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 and part two will help put these events into perspective. Buckle up- this update’s a doozy.
God’s Grace Orphanage (also known as God’s Grace Childcare Center) was closed by Ugandan Ministry officials on Tuesday, September 24th, 2013. A media article about the closure of God’s Grace Orphanage is available online. If you enjoy foreign language news accounts (entirely in Lugandan!), there’s footage from a local TV station below.
Before I go on with my personal story, I want to be very clear: I did not close an orphanage. As an American tourist in an East African country, I don’t have that power. I do have the power to bring my concerns to the attention of the appropriate incountry authorities. And I did just that. They have the responsibility to investigate allegations and make their own determination. And they did just that. At the end of the day, what happened at God’s Grace is a brilliant example of good people- professionals in their field- who stood up in a country rife with corruption and followed the letter of the law. And that is to be celebrated. The orphanage staff and supporters who have attempted to malign me for the past few weeks as the sole orchestrator of an orphanage closure and all the events that have happened since are either ignorant of the law or disingenuous. I certainly have my opinion about which of those options rings true.
I did not know what actions would be taken once officials arrived to investigate. I had no input as to where the children were taken and have had no influence on any official Ministry actions since the closure. I am aware that Maria Kiwumulo is attempting to add additional rooms and erect a perimeter fence in an attempt to have her home reopened. I freely concede that I will do my level-best to ensure that this faux orphanage remains closed. And I won’t be apologizing for it.
Upon closure of God’s Grace Orphanage, the children were split into two groups and sent to separate homes just up the street from one another. The younger set was sent to Naguru Home, a government-run transient facility designed to house children on a temporary basis. The teens were sent to Naguru Remand Home, a facility designed to hold youth offenders. While certainly not ideal, I was told that the Ministry had to find suitable accommodation for a large number of children on very little notice. Thankfully, the GGO teens were kept in a separate dormitory and did not interact directly with any juvenile offenders. I visited both homes several times over the next week and was always satisfied with the accommodations the children had been provided. They were not living in the lap of luxury, but they had dry beds, secure fences and enough to eat.
The day after the closure, I went shopping for the children and purchased 80 pairs of shoes, 30 dresses, 144 pairs of underwear, 48 pair of shorts for the boys, 84 toothbrushes, 36 tubes of toothpaste, 36 bars of soap and an absurd number of chocolates. I arrived at Naguru around lunchtime and met the volunteers there. The children were thrilled to see them, but the local coordinator (James Nadiope/ Rev. Jim Nadiope/ Prince James Kange Nadiope), who works for International Volunteer Network/ IVN as the incountry partner of International Volunteer HQ/ IVHQ/ International Volunteer Headquarters pulled them offsite as soon as I arrived. Before they left, one of the volunteers let me know that B’s father had come to claim him. B was an “orphan” I had developed a special affinity for during my time at God’s Grace. I raced to the orphanage office and met “Tata”, whom I had been told was deceased. B was playing in his arms and seemed content. While I thoroughly believe that a child’s place is with their parents, saying goodbye to him proved to be incredibly difficult. My daughter and I had really come to adore B- we had been paying for his medical care and wore pendants with his picture around our necks every day for months. I snapped a pic of B and his father, exchanged numbers and pleaded with him to be in touch. I hugged B one last time, nuzzling him close, praying that he would stay safe and that I’d see him again sometime.
I then dragged several huge flour sacks brimming with clothes and personal care items over to the rest of the children and asked the older ones to help me parcel out the goods. The children descended upon us, stepping on one another and giving elbows to the eyes of their neighbors. For 3 hours, I sat with my back in a corner, facing a small mountain of trampling children as they tried on shoes and assessed their bums to ensure they had the proper size of knickers. As I was marking their names in permanent marker on each item, one of the children told me that Mama Maria was watching me. Surprised to hear that she had arrived, I stood up and rushed over to her car to discover Maria in the backseat, surrounded by supporters and staff. Instead of being relieved to see that her children were in good shape and receiving the necessities, Maria and her staff told me what a scandal all of this was. They told me that these were not my children and ordered me to stop assisting them. They then inquired about the whereabouts of B and accused me of kidnapping him when I said that his father had arrived to take him home. The administrators of the transient home ordered mama off property, but not before a few of the new caretakers heard the team make specific threats- all in the native tongue- against my safety. I returned to the task of providing the children with knickers and soap.
