We’ve talked to many people who have a passion for orphan care – their hearts blaze afire when they see the statistics of orphan children and read those scriptures telling us to serve. But one thing we’ve noticed is that even amongst the passionate ones, many people think of orphans almost exclusively in the context of the orphanage institutions that house and feed them.
We might have too, once upon a time. But outside of that institutional “box” are real humans – and five of these beautiful people in particular have dramatically shaped our view of orphan care. It would be my pleasure to introduce them to you now.
1. Meet Mulenga
Mulenga is a single orphan, his mother having passed away seven years ago. His father has struggled off and on to take care of Mulenga and his two other siblings, but extended family has banded together to make ends meet. One day Mulenga came home and told his dad that an NGO representative had pulled him out of class to take his picture. The father followed up on the action and discovered that this NGO was pulling orphans out of class to take their pictures for marketing purposes. They needed some “authentic orphans” to spice up their fundraising campaigns. Mulenga’s dad was furious. His rampage, a mixture of Bemba and English, roughly translated to “don’t exploit my kid and don’t patronize me.” I would feel hypocritical including a picture of Mulenga in my own write-up, except that we are not the typical fly-by-night NGO workers. Mulenga is one of our favorite people. Ever. We have dozens of pictures of him, not because we’ve sought to exploit his orphan status, but because he’s in our house every day and we clearly love him so much!
Mulenga’s lesson for us: Orphans and their families are worthy of dignity and respect.
2. Meet Maggie
Maggie’s mother died of when she was just one year old. After the maternal death, the village wondered whether Maggie would be abandoned, assuming no one would want anything to do with the “illegitimate” child of a known prostitute. Immediately however, a grandmother, two aunts and a cousin stepped in to claim Maggie as their own. They came to us for help as she had lost considerable weight when her supply of breast milk was taken away. The family made sacrifices to care for this child, worrying extensively about her healthy and wellbeing. Their involvement in Maggie’s life made us take note; the western concept of family makes us often assume that children would be unwanted by anyone other than the bio parents. “Not my kid, not my problem.” – is more of how Westerners would think about iis a western ethic. But the tribal concept of family gives greater grace. Extended families swallow up children with the same duty and conviction as if they had birthed them themselves.
Maggie’s lesson for us: Extended families are ready and willing to care for orphans to prevent them from being institutionalized.
3. Meet Mwewa
Mwewa is a unique case. Both of his parents are technically alive, but his mother is absent due to mental illness and his father struggles both with alcohol and mental health, landing Mwewa firmly on the community’s vulnerable child list. Despite his crazy rough family life, Mwewa is one of the most relaxed, well-adjusted, fun loving kids. It actually makes no sense, and we have wondered why he’s not in a corner rocking himself. Our answer? He is constantly surrounded by his friends and their families. Mwewa sleeps in his father’s home, but is otherwise almost always found in the company of his pals – eating all meals with them, goofing off with them, playing a hearty game of soccer with them. The adults of the community look out for his needs: school uniforms and shoes and toiletries. (And yes, we are a big part of that.) On paper, everything says this kid belongs in an orphanage where he would receive “proper care”, but we can see that this is exactly where he needs to be.
Mwewa’s lesson for us: Kids thrive in a place where they feel they belong.
4. Meet Asa
Asa’s mother died while birthing her. The clinic staff was afraid that the child would be abandoned and die if there was no one to nurse her. The sister to the deceased mother came forward and announced that she could take the baby, at least for a while. She was still nursing her then 14 month old and thought she could “spare some milk” for the helpless infant. We met with the mother and asked her what she felt she needed to help the newborn thrive. Nutrition, soap and some baby socks were the items on her list. For the next year we took the family extra food, talked to the aunt about milk supply and when to wean her older biological child, and helped her see that with a bit of support, she could care for this child and honor her sister. That baby is now almost four and she is fat and happy and an integrated member of the family that took her in. Her aunt no longer needs our help and she is more than proud of her “daughter.” Some food, soap and socks were all it took to give her aunt the confidence to raise her and keep her from being institutionalized.
Asa’s lesson for us: Sometimes just getting a family over a hump is all that is needed.
5. Meet Matobwe
I had known Matobwe for years before I found out that both of her parents had passed away. She has always called Ireen “mommy” and as far as I knew, she was just one of Ireen’s biological children. Come to find out, Matobwe is actually Ireen’s youngest sister. Ireen was already a married woman when Matobwe was born, and when their mother died, Ireen took her in as her own. Matobwe grew for years never knowing anything different, until she was mature enough to find out that “Mommy” was really “sister” – but after a decade and a half of care, that difference seemed trivial. Ireen stayed mommy and probably always will. Safe and secure, this child has parents who love her, even if they are technically her siblings.
Matobwe’s lesson for us: An orphaned child absorbed into extended family rarely feels orphaned at all.
Dignity. Respect. Family. Belonging. Thanks kiddos. You’ve taught me well.