11 December 2019

Christmas in an orphanage

Children in an orphanage in Africa (image Chris Leslie)

Stephen Ucembe is Hope and Homes for Children’s Regional Advocacy Manager in Eastern and Southern Africa. He grew up in an orphanage in Kenya and remembers how Christmas felt for him as a child.

The schools closed for the Christmas holidays. It broke the relentless cycle of being screamed at to wake up at 6am every morning; stopped the frightening bangs on the doors and on the metallic grey painted bunk beds of the dormitory that held approximately 50 of us. If I was still slumbering, an unprecedented whack behind my back instantly and painfully stood me up on the bed. However, at Christmas, to wake up an hour and a half later was a joy and a relief.

There was a lot of joyful chatter a week after schools closed; many of the children who lived in the orphanage with me had families but had been sent to the institution because poverty and disability meant their parents could not care for them without support. Now they looked forward to their relatives coming to take them home for the Christmas holiday. They hardly slept. Their excited chit chats continued through the darkness to cut short the nights because in the light of day their parents would come. I was envious. It was also clear that they did not just want to be with their parents over the Christmas holidays, but every other day of their life.

“I stood at the fence, holding onto the barbed wire with one hand and waving goodbye to my friends with the other. They looked elated; with joy and laugher shining from their faces, eagerly pulling their families’ hands as they walked out of the gate.”

Although some of those going were my friends, I withdrew from them and stayed with those who had nowhere to go and no one to come for them. There I felt I belonged, although within that circle there seemed to be nothing much to talk about or to look forward to.

I often ran towards the black rusty black gate of the orphanage, a gate that I was supposed to stay 20 or so meters away from, to avoid the risk of being mistaken for trying to escape and getting into trouble.

I avoided the gate and stood at the fence, holding onto the barbed wire with one hand and waving goodbye to my friends with the other. They looked elated; with joy and laugher shining from their faces, eagerly pulling their families’ hands as they walked out of the gate.

Others held tightly to their parents and relatives’ arms, fearing they would be pulled back by the social worker to the orphanage. It was only at this time of year that many found comfort behind their mother’s backs, especially the children with disabilities. At Christmas, they all shared one thing in common; happy faces.

This scene resurrected my overwhelming longing for a family. It refreshed my early childhood memories of my mother who never imagined me away from her. If I was not on her back, I was in her arms or just springing meters ahead.

“The sweet Christmas melodies, the jingle bells; the music so alien to me. Yet the tune and the words gave a momentary feeling of joy. The cheerful music was a distraction from my self-destructing thoughts of self-pity and loneliness.”

Stephen Ucembe

I could not remember the last time someone gently touched me or held my hand. Tears knocked, but I quickly clamped tight my eyes and wiped them away. Crying was forbidden in the orphanage but at night, without a whimper or a snivel, when the lights were off and under the grey cover, I could let off a soft, warm steady stream of tears that were quickly absorbed by the blankets.

My pain was multiplied by the fact that I could not ask the staff or the social worker why I was left behind. We never had those personal conversations; coming close to the staff was often terrifying. I was terrified by adults not just because I hardly interacted with many but because of the beating I got for things I had done and not done. Looking back, I had more interactions during my years in the orphanage with a huge black and white TV than the staff. The TV was placed in the dining room where we were all forced to gather. The TV was meant to make sure our whereabouts were visible; no running or hiding around the compound, beyond that though, the TV offered me a glimpse of the world beyond the orphanage.

The sweet Christmas melodies, the jingle bells; the music so alien to me. Yet the tune and the words gave a momentary feeling of joy. The cheerful music was a distraction from my self-destructing thoughts of self-pity and loneliness. Sometimes I’d spend hours holding on to the window grill of the dining room, staring into the shining lights on the Christmas tree that was kept inside. We were only allowed into that room if there were visitors to the orphanage, and during meal times; other times the Christmas decorations were locked away from us. The lights twined around the tree provided comfort for me and kept away some of my despair.

We had a constant flow of visitors during Christmas to the orphanage; more than at any other time of the year. Families, church and corporate groups and solo travelers flocked to see and spend time with us. We cheered as they came in, and the volume of our cheers grew if they were carrying or offloading donations from their cars. Then we were paraded in front of our visitors, the stories about us, ‘these orphans’. We were never seen as individuals, children with names, because what followed was only about how many orphans they were supporting. The numbers of us were what surprised the visitors, the stories designed to persuade them to give more.

“We had a constant flow of visitors during Christmas to the orphanage; more than at any other time of the year. Families, church and corporate groups and solo travelers flocked to see and spend time with us… Then we were paraded in front of our visitors”

I wasn’t an orphan. I knew my biological father was alive and these stories left me feeling exploited; the label often drained my self-confidence. We were never allowed to tell our stories, we were even warned days before about coming too close to the visitors or sharing our true life stories with them. Under a huge, old willow-looking tree we sang several songs to the visitors who applauded us. Speeches were given to describe our predicaments and the history of the orphanage and some cried with sympathy. I never wanted to watch them cry for me.

We had one song that was almost like an anthem to every group of visitors. The lyrics said “welcome to our home…” reinforcing in every way that the orphanage was “home”. I can’t get it out of my head, it still echoes even now. Not singing wasn’t an option; we would be punished as soon as the visitors drove back out of our lives.

We also acted out the Christmas story, sometimes followed by a rehearsed speech of gratitude to every group of visitors. We celebrated the food, the clothes they brought; Christmas was one time of year I knew I wouldn’t go to bed hungry. Despite hating how we were presented and made to act, through these visitors, I learned that our survival hinged on their charity. Additionally, Christmas was also one of those few times of the year we might get lucky and get out of the orphanage. A well-wisher might fund a bus trip to an animal park or movie theatre for a number of children. I tried always to be on my best behavior throughout the year to have my name on the Social Worker’s trip sheet.

Today some of these memories still live on however, I have learned to avoid my thoughts drifting too often to that part of my past. Now I feel a sense of joy in the fact that I can somehow plan how my Christmas goes. It is a time to rest, catch up and meet with a few of my friends who have been busy as I have been through the year. And one other very important thing, through the support of very close people, and as a tradition, it is a time to arrange a Christmas party for some young people with care experience like me who for one reason or the other do not have that family to visit or spend time with at this special time of year.