I didn’t reach the older children until after 4pm that day. The boys eagerly greeted me and began to unload the car. Soon after, Fatiah arrived, barked off something in Lugandan and the boys immediately dropped the parcels I had brought for them. My driver told me that Fatiah had instructed the children to accept nothing my hands had touched. Who is Fatiah Mirembe? She’s a twenty-one year old caretaker sent by Mama Maria to oversee the children. In an effort to conceal that she was neither an orphan nor a minor, she had refused to register with Naguru Home, though she was communicating constantly with Maria via phone.
The new mama at the transient home helped me carry these items down to the dormitories, where the teens had gathered for dinner. She told them that I was only trying to help and encouraged them to accept the things they had asked me to purchase for them the previous day. I then began talking to the children reassuring them that I was there to help. I told them that accepting these items didn’t mean they loved me or didn’t love Mama Maria, only that they needed shoes and soap. I asked who wanted shoes and several me’s were whispered. I couldn’t tell from whom they had emanated, so I asked the children to come forward and take the shoes if they needed them. As several children arose, Fatiah began screaming and the mama led her out of the room. The children wailed and beat the walls as I tried to calm them. Don’t worry, they’re just trying to calm her down. She’ll be back in a moment. I’ll talk the administrators into bringing her back to you. As soon as Fatiah was out of sight, the children rushed me, almost knocking me over. They grabbed at the soap and toothbrushes and kickers and dresses and chocolates. In less than a minute, all of it had been claimed and several of the teens hugged me and thanked me. I walked outside to see Fatiah and the mama, standing no more than five steps from the dormitory. Fatiah was crying as the administrator told me that she’d been encouraging the children to be uncooperative and they were growing tired of her mouth. I pleaded with them to allow Fatiah to return to the children, suggesting that separating her would only make things worse. I walked Fatiah back into the dorm and held her as she cried. I kissed the kids and told them to stay calm and that I’d be back tomorrow.
Back at my apartment, I soaked in a hot bath as I cried. I was overwhelmed. I was exhausted. And I was worried for the 50 children we hadn’t found. Late that evening, I turned on my laptop to discover two worrisome messages: one from a supporter of GGO informing me that they knew I’d “played a hand” in things and the other from a neighborhood boy named J, informing me that Fatiah had told Mama Maria that I tried to have her arrested earlier that day. Maria was now threatening to have me arrested and J warned that I should avoid visiting the children the next day. I assured him that I’d done nothing wrong and wasn’t in danger of arrest.
J was a neighborhood teen that lived near God’s Grace. All of his friends lived at the orphanage and he was back and forth to the facility every day to visit and assist with the younger set. He’d made friends with many of the volunteers over the summer months and a handful of volunteers kept in touch with him via Facebook, as he would visit a local internet café every few days and pop on to tell us hello. J was one of nine children from his mother. His father denies him and he’s battled extreme poverty all of his life. Though that life wouldn’t sound particularly rose to most of us, J smiles easily and boasts an infectious laugh. I had only met him briefly during my summer visit but sought him out on this most recent trip. A former volunteer had sent me $100 before I left the states, asking me to give it to J for his education. I had slipped the equivalent shillings into his pocket a day or two before the orphanage closed, telling him that Aunt Paige wanted him to study hard and go far with his schooling. He flashed that awesome smile and promised to do his best.
Now J seemed so concerned about his friends that I offered to take him to Naguru Remand Home to visit the older kids. I was hoping that a visit would prove beneficial on several fronts: it might assuage his fears about the wellbeing of his friends and it might bolster the spirits of the teens who were missing so much of home. On Thursday, I picked him up and drove him over. The kids scrutinized my car as I pulled in, but cheered and danced as they saw their old friend. They enjoyed a brief visit before the God’s Grace children were piled into vans to travel to their new home. Ministry officials had made room for them at St. Noah’s, a well-run Catholic home in Wakiso district. I promised to visit the next day at this new facility.
That evening I was shocked to learn that James Nadiope/ Rev. Jim Nadiope/ Prince James Kange Nadiope had told his current roster of volunteers- who had paid to come to Uganda and volunteer in an orphanage working with kids- that they were now to return to God’s Grace and shift their attention to help with construction, so that Mama Maria could relieve overcrowding and reopen. The volunteers unanimously refused.
