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I wish someone had taken me in when my mother died

Monday November 28 2016

Stephen Ucembe, 33, was five when he went to live in an orphanage following his mother’s death. He  explains why these institutions are not the best place to raise a child. PHOTO | DENNIS ONSONGO

Stephen Ucembe, 33, was five when he went to live in an orphanage following his mother’s death. He  explains why these institutions are not the best place to raise a child. PHOTO | DENNIS ONSONGO 

STEPHEN UCEMBE
By STEPHEN UCEMBE
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Have you ever wondered what it feels like to grow without the love and care of a family? Away from the normal community, and what it feels like to grow up in a children’s home or an orphanage?

Globally, adoption month is marked in November. This period reminds me of my plight, growing up without a family, though it also inspires me to write and unwrap the unique experiences I went through living in a children’s home on behalf of thousands of children and young people in this country who silently yearn to belong in a family. Children who, based on our lack of effort to support them, and disregard of their well-being, are removed from normal families and communities and end up spending the better part of their childhood in a home that is not really a home.

At the age of five after losing my mother, I was taken to an orphanage. My father had separated from my mother when my younger sister and I were still very young. However, I felt he still loved us when he visited us once at the orphanage. That once was the last time I saw him. Around the year 2000, 10 years after his visit, I was told he had died following an accident at a lumber yard. I did not attend his burial. No one at the orphanage even told me that he had died - I have no idea where my father’s final resting place is.

Apart from my sister, I have four other siblings whom I briefly met 10 years after going to live in the orphanage. For some reason, they did not live with my mother when she was still alive.

One day, a few days to Christmas, this man turned up at the home and introduced himself as my elder brother. He took my sister and I to his home in Kisii, and later to Kericho, where we met our other siblings. They explained to us that they did not know where we had been taken after our mother’s death, hence why they had not reached out to us earlier.

As expected, the distance and the period of separation had taken a toll on the family bond we should have felt, and I can’t recall that one week we lived with them a happy re-union – inwardly, I was aloof. The idea that blood is thicker than water didn’t feel like it in my case. I felt they were more of strangers than siblings, the silence between us loud. After that brief week of interaction, my brother took us back to the children’s home. Today, as an adult, I still feel my siblings are so far from the idea of what a family should be.

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YOU ORPHANS

Although I spent less than five years of my childhood with my mother, that connection and experience has given me profound understanding of why families and normal communities should gradually and intentionally replace children’s homes and orphanages. While governments and other stakeholders make pronouncements of this statistic, for me and many others like me, these are profound stories, these are our lives.

From the moment I set foot in the children’s home I grew up in, I can’t really recall how many caregivers, (they were referred to as house mothers) I saw come and go; some came and stuck around for a few weeks and then quit, a few stayed longer. It was never our choice or decision that they could stay or leave, and no one really cared how we felt about that, we were just objects in the system, to be seen and not heard.

Some blatantly told us they were there for the salary, period. Their families were their priority, and consequently, I felt like I was a means to their end. I yearned to have a consistent person whom I was a priority to, a centre of their attention, having a person who never got tired of me and looked forward to being around me.

We never referred to the staff as “mothers”, not that I wished to, we often called them by their names, while they called us “nyinyi”, you. When talking about us, they would call us “ciana cia ndigwa”, orphans in the Kikuyu language. The orphan terminology I guess elicited more sympathy from donors and well-wishers, however, sympathy was not what I wanted.

The term once mentioned felt like an arrow to my heart. It brought back the sad memories of my mum’s death, reinforcing a deficient feeling. It made me emotionally weak and made me feel socially isolated, abnormal. I never wanted to be reminded of my loss, but I had no choice on how I wanted to be identified or referred to. Had my mother been alive, she would have called me by my name.

Of the vague memories I had of my mother, one is that she would often hold my hand or lift me up and wrap me on her back whenever we travelled, a gesture that not only assured me of her love and consistent presence, but also my safety.

DONOR VISITS

Well-wishers and donors; young and old, groups of students and non-students, church groups and non-church affiliated groups, came through the rusty black gates of the  home almost every weekend. I can’t remember their names nor their faces. We loved playing with them, because the staff never played with us.

Our faces exploded with happiness when they brought candy, cartons of assorted biscuits, and new and used clothes. They were well-intentioned, they wanted to spend time with us and gave generously, however, I hated it when these donors and well-wishers took photos of me - they never asked me for consent, and did not care if I minded having my picture taken. I did not know where these photos were taken, and I never got to see them.

To get photos for fundraising, the staff shoved and banded us together for group photos - saying no would have been akin to a crime. These photos were accompanied by captions explaining that we were orphans, with sometimes concocted stories of abandonment and destituteness. Today I have only three photos from hundreds that were taken by strangers.

Sometimes through genuine appreciation, we sang and danced for donors and well-wishers, but sometimes we were forced to do it. Just as they came, the donors and well-wishers left. I wondered if they felt sad, or happy at the end of the day. Often I was left clutching with both hands the barbed wire near the gate, biting the wire tight with my teeth, sometimes just to hold back the tears as I watched them go.

These donors and well-wishers never realised that their coming and going felt like another loss in my life. They never realised that their coming also made me feel different from those who had families. I knew they were going back to their families - to their mums and dads, to their grandparents, to their siblings and relatives.

They never knew of the sad and wistful feeling that swelled within me with each visitation, where I felt reduced to the level of animals in our national parks, feeling that I was only to be seen and experienced.

