Love Is Everything – Freddie Fox in Uganda – Part 2
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 day two of his journey:
At breakfast we meet Chris Lutanga, of Child’s i Foundation. He explains how his team aims to eradicate Uganda’s network of orphanages by drawing upon the successes of Hope and Homes for Children’s work in Rwanda. After breakfast we drive through Kampala to visit an orphanage for babies. This one is a Catholic institution, run by a number of white-robed nuns. The children here are aged between seven-months-old and five-years-old. One baby arrived only yesterday, the mother now dead from TB.
During my tour of the orphanage I get the opportunity to meet Dr Delia Pop. She heads up all of Hope and Homes for Children’s overseas work. Delia is a medical doctor from Romania. She joined Hope and Homes for Children in 2001, leading the first closure of an orphanage in her home country. Her insight into the children’s behaviour at this orphanage in Kampala is truly fascinating and drills home to me the importance of finding these kids stable families.
Thankfully, the sister’s at this orphanage know that the care which they are providing is only second best to the love of a family. As the Sister in charge said to me on our way out, “I hope you come back here in a year and find no beds. No children without families.” She wants it to be a non-residential day centre. A facility where children can stay while their parents work, and where parents can learn new skills to strengthen their families.
After lunch I meet Morris and Rachel. Both are a similar age to me, but both grew up in orphanages in Kampala. They had completely different experiences in their institutions. Morris was cared for by well-intentioned orphanage owners, while Rachel’s childhood was one of abuse, neglect and exploitation. Their experiences of institutional care were very different, but they did have one crucial thing in common while growing up. They both craved the love of a family.
Meeting Morris and Rachel is a sobering experience. It’s brought home the fact that no matter how well run an orphanage is, it can never provide children with the one thing they crave. Love. It is encounters like this that remind me just how many mountains Uganda has to climb if it is to become orphanage-free.
The second orphanage we visit today is up a particularly steep mountain. Its owner started out with all the right intentions of wanting to help vulnerable children, but gradually her institution has grown into a business run for her own profit. Upon arriving at the orphanage, the owner comes out to meet us. Dressed in a bright, traditional dress, she immediately launches into how much the place costs to run. She then issues us with a list of children’s names detailing how much they cost to sponsor. Each child is like an actor on her books, and as their agent she takes commission on their sponsorship.
This orphanage owner is completely unaware of how cynical the whole thing has become, but when you meet the kids in her care, you soon see what the consequences are for them. When a child in England is introduced to a stranger, there’s a certain natural reticence – perhaps even a bit of shy hiding behind mum’s legs. They know where safety lies after all. They know who they can trust. In this orphanage, however, the children leap at you with open arms within a few short seconds. They don’t care who you are. All they know is that it’s someone who looks friendly and can scoop them out of their inertia for a while – or possibly even take them away.
The first port of call on our tour of her treasured orphanage is a complex of four newly built bedrooms where overseas volunteers can pay to stay. The orphanage owner boasts how a US grant of $50,000 helped to pay for it. More volunteers, equals more income for her. When we ask whether any of her volunteers are vetted, she replies, “Of course! We always ask if they are vegetarian or if they eat meat.” Afterwards we see where these totally unqualified, young volunteers from far flung countries put the orphanage’s vulnerable girls and boys to bed at night. It’s immediately clear that there has been zero investment in these dormitories. They are completely run down and consist of bunk beds with no mattresses. The children’s’ shoes are kept in a communal box, and all of their clothes are in one giant pile in a spare cupboard. It’s disturbing to see, but it’s even more frightening to imagine what happens when the lights go out. The children are male and female and aged between two-years-old and 16-years-old. And as if that wasn’t dangerous enough, there’s also the prospect of un-vetted volunteers praying on them.
We play with the children for an hour or so. Wallis tickles them and rockets them around. They pinch my hat. I show them how to use my camera and try to be as equal as possible with my attention. But it’s hard to give your undivided focus to 30 children all vying to be first in line. How could the one matron, or four volunteers manage that? Time and money would be better spent finding these children safe and loving families, but the orphanage owner has absolutely no interest in doing this.
Next we drive through red clay streets of Kampala to the oldest part of the orphanage, which houses children and young adults with disabilities. This was the saddest place of all. There are 30 to 40 people locked away here. They all have different types of disabilities. The conditions are awful and the smell is overwhelming. This place is struggling to cope, but it’s obvious it was started with good intentions. Children born with disabilities in Uganda can be stigmatised and even murdered. But over time, this orphanage owner has adapted a worthy cause into a business – expanding into caring for children without disabilities, just down the road.
On the flight home I’m thinking back on our visit. The situation in Uganda is bleak, but I’ve seen with my own eyes in Rwanda how Hope and Homes for Children has found families for thousands of children – including those with disabilities. The challenge now is to make sure the same transformation takes place in Uganda.
I come from a big family. A family that has made something of a novelty of doing the same thing. We argue. We talk behind each other’s backs. We celebrate each other’s successes. We rally whenever one of us is under threat. Just like other families do. That’s how children who grow up in families learn about love. And love is something, I believe, we are born to need and born to know how to give. The two are reciprocal. For those institutionalised kids that I’ve met on my journey in Uganda, their very lives depend on getting the balance right. Love will be the difference between a life led, and a life lost. Love is everything.
If you missed Part 1 of Freddie’s blog you can view it here