During my June 2013 visit to Uganda, I had grown frustrated with James and began questioning his motives. By his own admission, he had learned of God’s Grace on a Friday and stationed us there on a Monday. I wondered why this placement hadn’t been more thoroughly vetted. When the volunteers questioned whether this home was legal, James assured us that it was. When I pressed to see the paperwork, I was shown an expired (by 9 months) certificate that authorized GGO as a business, not an orphanage and not an NGO, as it claimed to be. James is typically working with 18-22 year old volunteers, many of whom are traveling internationally for the first time, and it’s my opinion that he preys on their vulnerability and naiveté. They pay a weekly fee to volunteer and that fee includes accommodation and food provided by James. He threatens anyone who “disrespects” him with expulsion from his program/ expulsion from Uganda and potential arrest. He has incoming volunteers sign non-disclosure agreements in an attempt to mute any criticism of his program. James claims to be the UN Child Rights Advocate for Uganda, though UN officials I spoke with in Uganda, in Switzerland and in the U.S. have no record of his involvement with their organization. James knew for months that this orphanage placement was dangerous and illegal and yet he continued to place his volunteers there. Over the past several months, after blogging publicly about my time at God’s Grace, numerous IVHQ volunteers have contacted me to express their discomfort with James as the head of IVHQ’s Uganda program. On Thursday night, I emailed James and asked him to meet with me on Friday. My goal was to speak directly with him to share my concerns about this orphanage in the hopes of persuading him to cut ties with an obviously corrupt organization in order to protect the volunteers he oversees on behalf of IVHQ. I also rang the New Zealand offices of International Volunteer HQ and spoke to one of their staff members, expressing concern over what was happening in Uganda.
On Friday morning, I awoke to an email from Daniel Radcliffe, director of IVHQ. It read, in part:
“To be honest, I’m not happy regarding what I’ve heard in respect to your accusations against Jim, as we’ve been working with Jim for over 3 years and he has placed over 800 volunteers in Uganda over this time. We are fully committed to him as our program coordinator in Uganda and trust him 100%.
I’ve told Jim not to meet with you today. It’s important for him to focus on placing our volunteers into new projects and ensuring all IVHQ participants are looked after – he needs to focus on our volunteers, projects and stakeholders involved in the IVHQ Uganda program.”
Fair enough. I expected that the matter was settled- at least in the temporary- and I planned to follow up with IVHQ corporate directly. That morning, several volunteers and I piled into a car and headed to see the new home. St. Noah’s was spacious + tidy and appeared well-run. We spent some time sitting with Father Peter and were pleased to hear that even though this was a Catholic home, he was allowing the children to pray in the manner in which they were accustomed: born again Christian. He spoke repeatedly about how this was a home and a family rather than a prison. He didn’t want to control the children, but support them. He spoke fluent Lugandan, having been in Uganda for 43 years, and seemed to have a firm grasp on the cultural sensitivities surrounding this matter. For the first time in several days, I felt genuinely optimistic.
That optimism didn’t last long. That same afternoon, I received a panicked call from Doreen Nabukeera, a girl in her 20’s who lives near the orphanage. She and I had met a few times at the spring where we collect water near the orphanage and she was now calling to tell me that something was happening at God’s Grace Childcare Center and that she needed to meet me. I suggested the petrol station near my hotel and told Doreen to hop on a motorcycle taxi to meet me there in 30 minutes. I sat at the Bugolobi Shell station for more than 2 hours waiting for her. I called several times inquiring about the delay and grew suspicious with her answers. I eventually returned to my apartment.
Shortly thereafter, Doreen called me again and said that she had arrived. As I exited my hotel to meet her, I saw a car with James Nadiope and Mama Maria cruise by. I parked myself in a neighborhood grocery store and called Doreen to inquire about why she had brought them to our meeting. She initially denied being with them and then said they had brought her here and that I needed to be careful because they wanted to hurt me. I told Doreen to go home and I asked the security guards at the grocery to walk me back to my hotel. I informed hotel security (who had been following the events in Uganda) that James and Maria where nearby and would likely turn up soon. Sure enough, within minutes, James entered the hotel lobby and unsuccessfully argued to see me. He left after approximately 15 minutes, saying he’d give me a call. To this day, he has never again rung my phone.
Admittedly, I was shaken. James’ SUV has tinted windows in the back but I could see that the vehicle was packed with people. If he wanted to meet me, why not come one-on-one? James knew that Mama Maria had made threats against my life. Why had he brought her here? James had been instructed earlier that day by his boss not to meet with me. Why had he come anyway? Why had they used a neighborhood girl as a decoy to get me out of my apartment? I called the U.S. Embassy and spoke with the regional security officer who took a report, contacted local police and then suggested that I “get the hell out of Uganda.” I called the Ugandan Police Force who advised me to report to the station the next morning to apply for 24/7 police protection.
