Moving to Africa was never the plan for Cindy Renner and her husband, but after a trip to Tanzania their lives were changed.

“There were things for us to do and so much need there,” said Renner, a physician assistant at St. Alexius Medical Center in Bismarck, N.D. “At the same moment, we looked at each other and it was a realization.”

This was the first trip to Africa for Renner and her husband, Larry, but they also went with a doctor from Sanford Health — Kent Martin and his wife, Peggy, who previously spent time doing mission work there.

Both couples plan to move to Africa in the future.

“The organization has asked us to come back and get involved in helping with the orphanages,” Martin said. “We think it’s all going to work out very well.”

Martin’s goal is to return to Africa in 2014. Renner sees her move happening around the same time.

“I’ve already given my notice here, but it will be next year since my husband has to retire,” Renner said. “We’ve already talked to a Realtor and we’re already packing our stuff.”

For the trip, the couples worked through the Rafiki Foundation. “Rafiki” means friend in Swahili, with the purpose of the foundation being “to befriend orphans and widows in their distress.” The foundation set up 10 villages throughout Africa housing orphans and widows.

“The goal is not that these kids would get adopted, it’s that they’re going to raise them in the orphanage to have the best education they can get, a good spiritual background, know right from wrong and go out into Africa and be leaders,” Renner said.

“I like that philosophy. We always take these kids out of the country, but then what’s left?”

In the Tanzania village the couples stayed at, Renner said there were around 50 kids, but the goal is to have around 140. The children live in family groups of 10 girls or boys, and each group has an African “mama.”

“She takes care of them, tucks them in at night and makes sure they’re washed,” Renner said.

The children all speak English, but can choose to speak Swahili in their family groups. They also sit with the groups at meals, which typically consist of rice and beans, with some fruits like bananas and mangoes.

“After meals it’s somebody’s job to clear the tables, somebody sweeps the floor, and they just get up and do it, they don’t have to be told,” she said.

Every Sunday, the children walk about a mile to a Swahili church.

“They really are serious when they pray,” Renner said. “I’m so amazed by that.”

Aside from reading books, playing games and dancing with the couples, all the children got a physical. The couples also brought things like over-the-counter medicine and vitamins for the children.

Suitcases were filled to the maximum weight of 50 pounds with donations.

“We bought shoes for every orphan, clothes that we knew they needed, school supplies, games and toys,” Renner said. All the orphans received a jacket as well.

Renner put a sign up seeking donations in a room of the Heart and Lung Department of St. Alexius a couple of months before she left. She was surprised at the generosity of people.

“I’ve never been in a place that was this supportive,” she said. “It was around Christmas season and everyone is strapped for money, but people gave so generously.”

The Heart and Lung Clinic also donated a microscope for the school.

“That was on their dream list and one of the doctors took the ball here and ran with it,” Renner said. “Not everybody gets the opportunity to go, but the people here were so supportive of us.”

At the end of the trip, Renner said, the kids had a hard time saying goodbye, as did she.

“The real reason for the trip was the kids and we just fell in love with these little guys,” Renner said. “You think about the lives that they came from and how little they have, and yet they’re so happy.”

Katie Winbauer is an intern at the Bismarck Tribune. Reach Katie Winbauer at 701-250-8260 or katie.winbauer@bismarcktribune.com.