Uganda is a country about the size of Oregon, with a population of nearly 33 million people. About 55% of the population is under 18 years old, and according to the most recent data (2009, UNICEF), an estimated 2.7 million of these children are orphans. Many of these orphans have lost their parents due to HIV/AIDS (1.2 million) and two decades of war in northern Uganda, in which parents were killed directly in conflict or died from disease or malnutrition in IDP (Internally Displaced Person) camps.
Although some orphans are able to live with extended family, they often pose too much of a burden for family with already strained resources. It is encouraging that a number of NGOs, foundations, church groups, and other organizations have stepped in to care for orphaned children, but I can’t guess how many kids still struggle to survive without any support.
Before my arrival in Uganda, I hadn’t realized the scope of the problem here; and I had never before visited an orphanage. But now, because Kinawataka Women Initiatives (KIWOI) operates a children’s home, I spend most of my days at one. Not all of the children who live there are actually orphans; but for one reason or another their parents are unable to care for them. In total, 16 girls and 1 boy currently live at KIWOI’s headquarters under the care of Benedicta Nanyonga. KIWOI also supports the education of four additional children, who remain with their relatives.
For three years, KIWOI has partnered with Possibilities, a UK-based charity, which supports orphans in Uganda. Thanks to the sponsorship of Possibilities, all the KIWOI children attend school. The charity also provides additional funding and support for projects that will benefit the children. Benedicta ensures that in addition to education, the children receive skills training and can learn how to help make KIWOI’s straw products. She explains that teaching them these skills is critical to their future success; for if the children are unable to continue education past secondary school due to lack of future funding, they should still be able to earn an income.
My second day at KIWOI, I met the kids who live there, ages ranging from 2 1/2 to 14 years. I thought I would never remember all of their names or stop mixing up who is who. Since the children attend school six days a week, and I’m often busy working in the office, I didn’t get a chance to interact with them much in my first six weeks. But the past two weeks they’ve had school holidays, so I have seen a lot more of them. Together, we have gotten up to some pretty silly shenanigans, including taking photos with the PhotoBooth application on my laptop and dancing around to the latest album by my friend’s soul band. I have especially bonded with the littlest one, who was so shy when I first met her. Now she runs into my arms when she seems me.
Several weeks ago, I had told Benedicta that I wanted to do something nice for the children. She suggested that I take them to a recreation center/pool one weekday during their school holidays, and we decided to keep it as a surprise. I invited Josephine and Peruth (the other two women I work with) to bring their children, too.
When the special day finally arrived, I was a bit nervous. Benedicta was out for meetings, we didn’t have our transportation arranged, the sky was threatening to rain, and I wasn’t sure if the children would be ready in time to make it worth going. But somehow, everything came together, and Josephine, Peruth, and I chaperoned 5 adolescents and 18 younger children to the recreation park. I had never before been responsible for so many kids, so it was a bit of a new adventure for me. But they were so well-behaved, sweet, and fun, they made it easy! They donned their swimsuits, jumped in the kids’ pools, and splashed around. Then we rode on a train around the park while drinking our sodas, played on swings made of old tires, jumped on a trampoline, and threw around my volleyball. It was definitely one of the best days of my Uganda life.
The kids go back to school this week. I’m going to miss seeing them around all of the time!