The intricacies of orphanages in Uganda

Oasis of Life Orphanage children happy after receiving donations of clothing and other necessities from visiting guests - File Photo
Oasis of Life Orphanage children happy after receiving donations of clothing and other necessities from visiting guests - File Photo.

Kampala, Uganda | By Lindsey Kukunda | Orphanages are everywhere and seldom are they the efficiently-run organisations one sees on television. Oftentimes, it’s simply that old woman who lives next door with a lot of ‘grandchildren’

There is a movie called Pay It Forward. It centres on a young boy who, in a bid to change the world, spends his days doing good deeds for people, and instead of accepting payment for it, asks that it be paid forward. Do a good deed for someone else and have someone continue the trend.

There is a group of young Ugandans who were inspired by this movie and formed the Pay It Forward Foundation Uganda. One day, I decided to do my bit to pay it forward by following them to the Oasis of Life Orphanage in Nateete, where we were donating clothing and other necessities to orphans residing there.

We were told to wait in the Living Word Temple Church for the orphans, which struck me as odd until I was told that the pastor of the church, Reverend Henry Nsubuga, was also the founder of the orphanage. We were offered seats around a high table, which were piled high with sodas, samosas and chapatis that we had carried along for what I could see was going to be a festive occasion.

It is at this instant that I heard laughing exciting chatter as about thirty children trooped in and took their own seats in front of us- the setting reminded me of a graduation party! They ranged from the ages of two to eighteen years and a good percentage of them had no shoes and wore tattered clothing. What they did wear were expectant and eager faces, and shining eyes at all the food on the table!

As we proceeded to ‘party’ and mingle with the children, I spoke with a Pastor Robert Kagina about how he and the Reverend, who was up country at the time, started to run the orphanage and how they strive to maintain it:

“I am a Minister, so I come into contact with a lot of orphans, and sometimes people just drop babies on my doorstep. The boys and girls sleep in separate houses, about a 500 meter distance apart, and most of them have been here from the time they were babies. Our youngest child is now two years old and the eldest is eighteen. We have fifty three orphans and two matrons for each house.

The problems are too many. There is no money to feed and clothe them, and some of them have been in the same class for three years due to lack of school fees. When a child falls sick, we take them to the Sunrise Clinic up the road, where I have to leave my personal property behind when I don’t have money.”

His face lit up when he said, “It is only because of donations from church goers and young people like Pay It Forward Foundation Uganda, that we are able to even feed them at least once a day. At least, as long as such Ugandans are alive, I know that there is hope.”

The truth of the matter is that outside places like Sanyu Babies home, Uganda does not have orphanages. It only has institutions established by benevolent individuals who decide to take in homeless children. Most times, the parents of these children are actually living.

An American, who asked to remain anonymous, confessed to me that the mother of his adopted sons is alive and kicking. He adopted them from an orphanage in Mukono (the management refused to be interviewed or to have the orphanage mentioned).

“My sons’ whole family is alive but they cannot afford to take care of the children,” he said. “The mother used to leave them alone for weeks on end, and they would forage through rubbish to survive. Concerned family members brought them to this orphanage, which is where I found them.”

At the Oasis of Life orphanage, fifteen year old Peter Semujju, who has been in the orphanage since he was one and a half years old, explained how things works in our ‘orphanages’.

“Because I am one of the eldest, I act as caretaker to any new orphans who arrive. Things are bad, and we do not receive a lot of help. On average, we eat only one meal a day, and less than ten of us own shoes or have enough clothes. I appeal to the public to donate clothes to us, and also money for school fees so we do not have to repeat classes.”

On an impulse I asked him what he wished for most in the whole world. I expected him to say a family, more food, and more money. His answer was swift and sure.

“An MP3 player,” he said. “All I want is an MP3 player.” “Why not a music system, so all of you can listen to the music together?” I asked. “When I listen to music alone, it makes it easier to be alone in the world. The music keeps me company. I want something I can call my own. Mine and no one else’s.”

It occurred to me then that an orphanage in Uganda is not a place where orphans go to get adopted. An Orphanage is just a place where orphans go. Because cultural inhibitions prevent childless couples from adopting. Because Ugandans also want children -something- they can call their very own.

I spoke with Miss Celia Kaala, a specialist in child adoption, and Director of the NGO, Justice For Children, about the intricacies of adoption in Uganda.

“Applications for adoption are filed in the Chief Magistrate’s court where both the child and the applicant are Ugandan, and in the High Court, where either the child or the applicant is not a citizen of Uganda. Ugandans generally adopt illegally by merely inviting a child or young relative into their home. This is a common and dangerous habit because when the main caretaker dies, the non-official child has no legal right to money or property.”

A Ugandan adopting a child is not a complicated matter if any existing relatives agree to sign over parental ownership; if the would-be parent is twenty-five years old, and is twenty-one years older than the child; but only under special circumstances will the court allow a sole male to adopt a female child and a sole female to adopt a male child.

For both Ugandans and foreigners, the applicant must have lived with the child for a period of three years under the supervision of probation and social welfare officer to ensure the relationship is a compatible one.

For foreigners, there are extra regulations. According to the Children’s Act, “…a person who is not a citizen of Uganda may…adopt a Ugandan child, if he or she- has stayed in Uganda for at least three years; has fostered the child for at least thirty-six months under the supervision of a probation and social welfare officer; does not have a criminal record; has a recommendation concerning his or her suitability to adopt a child from his or her country’s probation and welfare office or other competent authority; and has satisfied the court that his or her country of origin will respect and recognize the adoption order.”

According to Celia, the main hindrances to adoption to Ugandans are poverty and social-cultural hindrance. While 70 per cent of adoptions in Uganda are accounted for by foreigners, only 10 per cent are by Ugandans.

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I was told by a worker at the aforementioned orphanage in Mukono that the reason they are hesitant to speak with the press is because the Government wants to shut down ‘illegal’ orphanages, under the premise that they are poorly run and exploiting children.

Does it have any alternative in place if this action takes place? “It is true that some of these places use children as a source of labour for farming, or an excuse to get donor funding,” said Celia. “

The government has foster homes in place for orphans, but it needs to build more. One of them is the Naguru reception centre which mainly caters to children of prisoners”. In the meantime, I think that today’s ‘orphanage’, exploitative or not, is the best thing that could happen to children who find themselves within their walls.