Love Is Everything – Freddie Fox in Uganda – Part 1
Last year, actor Freddie Fox travelled to Uganda with his friend Wallis Day. They wanted to see the grim reality of how orphanages operate and how Hope and Homes for Children aims to tackle this hidden global crisis. Globally, many vulnerable families are deceived into giving up their children to exploitative, for profit orphanages. Often, these children are neglected, abused, paraded for tourist money, forced into labour and trafficked for sex.
This is Freddie’s account of that journey:
We meet Barbra and Emmanuel, two social workers from the Child’s i Foundation (Hope and Homes for Children’s partners in Uganda). My first and lasting impression of Barbra and Emmanuel is of two people who love what they do and know what needs to happen here in Uganda. They tell me there are 55,000 children warehoused in privately-run orphanages in Uganda. Shockingly, about 80 per cent of these kids aren’t actually orphans. Most have parents who, with the right support, would care for them at home. So why and how are they being locked up in orphanages? I’m reliably informed there’s a concoction of reasons for this injustice. Poverty, a lack of social services for struggling families and the promise of medical care are just some of the reasons. Children born with disabilities are also more prone to being hoovered up into orphanages in Uganda. And this is where my journey will begin.
As we travel to our first location, an orphanage for disabled children in downtown Kampala, Barbra and Emmanuel explain how the man in charge found himself running the institution almost by accident. Mark cared for his cousin, Isaac, who lived in the neighbourhood and had epilepsy. The local community had completely ostracised Isaac. They blamed evil spirits for his illness. But Mark’s approach to Isaac began to change attitudes and mothers with disabled children started to approach him to care for their children too. So today, Mark heads an incredibly well-intentioned, but tiered orphanage for children and young adults with all kinds of disabilities (learning and physical). The children here have two meals a day and there are good people around them. They may not go hungry and may learn to count and colour in, but there’s one vital ingredient missing from their childhoods – one-to-one love. When you’re three, four or five-years-old, love is everything.
Proclaiming ‘love is everything’ may sound a tad clichéd, but it was an undeniable fact that became abundantly clear to me a couple of years ago when I visited Hope and Homes for Children’s work in neighbouring Rwanda. With the support of the Rwandan Government, they have closed 70 per cent of the country’s orphanages in just five years. The last one should close in 2018. Children who were destined to a childhood of silence and neglect in an orphanage, now have loving biological, foster or adoptive families. I’ve seen for myself how orphanages can be replaced with families and love. But just a few hours into my visit here in Kampala, I’m mindful of the size of the task ahead in Uganda. This is a bigger country, with bigger problems.
Next we travel on to a Pentecostal Church situated next to one of Kampala’s biggest rubbish dumps. A cloud of plastic bags circle like vultures in a windy smog of burning garbage, and kids walk to school over piles of trash. This rubbish dump is in the heart of a busy community. And a ramshackle of a tin church sits right in the middle. Remarkably, this church is a temporary home of Fiona and Patience. It is, without doubt, the most squalid living situation I have ever seen.
Fiona has been evicted from her home and has fallen on the mercy, and temporarily under the roof, of the church. This is where she lives with her family, including her 14-year old daughter Patience. She has Cerebral Palsy. Patience cannot walk, talk or communicate in more than a moan, cry or smile. With nowhere else to turn, Fiona reluctantly placed Patience in Mark’s orphanage for a while, but the staff there had neither the resources nor the expertise to meet her needs. Fiona was constantly worried about her daughter’s well-being and so eventually took her back. The church is unable to offer them a home for much longer. I asked Fiona if she still has hope? She says, “Yes, absolutely.” I don’t have the courage to ask ‘why?’ although after a moment’s consideration I think I know the answer. She is with her kids. The one person who best knows how to look after them – and they love her.
Crucially, Fiona has the support of Barbra, Emmanuel and their team – a chink of light at the end of the tunnel. Rather than offering to take her child away under the auspices of lessening her everyday struggle, they are working to locate and support Fiona’s extended family to help care for Patience. That way, Fiona will be able to return to her business – making shoes – and start to build a more secure future for her family. If this can happen then, most importantly of all, Fiona can come home at the end of each day and kiss her children goodnight. Patience will not be left to survive silently, alone in an orphanage.
And so day one is over. It’s been distressing seeing the plight of some of the children, parents and orphanage staff who I’ve met, but I also feel great hope for their futures.
The level of poverty in Uganda feels much worse than in Rwanda. The number of children in orphanages here is much higher (55,000 compared to 3,000 in Rwanda). And the orphanages here feel totally unregulated. Seemingly anyone can open one, and anything can happen inside them (whether it be neglect or abuse from overseas volunteers, staff or between children). Uganda feels a little like the Wild West of orphanages. Yet in spite of all this, I still believe Hope and Homes for Children and the Child i Foundation can fix Uganda’s orphanage problem. Families like Fiona and Patience’s can have a future together. And this country can become orphanage-free. Because love conquers all – right?
Part 2 of Freddie’s blog can be viewed here