Tales from a Ugandan Orphanage

Lela Barker

Nicholas reading books after a bucket bath in Uganda
Nicholas reading books after a bucket bath


As I mentioned in previous posts, I spent almost the whole of June in Uganda.  There were three distinct segments of the trip, including teaching a local NGO how to make shea-butter based products and an amazing safari at Murchison Falls,  but the most unforgettable leg of the journey took place at an orphanage.  Chloe, my teenage daughter, has long said that she plans to live and work in Africa and I envisioned a way for her to enjoy a taste of that lifestyle under my close supervision. The answer? Take Chloe along on one of my business trips and tack a service project onto the end of the journey. And  that’s how we came to spend ten days with the kids at God’s Grace Orphanage in the Khyebando slum of Kampala, Uganda.


Katwah in Uganda


I anticipated a week of wiping noses and changing diapers and reading books and loving on wee ones, but our experience evolved into so much more. Though we volunteered through an international organization, this organization had never before placed volunteers at this facility and the entire affair turned into a bit of an experiment. Ten of us walked into a firestorm of controversy: NGO’s have been pulling out over accusations of abuse and alleged mishandling of funds. Questions swirled about whether or not the orphanage is licensed. It’s certainly overcrowded- 128 children between the ages 6 months and 20 years living in four rooms. And the resources are certainly too few- not enough food, only a handful of diapers per day, a dearth of antiparasitic medicines.  Each day felt heavy and Chloe and I struggled to know who to trust.


And  yet, there were these children. Beautiful and bright. And desperate for affection and tenderness. In need of advocates who will act on their behalf, motivated by something other than money or public applause. They would run up to our van each day, pouring out of classrooms with raucous cheers, and literally jump into our arms. Wrap their bodies around our legs.  Tug on our sleeves and plead for our phones and bags and sunglasses. Most nights ended in tears of some sort; the volunteers mindlessly shoveling rice and beans into our mouths back at the volunteer house and then wandering outside to decompress and process our day.


Wilson in Uganda


Some days we hosted water-drinking contests (the kids are chronically dehydrated). Other days we arranged HIV testing for the kids and photographed and measured each one. The orphanage didn’t have a database of its children and we knew that creating some sort of record was a top priority. Other days we shopped for hundreds of bananas and mangoes to supplement their starch-heavy diet. Every day brought dish washing and water fetching and clothes washing.


I was soon roped into a series of meetings: with other NGO’s who were concerned about the health of the children. With the orphanage staff to discuss an inspection by the Ministry (who was none-too-pleased with the current conditions). With the volunteer organization, in an effort to coerce the orphanage to end the practice of dry fasting the children for religious reasons (I regret that I was unsuccessful). With real estate agents as we explored potential homes to which we could move some children. I arrived home numb from each day, but the next morning the children would crowd our vans and leap into our arms and I’d temporarily forget the exhaustion of the  previous day.


Bashil in Uganda


One boy, in particular, was ever-present in Chloe’s arms each day. Sweet Bashil- wicked smart and handsome, too. He loves to mimic facial expressions and he adores being tickled. The story goes something like this: his mother tried to sell him to a witchdoctor and his HIV+ father arranged for him to come to the orphanage, knowing that his illness prevented him from properly caring for his son.  One day we carted Bashil to the hospital- he’s far too thin and we suspected a parasite. He merrily complied through three blood draws, a physical exam and an x-ray, telling the doctor (in his native tongue) that his American friends had given him a watch, and proudly pointing to the wide band-aid that wrapped around his tiny wrist from the blood draw.


Afterward, we checked into a nearby hotel to rest overnight and await results. We made some incredible memories that I’ll never forget: Bashil dropped his pants and urinated in front of the security guard out front. A common sight at the orphanage, but perhaps pee’ing at the feet of a guard at the nicest hotel in Kampala was not his wisest choice. Related: it was obvious that Bashil had never seen a bathtub, as he immediately dropped his trousers and used it as a toilet. After a good cleaning, we popped him in the basin and he marveled at running water and bubbles as he slid down the back of the tub over and over again, laughing hysterically each time. We stuffed his belly with protein and fat-packed meals until he was exhausted (and discovered that he refuses to eat meat… interesting).  He ran hysterically around the room, hiding behind curtains, playing peek-a-boo on the veranda, snuggling in a king-sized bed. He fell asleep between Chloe and I and woke us up with kisses. What a gift that day was, for us and for him.


