“When people visit orphanages, they don’t realise that they are supporting a system that harms children”
Sign for visitors to an orphanage in Nairobi, Kenya
Stephen Ucembe is Regional Advocacy Manager for Hope and Homes for Children in East and Southern Africa. An experienced social worker, he supports our partners in the region to prevent children being confined to institutions and advocates for a model of care that allows children to grow up in families. He knows first-hand the negative impact that volunteers and other visitors have on children living in orphanages:
I understand why so many young people want to volunteer in overseas orphanages and, on the whole, their motives are good ones. But I also know what it means to be a child, growing up in an institution where a steady stream of volunteers and visitors come – and then go – throughout your childhood.
When I was five years old, my mother died. I was separated from my siblings and sent to fend for myself in an orphanage. I spent the rest of my childhood there with no one to love or protect me. I have so many painful memories of that place and the way I felt when volunteers and tourists came to visit remains clear in my mind.
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.” I never had the feeling that I was home. On the contrary, the orphanage made me feel empty, uncertain and confused. Nevertheless, 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.
I shared a dormitory with around 50 other children. There were four members of staff to care for us all and they worked in shifts. They told us they were our “mothers”, but they never came close to the faint memories I had of my real mother. 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.
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.
The visitors liked the little children more than the older ones. We could hear even hear them say how cute the little ones were. There was a lot of sympathy and pity which I never liked. The visitors confused me. On one hand, I felt uncomfortable when these strangers tried to befriend me but on the other hand I was longing for an adult to give me attention and affection. You could see young children crying after they left but us; the older ones, we got used to it. They would just come and go and so it broke our sense of trust in people. This is something that’s made a lasting impact on my life. Even now, I find it difficult to believe that relationships will last.
There are an estimated 1,500 orphanages in Kenya but no reliable figure for the number of children growing up in those orphanages. The majority of these institutions, almost 95%, are privately funded. The money comes from well-intentioned individuals, institutions and agencies. But there is a great deal of corruption in the system. The more children you have in a given institution, the more money you can raise because it seems as if you are helping lots of children. It’s more attractive to donors than the idea of supporting one child in a family. This leads to a situation where orphanages actually go into deprived communities to harvest more children with promises of education and healthcare, so that they can attract more donors.
And this is the point at which children start to become treated as objects, not individual human beings. They are seen as only needing food, shelter and clothing and nothing more. People forget that children need love. A child needs a sense of belonging. A child needs a sense of identity.
When people visit orphanages, they don’t see what life there is really like for children. They don’t realise that they are supporting a system that harms children. They don’t see the pain that I reflect on as an adult, the pain that I still walk with today.