema Village,” Dorris said. “He finally located the perfect place on a slope overlooking a banana grove. It is the most beautiful place I have ever seen.”
The 9.8-acre location is about 15 minutes from a hospital, and on a clear day, Dorris said, you can see Mount Kilimanjaro, the tallest mountain in Africa. A Neema charity climb of the mountain is scheduled for June 2017.
As retirees, Michael and Dorris are consumed with Neema Village. They split their time between their home in Temple, where they coordinate efforts to raise money and awareness for Neema Village, and the remainder of the year they spend in Tanzania taking care of their extended family.
“We are not the type of people who like to sit around and watch TV. We have always been very active and hands on,” Michael said. “Whenever we arrive back in Tanzania, we can hardly wait to get to the village and see the children. I think the homecoming is just as exciting to us as it is to them.”