Last year, Sarah Whiting, Director of Fundraising for Hope and Homes for Children, visited our work in Rwanda. This is her personal account of meeting one of the many families that we help to support there:
This is the story of a mother who saved her daughter’s life, not once but twice.
Atete told me that her story began one Friday evening, five years ago when she heard cries from some trees, just beyond her yard. There on the ground she found Uwera, a newborn baby, abandoned and naked apart from a tiny cloth around her waist.
Atete scooped Uwera up and took her home, where she kept her for three weeks whilst the local community tried to find out who her parents were. There was no trace.
And so the local authorities told Atete to take Uwera to the local orphanage and leave her there. Atete and her family had bonded with the tiny baby girl that they had found and they fought to keep her but no one listened. The official policy at the time was for all abandoned children to be looked after in orphanages.
Desperate, but resigned, Atete did all she could do to make sure that Uwera would survive when she entered the orphanage. She bought clean bottles, ensured that Uwera had her vaccinations and registered her birth. This cost Atete much more than she could afford but, she told us, it was all that she could do for Uwera.
Once Uwera entered the orphanage, Atete and her children tried to visit her as often as they could, despite the many obstacles that were placed in their way by the staff.
After a year Uwera was transferred to another institution, over 50 miles away. No one told Atete and when she discovered that Uwera had been moved, no one would tell her where to find her.
Our colleague, Claudine, told us that this second orphanage was one of the most terrible institutions she had seen. There were over 50 children there and they were kept in the same room every day, in silence. At night they slept on the floor with insects crawling over them. Uwera and the other children were left in their cloth nappies for up to three days at a time before they were changed. They were fed just once a day at 3pm.
At three-and-a-half years of age, Uwera was no bigger than a two-year-old and she could neither walk nor talk.
Eighteen months ago, in partnership with the local authorities and in line with the National Strategy for reform of children’s institutions, Hope and Homes for Children began the closure of the orphanage where Uwera lived.
When our social workers learned about Uwera’s link with Atete, they ran the appropriate checks and were able to recommend that the two should be reunited and supported Atete and her family through the whole process.
When we visited Atete at her home, Uwera looked out from behind her mother’s legs – a beautiful little girl, with bright eyes, open wide.
Atete told us that when she first brought Uwera home, she felt as though she was carrying a dead body. Uwera was so thin from malnourishment, that when she bathed her, the water pooled in the deep gaps between Uwera’s neck and her collarbones.
Slowly, Atete has rebuilt Uwera’s strength and confidence but it is clear that the time she has spent in the orphanages has delayed her development. Uwera is still very small for her age and she has yet to fully recover from the infections she developed as a result of being left in filthy nappies for days at a time. Atete told us that Uwera is still frightened if anyone raises their voice to her and so she is careful always to speak calmly and quietly to her.
But Uwera now walks and she also talks. Her bond with Atete is clear; she smiles endlessly but stays clamped to her mother’s legs while we are there. She has started to wander beyond the fence in the yard and has a made some friends in the village. Atete is now focused on preparing Uwera for nursery.
Atete spoke passionately to us about the need for children to grow up in families and to be loved. She said she was hopeful now because, thanks to the Rwandan Government’s strategy, abandoned children are no longer admitted to institutions and relatively new services, like emergency foster care, are being developed.
Atete finished by saying that Uwera is no longer frightened by adults; she knows that she is safe and she is loved; and to her, Uwera is a gift from God.
As we left, it dawned on us that this very special lady, Atete, has saved her daughter, Uwera, not once but twice. And I am convinced that this little girl will now have a loving family for the rest of her life.