That night, J called to say that he had been summoned earlier that day to God’s Grace. When he arrived, Maria Kiwumulo and her associate Kansiime Brenda Mukankubano took his phone as a punishment for having visited the children with me. They sifted through his phone messages before asking for his Facebook password. J denied them and was beaten, caned and tortured. He eventually acquiesced and the staff at God’s Grace, in conjunction with James Nadiope/ Jim Nadiope of IVHQ, forced him into a car and drove him around Kampala beating and interrogating him. They devised the plan for Doreen to summon me to a meeting. I was unaware that there were two cars packed with 11 people waiting for me to exit my hotel. Doreen was wired with a camera and a recorder and the whole lot of them planned to surround and intimidate me, putting me in a car and taking me who-knows-where, in an effort to have me make on-camera statements which would vindicate James with IVHQ corporate and Maria Kiwumulo with the Ugandan Ministry. The plan fell apart when I refused to come out of my apartment, having seen that they were there. That evening, Brenda posed as J and used his Facebook account to speak privately with past and current volunteers, inquiring about who was behind the closure and my whereabouts. Once I spoke to J and discovered it wasn’t him that we had all been talking to, I pulled the plug on the conversation and warned the other volunteers that they were being deceived.
Early the next morning, I drove to Kyebando and picked up J. We proceeded to a police station to file formal complaints (of which I have copies) and to secure UPF protection (which I was granted after a lengthy interview process). I spent one more week in Uganda, during which I met with J’s mother and arranged for him to be placed in a boarding school outside Kampala. Maria told the community that the boy sold their children to me for that $100. He was no longer safe at home. He couldn’t walk the hour to and from high school each day with any assurance of safety. He had to say goodbye to his mother and his siblings and leave his community to avoid the wrath Maria unleashed.
As for me: I changed cars, sat behind tinted windows and was escorted 24/7 by an armed Ugandan Police officer. My family was worried sick. It’s a shame that those who seek to exploit children for financial gain turn to harassment + intimidation + violence when they are exposed and their financial gravy train interrupted. I suppose I should have expected nothing less, but I’m still shocked and disappointed.
The saga continues in Uganda. Maria Kiwumulo helped orchestrate a mass escape from St. Noah’s Home, during which six people were arrested. The 36 teens who were there have now all disappeared, though pictures show them turning back up at God’s Grace to help execute the construction projects Maria believes will allow her home to reopen. James Nadiope has complained to the police that I’m somehow misdirecting all the funds that were destined to come to GGO and routing them to myself- which would be laughable if it weren’t so tragically erroneous and nefarious. For the record, I have spent close to $20,000 in the last four months trying to ensure the children of this faux orphanage are safe, including $11000 in airfare, $1000 in volunteer fees, $3000 in international calls + roaming, $2000 in hotel accommodations and $2500 from my own pocket in donations to GGO. I’ve netted not a single penny and don’t have any plans to. I’m not attempting to adopt any of these children. I don’t want to “take over” the orphanage as a retirement plan, as has been suggested. I may look a bit tired, but I’m still fairly young and several decades away from retirement, thankyouverymuch.
So why was this orphanage operating this way? How widespread is the problem of sham orphanages in Uganda? Why would a volunteer organization continue to support an orphanage that was illegal and shuttered by the Ugandan government? What has been IVHQ’s corporate response to these events? How can volunteers ensure that they’re actually helping the people they came to assist? That will have to wait for Monday. And- after that- I’m going to bring the happy back to this blog and focus on arming + empowering creative entrepreneurs.
I appreciate your patience with this saga. I know it seems absurd- it feels absurd to me, too. Except that I lived it and dozens of people who were in the thick of it can vouch for these events. I strongly believe that our lives are about more than just building businesses- they’re about doing good and giving back. I have consistently tried to make my life a witness to injustice and fight corruption wherever it may be found. I am not perfect. I’m certainly no saint. But I know that my intentions are selfless and that my tenacity is almost boundless. I refuse to be intimidated into slinking away quietly. I refuse to call a spade anything other than a spade. And I refuse to stand by while a corrupt, exploitative childcare center posits their children as orphans in order to prey upon the emotions and wallets of foreigners who too often don’t know the right questions to ask.
This blog series continues right here.