This blog is part of a series detailing the events of my recent trip to Uganda. If this is the first you’ve read of the journey, then backtracking to part one will help put these events into perspective.
Four months after I first stepped foot on the property of God’s Grace Orphanage (also known as God’s Grace Childcare Center), I returned to Uganda. Unwisely, I had no tangible plan. I only knew that my concerns for the 131 children in the care of Maria Kiwumulo continued to mount and though I wasn’t certain what to do about that, I knew that being 8,000+ miles away was a hindrance to any progress that I might be able to make. I bought a hammock, booked a plane ticket, and decided to live at the orphanage 24 hours a day so that I could better understand what happens in the 16 hours each day during which no volunteers are present. I didn’t notify the orphanage administration in advance of my arrival, but I did collect $7,000 worth of donations (you all are amazing!) to be used to support the children living at God’s Grace.
I arrived incountry in the wee hours of September 19th and hired a car to take me to God’s Grace later that morning. I arrived with several hundreds dollars’ worth of food and was welcomed into the home. It was incredible to see those smiles and hug those wee ones whose images I hadn’t been able to shake all summer! After some discussion with Maria and her administrator Paul Nsamba, it was agreed that I could sleep at the orphanage. What I learned during the few days I lived full-time at the orphanage only heightened my alarm:
• The children were locked into the building at night. Thick chains were wrapped around the iron bars on all the doors, secured by padlocks. Since the two pit latrines were located outside, a bucket was placed at the end of the hall for urination + defecation.
• The orphanage was not paying an electric bill and there was no meter attached to the house. The electricity had been self-wired and was uninspected, the actual energy stolen from a neighbor. Given that large iron bars cover the windows and thick chains secure the doors at night, I had grave concerns about how the children would escape should any of that amateur wiring prove defective and- heaven forbid- a fire break out during the night.
• Each and every night that I slept at the orphanage was punctuated by prayer. Fervent, hysterical prayer in the middle of the night. Sometimes it was an older child shouting his prayers, other times it was the younger set marching the halls in prayer, but always there was loud prayer during sleeping hours. The concrete block home had interior walls but all the rafters were open, so something said in one room could be heard almost anywhere else in the small structure. A shouted, panicked prayer in one room was enough to wake the smaller children, who sometimes sat straight up in bed for an hour or more waiting for the commotion to dissipate.
• Older children slept outside, exposed in the slum, when they felt that Mama was sick or there was a threat to the orphanage. And yes- they prayed all night.
• The children bathed together in mixed company. Granted: I never witnessed the older children participate, but the younger set (up to about age 10) bathed each morning in open, outdoor, brick showers. Boys and girls piled in together and all the children ran naked from the baths (near the bottom of the yard) to the house (at the top of the yard) in order to dig through piles of clothes. I worried about the lack of privacy and sense of dignity for these children. Especially given that ages 6 months to 20 years mingle freely without a great deal of adult supervision.
On Monday, September 24th, with Maria’s blessing, we carted no less than six children to The Surgery (an excellent local clinic operated by a Brit) for a variety of ailments: welts over one child’s trunk, psychological trauma for another, back pain for yet another, shallow + labored breathing for one more. A handful of IVHQ volunteers escorted the children to The Surgery in batches and Mama Maria soon received a call from one of the volunteers, informing her that the doctor at The Surgery was refusing to release the youngest infant back into her care. Baby J had been seen there before and, at that time, the doctor had documented his concerns in writing- this baby was not thriving at God’s Grace. Now he was seeing the baby again and was once more reluctant to release her. Maria asked me to go to the hospital and negotiate for J’s release.
Not five minutes after I left for the hospital to meet up with the International Volunteer HQ volunteers and speak to the doctor about baby J, Maria rang my phone and said that she was coming to the hospital herself. I knew that disaster loomed- Maria was angry and sick (having been seen herself that day at another local clinic) and her arrival at the hospital would spell trouble. I arrived in advance of her, spoke briefly with volunteers and the doctor, who advised that he needed to speak with Maria once she arrived. Maria soon pulled up to The Surgery with multiple staff in tow, took baby J and proceeded to leave the hospital. I ran behind her, asking her to stop and think this through but she was undeterred. She and baby J were in a car and drove off property in the span of less than a minute.
I spent the next hour or two with officials from the Ministry of Gender & Community Development and Child Protective Services, who had been summoned to the hospital. Maria left behind Dan Mukoova, one of her teachers, to watch over me. I pleaded with him to sit in the outdoor waiting area of the hospital while I sorted out this mess. In private meetings, I voiced my concerns about this home, telling them the history of my involvement and the details of what I had seen. I was told that they’d investigate and act appropriately based on their findings.
As I returned home to God’s Grace Orphanage that evening (with Dan, my overseer, in tow), the children were hesitant to approach me. Maria had taken baby J for an examination with her doctor, but she had obviously said something to them about me. Maria finally returned home late that evening and spent several hours in her room beating the walls and crying out to God. The children were nervous and milled about in whispers. A series of older girls came into Maria’s room, bowing at her feet and crying as she prayed. Many of the older children slept outside that evening and paced the yard in fervent prayer.
Around lunchtime on the following afternoon, a series of officials arrived onsite. Local police forces, Ministry officials (including the Commissioner and probation officer), administrators of the government-run orphanages and child protection units converged on the property. Maria was reluctant to cooperate and the volunteers tried to keep the children calm with songs and dance. It was quickly established that the home was illegal and unregistered and that the files kept on these children were unsatisfactory. The Commissioner ordered the home shuttered and the children removed.
Hundreds of members of the local community (some of them parents of these children) gathered at the perimeter of the orphanage to shout insults and throw rocks. A few more truckloads of police in riot gear arrived. A teacher was arrested. The Commissioner instructed Maria to explain these events to her children and to ask them to go peacefully. Maria elected not to do that and, as officials were investigating the home’s legality and speaking to Maria about the proper procedure for removal, orphanage staff were hiding babies in neighboring homes and telling older children to run. The closure took hours. As vans packed with children slunk down the driveway in front to depart for a government-run home, dozens of children were sneaking out of the back and being padlocked behind doors. Out of the 131 children who were onsite that morning, only 72 were taken into custody.
I climbed into the last van to depart with children. Knowing that fifty more were in hiding was gut-wrenching, but I was keenly aware that I was powerless to do anything for those children. All of the other volunteers (who were working through International Volunteer HQ, also known as IVHQ under the supervision of James Nadiope/ Rev. Jim Nadiope/ Prince James Kange Nadiope) had been ordered off the property due to escalating safety concerns, leaving me as the sole visitor that evening to go see the children in the transient homes where they were placed. They were frantic with worry and questions tumbled out of their little mouths. Had Maria been arrested? How long would they be here? What was going to happen to their home? Would they ever be allowed to go back? Where were their brothers and sisters? And on and on. I did my best to soothe them. I hugged and rocked and wiped tears. I explained that they were safe and Mama Maria was safe. That this situation was temporary and that the right people were looking into things. That they were being protected and the appropriate decisions would be made to keep them safe. They asked for shoes and dresses and knickers and soap and toothbrushes and bowls and plates and balls and and and… I promised to go shopping that next morning and return by lunchtime.
And then I went back to my Kampala apartment, collapsed in the entry and wept like I have never, ever wept before. I had no idea of that fallout that was brewing nor the concerns for my personal safety that I would face the very next day. There’s more to this story… I’ll finish it up early next week.
This blog series continues right here.