Roads and Roots

The car trip from the Entebbe airport to the town of Jinja took longer than either segment of plane travel from our home in the Middle East. Our driver, appropriately named Abdullah, took as many back “roads” as he could to get around the congestion on the clogged two-lane highway. He told us the traffic that day had two main causes, heightened security due to the tragic terrorist attack in neighboring Kenya, and the holiday weekend where thousands poured out of the city to spend Easter with family in their villages.

In countries like Uganda, where modern technology like cell phones and wi-fi are more prevalent in the rural areas than basic social services like a working sewage system or driveable roads, you can see this tension as traditions shift and give way to modernization and globalization.

Far more tragic than a four-hour traffic jam is the toll this shift has taken on the family unit. Not too terribly long ago in tribal cultures, when biological parents couldn’t care for their children, the village absorbed them. There was still a loss, but children remained in families, retaining their heritage, language and culture.

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According to the Child Rights International Network’s 2010 study called Families Not Orphanages (a very interesting read if you have the time): “Long-term residential care for children is an outdated export. In the history of many developing countries, institutional care is a relatively recent import. In most cases, it was introduced early in the twentieth century by missionaries or colonial governments, replicating what was then common in their home countries. At the same time, institutional care has largely been judged to be developmentally inappropriate and phased out of developed countries that continue to support this care in poorer countries.” (emphasis mine)

More than 85% percent of occupants in orphanages in Uganda have at least one, if not two, living birth parents. (Source here) Parents or relatives bring children to orphanages because they are out of options. Now, granted, for some the orphanage stands in place of a foster care system, providing temporary care to children whose parents are not capable of providing them with an emotionally and physically safe place to live, but still desire to be in their lives and reunited with them eventually.

The Ugandan Ministry of Gender, Labour and Social Development, estimates there are more than 800 orphanages in Uganda. Jinja is home to countless orphanages (literally, many operate unregistered, so there is no way to count them). Some organizations focus on getting the children into a pipeline for foreign adoption, while others do their best to keep the children with local families.

We toured one of the latter, Good Shepherd’s Fold, and were very impressed with the facilities. They had immaculate landscaping, tidy houses, clean children laughing and dancing together and sprawling property with chapels, school rooms, livestock and farming. It seemed to be a thriving, comfortable community for children to grow up in.

Ayla swinging with a new friend at Good Shepherd's Fold
Ayla swinging with a new friend at Good Shepherd’s Fold

In contrast, Abide Family Center is on a small, gated compound, surrounded on all sides by tall brick walls topped with broken glass shards to deter thieves. The centers of activity are a classroom with no walls where the staff meets daily to pray and plan the day and caregivers take parenting and business classes to help get them back on their feet.

In the small, outdoor kitchen, the cook, Margaret, and her rotating roster of helpers, prepare tea, snacks and lunch for all the children, their caregivers and the staff.

Margaret and helper, Sylvia, prepare lunch for the families and staff at Abide
Margaret and helper, Sylvia, prepare lunch for the families and staff at Abide
Lunch time!
Lunch time!

Two small classrooms, decorated as brightly as possible, house the Childhood Development Center, where dedicated staff care for and teach pre-school aged children and infants while their caregivers are in class.

Nakato, Child Development Center director, pours herself into teaching the kids
Nakato, Child Development Center director, pours herself into teaching the kids

Their new sustainability venture, Stitched Together, takes up a few more rooms, where women are learning to sew, so they can support themselves and give back to Abide.IMG_6336

In other small but clean rooms on the property, families can stay in Emergency Housing for up to three months while they’re going through Abide’s programs.

The major differences between these institutions  are not the size of the property or provisions available. The presence of caregivers (biological mothers, fathers, grandparents and such) with their children and the emphasis on the temporary make Abide stand out in a crowd of orphanages. Megan Parker, and the staff at Abide, don’t want the families to be too comfortable there. They should want to complete the programs and move out and up. Most of the families going through the programs are not staying on Abide’s property, so the social workers spend most of their days doing visitations with them at their businesses and homes.

I tagged along with Income Generator Director, Juliet, as she went to visit two of her graduates, Justine and Anna. After going through Abide’s business class, Justine learned how to style hair and with small grant was able to open her own hair salon. She’s already training another woman and looking to open her second location. I had read about her on Abide’s blog, so I told her she was a celebrity to me. She smiled graciously and agreed to a photo (no autograph though).IMG_6323

Anna operates a fruit and vegetable stand in an open-air market and is now able to send her children to school.

Juliet does some post-graduate mentoring with Anna, at her market stand.
Juliet does some post-graduate mentoring with Anna, at her market stand.
Judson enjoying one of Anna's bananas.
Judson enjoying one of Anna’s bananas.

These two represent the many lives Abide has changed, but the staff doesn’t stop for long to reflect on these success stories. There are too many clouds overhead with storms brewing, too many families on the brink of separation, and too much work to do to keep Abide’s doors open to help them.

They know that the road to their goal, to move the orphan-prevention and family preservation agenda forward, to keep children in their families, is long and full of potholes and obstacles. But they also have such strong faith in the people of Uganda, that they can return to the beautiful roots of their tribal culture, at least in this regard, and one day make orphanages obsolete.

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