I could not express my wish to be just a normal child. Men and women visitors came in gently clasping their children hands, some carried their children on their shoulders. None of the house mothers had ever held my hand or hugged me or reassured me, I only remember being held to be whipped for the wrongs that I had done. I feared them more than I wished them to be around me; I can’t even remember a single personal conversation with the staff.

Often, we were confined to a huge dining hall and left to be socialised by the television. That TV also gave us a glimpse of the outside world in a place where it could take four to five months to step outside the gate. Our relationship with the administrators and caregivers was shrouded by silence, mistrust, and distance made greater by the verbal and physical abuse.

Stephen Ucembe, 33, was five when he went to
Stephen Ucembe, 33, was five when he went to live in an orphanage following his mother’s death. PHOTO | DENNIS ONSONGO

NOT MY HOME...

It is almost 15 years now since I formally left the home. I am 33 now, yet I have not heard from, or interacted with any of the staff in the children’s home. Our relationship was that unattached. That children’s home I had initially thought was “home”, I realised can never be. When I visit the home, because I still visit once in a while, I am stopped at the gate, although I am not a stranger, and I have to identify myself before I am allowed to go in.

Just a year ago after returning from the Netherlands where I had gone to study for my master’s degree in Social Policy for Development, I asked if I could get a place to live in as I carried out my research because I knew no other place, but I was told that the available space had been reserved for visitors. Home is where you are welcome with open arms no matter how long you have been away. Clearly, this was not my home, even though this is where I had grown up.

Of course I look back with appreciation of the education, food and shelter I got from this home, which will never be my home, but life is not just about material provision. Mother Teresa once said, “The hunger for love is much more difficult to remove than the hunger for bread”.  Deep within all human beings are fundamental yearnings for love, belonging and identity, this is often given by a family.

Families come in different shapes and sizes, but what I know for sure is that there are no children’s homes or orphanages anywhere in the world that can ever replace a family. A family can be a woman or man, or a couple, at least one person who is consistently in your world. Today, I say a special prayer for all those individuals that have gone ahead and adopted children. Thank you.

As November comes to a close, reflect on this anonymous quote: “Adopting one child won’t change the world, but for that one child, the world will change”.

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BOUGHT CHILD

Simon Njoroge who was adopted at a tender age .
Simon Njoroge who was adopted at a tender age . He would like to meet his parents. PHOTO | FILE
 

 

Simon Njoroge’s story

“Being adopted has meant different things to me at different times over the course of my 31 years. Starting from that hurting tag that kids gave me in nursery school, “Njoroge wa kuguruo” meaning, Njoroge who was bought.

The tag confused me, but mum outrightly refused to explain to me what it meant. I was only to understand what this meant when mum adopted my younger brother a couple of years later. I had seen a friend’s mum carry a pregnancy that produced a baby girl. That didn’t happen with mum. Though my understanding of what being adopted remained vague, my fond feelings towards mum prevented me from seeking clarification from her, even though it sometimes disturbed me.

I had a pretty tight and cordial bond with her. To me, she was my mum, the adoption bit inconsequential.  From a young age, I often sat on a small seat next to hers and would wrap my small arm around hers and rest my head on her lap. At her shop, she would sit me on the counter while she attended to customers. Indeed, this came to be our trade mark posture even in most of our early family photos – me next to mum.

I remember one day she lifted me up, sat me on the shop counter and held out to me a 10-shilling note. The back of the note had a picture of a university and two graduands at the fore front.

She then told me, “Njoroge, my son, someday you will join the University of Nairobi and later become a great person in the society.”

Often, she would take me to visit successful people within our family and friends circles, her aim to inspire me to work hard at school. Indeed, academic excellence became my goal throughout my time in school. My mum’s words came to pass, because I did indeed join the University of Nairobi, where I studied land economics.

Though my good academic performance earned me admiration from my teachers and the community around me, it however didn’t succeed in taking out that “Me against the world feeling” that came with being referred to as “mtoto wa kununuliwa”, a bought child. It told me I was different from the rest. As a result, I took every opportunity to rebel against societal norms, however, my relationship with mum never changed at all regardless of my rebellious nature. She remained my backbone and the foundation upon which my achievements stood.

Saturday, April 23, 2005 remains one of the most critical dates in my life – it is the day that my adoption finally became a conscious issue in my life. This sudden change was precipitated by the death of mum. Suddenly I felt alone. The loss felt more than just that of a mother; it felt as if my whole world had died. Life has never been the same again.

Memories of her come flooding every time I interact with my aunties, her sisters, or any woman that I presume would be her agemate were she alive today. I have become more conscious of how critical having my mum was in shaping me. She was the cog that linked me to the rest of the world. It felt like heaven whenever she called me by name, held me close or gently rubbed my head, something she was so fond of.

I’m now acutely aware of what adoption means for me. It gave me a family, a community, a sense of belonging and a family name. I’m fondly referred to as Njoroge wa Fridah (Njoroge, son of Fridah) within the family and in the village I grew up in. The name gives me a sense of belonging. Belonging to the greatest woman that ever lived, belonging to her family and her community. Being adopted taught me how to love and care, how to have a family. I can now effortlessly nurture my wife and two lovely daughters.

Though I wish mum would have disclosed to me how my adoption came about, that is too little a worry to erode the great and fond memories that I harbour of our time together. Being adopted is the best thing that has ever happened to me.

 

INTERVIEW BY STEPHEN UCEMBE

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