Bashil in the bathtub at the hotel
Bashil in the bathtub at the hotel


Chloe and I were shattered to leave Uganda. Utterly shattered. We cried across Africa, Europe and the US. We sat in airports on layovers and read letters the children had slipped us, asking us to bring their sibling home with us. We reviewed the pictures on our phones and discovered videos made for us by the kids, telling us that they loved us and to please come back to them soon. Chloe and I made a pact with one another that we would continue to rally despite the ocean between us. That we would search for ways to improve the situation at the orphanage: coaxing them to become a legal entity, encouraging a move to a better facility, identifying the most vulnerable children and looking for alternative places for them to stay.


The last four weeks have born witness to a roller coaster of emotion: hope, despair, panic, frustration. Mostly frustration. But every time I look at these photos I am reminded of the intense suffering and of the amazing potential of these sweet kids. And I don’t know how to walk away from that. So I’ll be returning in September, to spend 3 or 4 weeks at the orphanage. My hope is that I can spend 24 hours a day loving those kids and that some divine entity will conveniently lay a solution at my feet. None of these children are available for adoption (it’s a long story), but I hope to one day welcome a few of them to the States for university. I can’t fathom how I’d be able to afford their educations, but I can give them a couch or bed upon which to sleep, a mom to look after them, a hand in navigating paperwork and adjusting to a new culture, and a belly full of protein and veggies. That’s my hope anyway…


Ibra in Uganda

So I ask that you hug your kids particularly tight this evening. Tell them how much you adore them. Share your dreams with them. Encourage them. And then say a prayer for these wee ones… that they will soon have stability. That they will be strong and healthy. That their spirits will be filled with hope for something better than what they have at the moment. That they will study hard and make good decisions (that’s particularly hard to do when the challenges of poverty are great and the guidance scant) so that their children won’t be doomed to the same fate.


My body arrived back in the U.S. on June 25th but my spirit has yet to come home…



About the Author

Lela Barker

Lela Barker hails from the deep-and-dirty south (ATL, represent!), where she spends her days helping makers and product designers navigate the pitfalls of product pricing, brand development, and wholesale strategy. She launched her apothecary brand in 2003 and bootstrapped the hell out of that little business to cultivate a portfolio of 1500+ stockists worldwide, generating $12million in revenue and establishing successful distributorships in the Middle East, EU, Scandinavia, and South Korea. Lela is the keeper of a well-worn passport and the maker of the finest lemon meringue pie you’ve ever put in your mouth.

4 responses on “Tales from a Ugandan Orphanage

  1. Jessika Hepburn

    My heart hurts for all the children who lack safety and family-these faces are so full of joy and deserve to live out their potential. I can only imagine how painful it must have been to leave them once they had moved into your heart. Lela you are a wonder woman, in a business sense sure, but more impressive is the ability to hold all this and work to transform it into meaningful change. Africa and I are not meant to be-the experience you describe would leave me broken not stronger or rallying like you! But if there is any way I can support you in this I am in with both feet and all my heart-I would love to help with fund and awareness raising on the homefront or brainstorming ideas together. These children need a village and I have total faith you can help create that-I’ve got my hammer ready when you need me <3

    1. Lela Post author

      Oh, how much do I love you Jess? I owe you a phone call and you’ll need to have a POT of coffee when the phone finally rings. 🙂 I do feel a bit broken. I spent some time in 2010 in northern Uganda with LRA survivors and promptly checked myself into therapy upon arriving home. Everything just felt so incredibly heavy after that journey. But I naively thought this time would be different: what can go wrong with hugging babies, right? I might have overestimated my strength and resilience on this one, but there was no way we could have known what we were walking into. And my sweet Chloe is struggling, too. I’ve been to Africa more than a dozen times but Uganda has a peculiar way of getting under the skin. As soon as I have a plan, we’re going to need that hammer and that village, so rest up. I love you!

  2. Bronwyn

    Thank you. As a mother, a born South African, who is in love with Africa, but unable to love there right now, I thank you from the bottom of my heart for making a difference to those small lives. You might not be able to save them all, but I really believe that even the smallest of moments of love can sustain a person through so much. It matters, what you have done.

  3. Walter

    This is well done for the Kalerwe Orphanage, which I know quite well. I opened a special account to collect some money in Switzerland, for school fees and for construction work. I found some generous sponsors for those children, although it is not enough. Why not doing the same in your country? May be some BIG donors, in order to buy some land or a house elsewhere, or at least to renovate the existing one. But this one does not belong to the orphanage. One day, they should have their own compound with better conditions. Good luck !

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