Millions of children in Africa are growing up in orphanages, residential care centers, and children’s homes. Most of these institutions identify themselves as “homes” and “family” to these children. But are these residential care institutions really “home” or “family”? I grew up in an institution, and it didn’t feel like a family and I didn’t have the feeling that I was home. On the contrary, the place gave me a feeling of emptiness, uncertainty, and confusion. My two siblings (younger sister and older brother) were taken to a hospital, then to an institution after our mother was killed. On her back was our youngest sibling, who was a few months old and who died with her. I had three other siblings whose whereabouts at that time I never knew.
When I arrived at the institution, I remember being told by the government officials who brought me and the institution’s social worker that the institution was my new home and everyone inside was my family. The institution even had a song that all new entrants were required to learn. A line in the chorus read, “Visitors welcome to…our home… we are happy to be with you.” We were paraded around to sing to local and foreign visitors and donors who frequented the institution, and the chorus of the song still echoes in my head to this day.
During the many years that I was living at the institution I was overwhelmed by moments when I felt I had neither a family nor a home. Each time I saw a child being visited by a parent or guardian during weekends or holidays, it was a reminder of the emptiness in my life. The voids left by losing my mother and my father permeated my thoughts, creating a lonely feeling engulfing my heart. It constantly reminded me of my siblings, who never visited me or didn’t even know where I was.
In a dormitory of about 50, there were four staff referred to as housemothers, who worked in shifts. Although I had interactions with them, I felt their touch only when I queued naked waiting my turn to be scrubbed for a morning bath, or when I was pinched for having avoided or skipped a chore. My biological mother must have touched me more in my first 5 years, before her death, than the staff in the subsequent 15 years at the institution. I saw the housemothers often when I handed them my plate for food, or heard them when they shouted at us or told us to do our chores. But I rarely heard them call me by name, and “you” became my name in most cases.
Although I had interactions with my mother before her death, in reflection I see that I hardly knew what a family was. In all the years at the institution, I never got even a single hug from a housemother. They told us they were our “mothers,” but they never came close to the vague memories I had of my mother. Not only did they not treat us like their children, but they also reinforced the pain by calling us “orphans.” Over and over we heard them call us that, in front of visitors, staff, and officials, which only served to reinforce the negative and painful status as orphans.
At the age of 18 I was branded too old to live at the institution and had to move out. It reinforced my opinion that the institution was neither my home nor my family. We were told the institution was a place for younger children and that the donors demanded to see younger children. As young adults we were a liability, not an asset, making me feel like an object not worthy of even sight. Nothing sounded or felt like family. I had no one to tell good-bye. All the young people my age that I had grown up with were taken to their relatives or guardians. Others like myself with no family had to start living in the community on our own. Ironically, after I moved out I was one of the fortunate ones who became employed by the institution as a groundsman, which provided me an income while I was going to school. My role then was to look after flowers, collect trash, and work on the farm.
A few months after leaving care I struggled with stress that resulted in stomach ulcers. One evening after school I was so sick that a classmate escorted me to my bus stop, making sure that I caught the bus home. I struggled but somehow managed to get home. Once home I recall sitting and thinking that I had no one in that house, or anywhere, to call for help should I need something. I looked at the dusty wall where an institution employee badge reading “groundsman” dangled. It was not my home, only where I happened to work. I remember thinking, “If I am to die tonight, it will be a lonely death.”
For the next several years, tearful nights and lonely days were filled with solitude and the task of pretending to be normal like anyone else. Although now 33, the yearning for a family has never faded. But that is not my deepest cry. My sadness is deepened by the fact that it is not just my history, but the current trauma of millions of children and young adults who leave care still walking alone on their painful journey. We think we understand their pain, but it is nothing compared to living in the sorrow that they feel every day!
To me as a Christian, the words of God in John 14:18, “I will not leave you as orphans—I will come to you,” indicate that God has no intention of letting any child experience orphanhood or be called an orphan. Fulfilling a yearning in these children’s hearts to have a place to call home, to have people to call a family, and to be called sons and daughters I believe is the epitome of making this Gospel visible.
Stephen Ucembe grew up in an institution. He has used his institutional care and professional experiences to advocate, as an expert in alternative care issues, for children without parental care nationally in his country, Kenya, and globally. He has a degree in social work, and two master’s degrees, one in child development and the other in social policy and development. As a social worker, he has worked with and for separated and unaccompanied children, families affected by HIV and AIDS, and families living with children with disabilities. Currently Stephen is working as a regional advocacy manager for Hope and Homes for Children, an international organization whose mission is to be a catalyst for the global eradication of institutional care for children.