15 May 2018

“Can my children be beautiful?”

Alia spent her childhood behind the gates of this orphanage with no one to love or protect her

Alia’s Story

By Sarah Whiting, Director of Global Marketing, Communication and Fundraising    

No one makes the case against orphanages more powerfully than those who have spent their childhoods in these institutions, without the love and protection of a family.

These are the words of Alia, a lady who grew up in an orphanage in one of the poorest areas of Nairobi, who I met when I visited there last week.

I was always told I was ugly. At school, but particularly here in the orphanage, they would tell me, “You are ugly! You are ugly!”

I was so hardened by the experience of the orphanage. I think the only thing that saved me was that I talked a lot. I used to defend myself with my mouth. You harden because it is too difficult to love.  I didn’t think I would be able to love anybody or be a good mother.

I went to find my own mother when I was told I needed to leave the orphanage. Somehow I got to Mombasa and tracked her down. I stayed there for a short while; she was welcoming, but it was too late. There was no love.

And so, I came back to Nairobi and started trying to sell clothes.  I rented a room and after a while I was able to buy a mattress. It was hard. I was young, and it was not safe. But I became independent.

That’s when I met my husband. In a shop when I was buying clothes. And we married; and I became pregnant.

But I was so worried the children too would be ugly. I thought, “Can my children be beautiful? Can I love my children?”

The tears came to Alia’s eyes as she says:

When I had my daughter the doctor came and asked me, “Is this your baby?” I said yes. I was scared. Why is he asking me? I said yes. He said, “This is the most beautiful baby I have seen today.” I said, Are you sure? Can I have a beautiful baby?

I used to ask God, please don’t let my kids look like me but when the doctor told me this is the most beautiful baby  I have seen today, it was the best compliment I have ever had because no one will ever tell my daughter that she is ugly like her mother.

I asked whether she has photos and she opened her purse and inside was a small brown envelope with individual passport photos of her three children; two girls and a boy.

She looks at me, with pride.

I hug her tightly. She is such a courageous woman and against the odds, she has survived a childhood spent in institutional care.

And thanks to our colleagues the momentum is growing for the elimination of orphanages in Kenya – a country where initial estimates suggest 50,000 children are confined to loveless institutions.

Through the best practice we have developed with our partners, civil society and governments across the region, awareness and commitment are growing for reimagining a child protection system based on families, not orphanages.

Alia asks me how long this will take.

Our lifetime I say. I hope we will see this end within our lifetime.

It cannot come soon enough for her, and the millions of children her experience represents.