02 August 2016

Part 1: A place to call home, people to call family

Stephen Ucembe is our Regional Advocacy Manager in Southern and East Africa. He is a highly qualified social worker with wide experience of working with and for separated and unaccompanied children.

Stephen grew up in institutional care and has used both his personal and professional experience to advocate for vulnerable children in his native Kenya and around the world. He is a regular contributor to the Kenyan national press, explaining the damage caused to children by institutional care and making the case for the alternatives.

Here, Stephen Ucembe, gives a personal account of his childhood and explains why the experience of growing up without a family of his own has made him such a passionate advocate for the closure of orphanages and similar children’s institutions worldwide:

A place to call home, people to call family.

Millions of children in Africa are growing up in orphanages, residential care centres, and children’s homes. Most of these institutions identify themselves as offering “homes” and a “family” to these children. But can these residential care institutions ever really give children a “home” or “family”? I grew up in an institution; it didn’t feel like a family and I didn’t have the feeling that I was home. On the contrary, the place made me feel empty, uncertain and confused.

When I was five years old, my mother was brutally murdered. She was carrying my baby brother on her back when she was attacked and he also died. I was put into one institution, my younger sister and older brother into another and I have no idea what happened to our three other  siblings.

When I arrived at the institution I remember being told that this place was my new home and everyone inside was my family. The institution even had a song that all new entrants were instructed to learn. There was a line in the chorus that went, “visitors welcome to…our home… we are happy to be with you”. We were regularly made to sing the song as we paraded in front of the many visitors and donors – both local and foreign – who came to the institution. The chorus echoes in my head to this day.

During the many years that I lived in the institution I was often overwhelmed by the feeling that  I had neither a family nor a home. Each time I saw a child being visited by his or her parent or guardian at the weekend or over the holidays I was reminded of the emptiness in my life.  The void created by the loss of my parents permeated my thoughts and a lonely feeling engulfed my heart. Seeing those family visits was a constant reminder to me of the siblings I had lost who either chose not to visit me or did not even know where I was.

I shared a dormitory with around 50 other children. There were four members of staff, referred to as housemothers, to care for us and they worked in shifts. They told us they were our “mothers”, but they never came close to the vague memories I had of my mother. Not only did they not treat us like their children, they also reinforced the pain we felt by calling us “orphans”.  Over and over we heard them call us that, in front of visitors, staff and officials and it only  served to reinforce the negative and painful way we felt about ourselves.

My biological mother must have touched me more in the first five years of my life until her death than the staff at the institution did during the whole 15 years of my time there. Not one of them ever once gave me a hug. They didn’t speak to us – they shouted orders instead and I rarely heard them call me by name – most of the time my name was “you”.   The only time I felt these so-called “mothers” touch me was when I queued naked to be scrubbed clean in the morning or when I was pinched for not doing my chores.

At the age of 18 I was branded too old to live at the institution and had to move out. It served to reinforce my opinion that the institution was neither my home nor my family. We were told the institution was a place for younger children and that the donors didn’t want to see teenagers. As young adults we were a liability, not an asset. I was made to feel like an object not even worthy of being looked at. Nothing sounded or felt like family. I had no one to say good-bye to.

Most of the young I had grown up with, were taken to their relatives or guardians. Those like me with no family, had to start living in the community on our own. Ironically, in order to earn enough money to continue with my studies, I had little choice but to take a part-time job with the very institution where I had spent so many unhappy years. I became a groundsman, looking after flowers, collecting rubbish and working on the institution’s farm.

The stress of those first few months, struggling to survive by myself, made me ill – I developed stomach ulcers. One evening after college I was so sick that a classmate escorted me to the bus stop to make sure I made it home. Once home, I recall sitting alone and thinking that I had no one in that house, or anywhere, to call for help should I need something. I looked at the dusty wall where an institution employee badge dangled reading “groundsman”. It was not my home, only where I happened to work. I remember thinking, “If I am to die tonight, it will be a lonely death”.

I spent the years that followed trying to appear normal, like anyone else. The days were lonely and the nights were tearful. Even now, at the age of 33, that yearning for a family has never faded. But now I do not cry for myself alone. My sadness is deepened by the fact that my history is not unique, rather it is a trauma that is suffered by millions of children, and young adult care leavers, who are still left to make their painful journey alone.

To me, as a Christian, the words of Jesus in John 14:18, ” I will not leave you as orphans- I will come to you” indicate that God has no intention of any child experiencing the pain of living without a family or being labelled an orphan. To me, fulfilling a yearning in these children’s hearts to have a place to call home, to have people to call a family, to be called sons and daughters, is the way to make this gospel visible.

In the second part of Stephen’s blog, published here, he explains how he overcame extraordinary odds to gain an education and how he has dedicated his professional life to helping children without parental care.

More from Stephen Ucembe:

‘Kenya needs to look after its children better’ Daily Nation, Kenya

‘Bleak future for orphaned children under the care of child care centres’ The Standard, Kenya

‘Why children’s homes are a tragedy’ The Star, Kenya