There is a lot of information about orphans out there (check out UNICEF for a first starting place). This post is not going to be about statistics or other information you can find elsewhere. I want to write about stories I have heard from people here about their experiences and beliefs, talks I've had with friends or others that work in orphan care, or children I have seen and visited at their homes (whether orphanages or foster/family homes).
I visited a small school at the end of last year in the same village where the orphanage is located. It was started by the Mwami's wife (mwami means "king") and at first only accepted girls with the goal of elevating the education level of girls. Eventually, it accepted boys and girls and has about 60 plus students. I think it is a fairly normal school (a bit nicer actually). The children did a recitation for us about different things. At one point, the "orphans" were asked to come forward and do a recitation for us. It was quite eye opening in many ways to me. Most of what they recited was something along the lines of this,
"We are orphans.
We don't deserve the things that other children deserve.
We must work for our clothes.
We must work for our shoes.
We must work to go to school.
We must work hard when we are at school.
We don't deserve these things.
We must work for them.
We must work for our food.
We must earn our bed.
We must earn our place.
We don't deserve these things.
We do not have a mother.
We do not have a father.
We are orphans."
The children reciting.
And the kids said it all so matter-of-fact. It was heart breaking. "We don't deserve these things because we are orphans." It was simply a fact of life they were reciting. They weren't asking for anything. They were just telling us. This is how it is, we must work hard to deserve to go to school, to deserve to have food to eat, a place to sleep, clothes on our body. They don't deserve any of it because of forces outside of their control. Tragic circumstances that they had nothing to do with causing, turned the course of their lives. It struck me how engrained the beliefs about orphans are here (and other places). The students were merely reciting what they had learned, what they had come to believe, and what others in the broader society and community also condoned. I think of all my dreams, of having families accept and adopt children, treating them with equal rights, and I get very discouraged. How can I, or anyone, change the belief of a culture? How does one change the basic belief that orphans do not have (or deserve) the same basic human rights as children who are not orphans? How does one change the belief that orphans are less deserving than everyone else, that they are worth less? How?
I have easily jumped to conclusions and passed quick judgments living here. But I have learned there is always more sides to the story and I best be still and listen before judging.
Often, when I am with my girls (all of them), people comment, "Ah, they are adopted? Ah, God bless you for caring for and loving the orphans. God bless you. It is very good." It is good to love and care for orphans here, and it is expected. Probably 90% of homes here have an "orphan" living with them (usually somehow related to them). Probably more than one. An "orphan" (as defined here) is a child whose mother has died or father has died (one parent may be living). An "orphan" is also someone whose parent could not care for them.
We have a friend here who identifies herself as an orphan. She is an adult woman with a family. Her mother had many problems with mental illness and so could not care for her. Her father abandoned them. She was sent to live in homes of family members. She tells harrowing stories of the life of an orphan moved from home to home. Orphans often play the role of a modern day slave. They have no rights and they work in the homes of the people that are now their "family". She was exactly this. She worked from home to home. And was not treated well. Most orphans are not sent to school. She is now an adult with her own children. She also has orphans in her home. She has determined not to treat them like how she was treated. She sends all the children to school, half in the morning and half in the afternoon. They all work together in the home.
I have visited orphan care groups here and in the surrounding areas. They serve orphans who live in homes but are suffering from neglect. These care groups are run by local congolese women and men who feed them porridge twice a week and try to do a little school. There are 1000s of children that are served in such a way. It is humbling.
Often, after a child's mother dies, the father remarries. Unfortunately, what also happens is that the new wife treats the children very poorly (like "orphans"). Sometimes the children are run off (and become street kids). Other times they are starving and never sent to school. (This is the case with some of the children that grow out of the orphanage. See this post.) On a side cultural note, children belong to the father. If the father dies (or a woman divorces her husband), the father's family then comes and takes the children from the mother. I have seen it happen.
Once, I was at a wedding and we were sitting next to an older couple. We started talking. They were interested that we had adopted two children from here and they were so happy we had done so. They told their story. How they had six children of their own, but then then took in six orphans as well (distantly related). Instead of the normal way to treat orphans, they sent all the kids to school. Then they sent the kids to secondary school. Now they are sending some to university. They talked about the children the same way they talked about their own children.
Muholeza, a little girl sponsored through Tumaini, who lives in an orphanage.
A have a lot of grand dreams, but I am content to work towards them one step at a time. I could get discouraged, but I am going to choose not to. Instead, I will look at the faces I have had the privilege to know, the children at the Kaziba orphanage, and I will continue to work towards bringing hope into their lives. Not only through just meeting their physical needs of food (milk and formula), but also meeting their emotional needs through hiring women that will show them love (and in doing so, help them know their worth and value) and raising funds for school fees for the older children. One child at a time, change can happen. That is how you change beliefs. One child, one person at a time, through relationships. You don't forget and you don't give up. Until children no longer live in orphanages, and orphans are treated with the respect and dignity that every child deserves.
Please consider partnering with us at Tumaini as we do this work. Thank you.
I just realized this is my 200th post. A fitting post I think!