I’ve been in eastern Africa for a week now and I’m not sure where to start: the poverty, the corruption, HIV, the culture, the church.
Right now I’m camped inside the grounds at a Kenyan orphanage. It is both warming and heart breaking. The kids cry ‘Geckos! Geckos!’ (the name of our tour company) as we enter, and run up to greet us. The older ones take our hands and lead us around; the younger ones reach up, wanting to be held.
They just want to be near us, to have someone pay them attention, even if it is for a short while. There are over 250 children here, and there just aren’t enough hugs to go around.
I notice right away how few grown-ups are here. The children take it in turns to help in the kitchen, clean up, lead prayers, garden (the orphanage grows 70% of its own food), show us around, and to care for each other. Even the littlies in the nursery have to dress themselves for bed.
Everything runs to a schedule. Inside the dorms, each child has his or her own bed, drawer or shelf to keep their few items of clothing. Shoes are left at the door. There aren’t enough blankets and no one seems to have a pillow. Several of the boys pull their mattresses off bunk beds and onto the floor. There are some few toys and books, but not nearly enough to go around. One boy pulls a colouring book and pencils out from under his mattress.
The littlies dine in the nursery. Dinner: a roll, half a banana, and half an avocado. The older kids eat a roll and a bowl of vegetable stew which they lick clean.
We dine with them, and they eye our meals hungrily. We are served a special stew along with some chapatti. One of the visitors at our table offers some of his food to the boys. They grasp and shout and shove their bowls for more. I sit eating silently, wanting to give what I can, but knowing it’s not nearly enough. My partner, who has taken a larger serve, starts to share his out. We call for some order, so he can distribute it as fairly as possible. The kids at the nearby tables miss out.
Some of the children are sponsored and are able to go to university when they finish school, but others are not. Those less academically inclined will struggle to find a path. The orphanage is looking at ways to help them skill up in other areas, such as secretarial work, cooking, or carpentry. Some of the kids are helping build new facilities, and the operators are working to build partnerships with industry so that the kids have a chance to find jobs.
This is one of the better orphanages, the founder a Seventh Day Adventist, so each child is schooled in religion, offering thanks to god with song and prayers and children as young as three reciting passages from the Bible. The orphanage owner comes to chat to us about what they do and we are invited to donate some small goods, sheets, blankets, pencils, exercise books, and also to sponsor a child.
Like so much in Africa, it is this type of direct charity that makes a difference on the ground. Much of the aide from First World countries seems to line the wrong pockets, and with successive governments struggling to maintain power, there is no welfare, high unemployment, and few public works.
We are told by a Ugandan that Africans have learned to rely upon the First World for handouts, even exaggerating some situations they know will bring in money. Meanwhile, corruption is rife. We witnessed the driver on an overcrowded bus, possibly carrying illegal immigrants, hurtling past a police check-point and dropping a bag out of the window. The driver sped on. Our Ugandan friend told us that the only people arrested who are ultimately charged are those too poor to bribe their way out.
Most changes in government result in violence and the murder of all opposition, real or perceived. It is only when a government can maintain power that there is enough stability to do anything for the people. To gain power, a leader needs money. More money is needed to keep it. People deemed loyal to the leader, typically from the same tribe, are given government jobs, while the rest are left to fend for themselves.
This is where the church comes in. Most schools, hospitals and welfare, like the orphanage, are funded by religious groups. They do wonderful and much needed work, but at a price: suppression of the local culture (though we are told that in Uganda at least, most people pay lip-service to the church while maintaining traditional beliefs), and also the suppression of responsible breeding.
Children are taught abstinence. Abortion and homosexuality are illegal, while HIV infection levels are back on the rise. Individuals who want to use birth control struggle to find the money to pay for it. If a hormonal contraceptive has bad side-effects, a woman can’t simply pop back to the clinic to change it. Poorer families from the villages still practice polygamy, though their second and third wives aren’t recognised by the church. In Uganda at least, a man is legally responsible for any children that he fathers, a law enforced by hefty fines. This doesn’t seem to deter some men from having 20 children or more, though he struggles to feed, clothe and school them.
At least HIV has been tackled in an admirable way. There is no longer any stigma attached to having the disease, which means testing is encouraged and can be managed shame-free. Those infected can be treated and the spread of the disease can be minimised ‘These days, having HIV is a choice,’ our Ugandan friend said. Four of his siblings had died of the disease, and he was raising his nephew as his own. ‘Back then, people didn’t know, but now, we are taught about it in schools, and we know to use protection.’ There are signs on walls, billboards, and road-sides: ‘Know your HIV status today.’
We are told most new cases occur through poverty, for instance rich infected men preying upon young boys and girls who need the support too much to say no or to insist on using protection. It will be interesting to see how the infection rate changes over the next few years with the rise of abstinence-only education in schools.
I spend just a few hours with the orphaned children – some whose parents have died from HIV, some whose parents can’t afford to keep them – holding them, reading to them, just giving them some individual time, and reach into my pockets, more than happy to do so to make a difference to a few children’s lives, but I can’t help but feel how small a difference it will truly be.