I picked up a book at the airport bookshop in Kampala written by a Nigerian, Uwem Akpan, who has been to the University of Michigan creative writing program for a masters degree. I had to have it since we share a knowledge of Ann Arbor and a love for the children of Africa. His book is called, Say you’re one of them, and it is a collection of five short stories demonstrating how it is to be a child in Africa. As I read about how children are separated from friendships because one family is muslim and another is Christian, or about two children and their experiences of being sold into slavery by an uncle I am not sure how to feel knowing none of it is a surprise to me. It should shock me but it doesn’t. The first story is about a twelve year old sister who prostitutes herself so her younger brother can go to school and her family can eat and be freed from an oppressive debt. And I know enough about the social practices on this continent to understand how these scenarios can all just naturally occur. I have hugged twelve year old girls in Kampala who are being rehabilitated from a life of prostitution, and many of them cannot go home to their families because they will send them right back onto the streets to bring home money to feed them all.
A woman in a village with too many children to feed and a husband who believes using birth control weakens his manhood and power may very well welcome the offer of a kind and generous uncle to take a few children off her hands and send them to school in the city. This is a well known story of many of my friends in Uganda. Irene left her village family and lived with a family in Kampala so she could go to school for eleven years of her childhood. Phiona spent several years living with her old grandmother and her uncles when she was around ten so she could go to a better school. So who is to know that the uncle who takes the children has a greedy bent and has traded a new motorbike for the children? And when the children disappear he can shrug. Or in the case of the story I read, be murdered when he has a change of heart and tries to escape with the children.
Our western minds want to say, “use birth control and stop having so many children so you can educate the ones you have.” But, this is Africa. When I meet people in Uganda, after we’ve been talking for a while, one of the questions I like to ask is, “How many children do you want to have?” I target the young men I meet with this question because women in a marriage don’t usually have a say. He might say four, which is a small family for an African. So my next question is, “How do you plan to prevent further pregnancies?”He will get an embarrassed smile and flash an eye contact with me to see if I am serious then he will recognize an opportunity to learn something he wants to know. He can see I care so he trusts me and answers, “I don’t know.” (it helps gain trust since I’m an older woman, I wouldn’t have been taken seriously if I were younger.) So I will explain what a vasectomy is to him and say that is the safest and easiest way to prevent further pregnancies when your family is complete. I also recommend he learn about the rhythm method of a women’s cycles while suggesting a trip to visit Veronica at the Comforter’s Center to learn more from her. Usually this conversation ends with a gush of thank yous from him because he didn’t know and now he does. And these highly intelligent hard working people only need someone who cares to help them learn. It’s not like everyone has access to the internet, especially if they are calculating how to afford one meal a day for themselves. There aren’t libraries everywhere that are free, and if they have to work twelve hours a day to feed themselves and cover basic life needs, when do they have time to investigate life’s big unknowns?
On my first mission trip to Uganda we went into the villages of Uganda and there were conferences where Pastor’s gathered because the Americans were coming to teach them (that was us) and we broke into groups and educated them about how a baby grows in the womb, how a baby is conceived using terms they had never heard before like, conception, egg, sperm, uterus. We showed them photos of a child in the womb that they had never seen. We gave them small models of a twelve week old fetus so they could see the fingers and eyelids, and toes and tiny heart that beats like hummingbird wings. Then we explained that is the child killed during the abortion that they all send everyone to go get when there is an unwanted pregnancy. Some women have eight abortions in their life. These pastors have sent their wives for abortion because it took away a problem, not knowing what they were really doing. Then we explained to them about birth control methods they can use anywhere without visiting a doctor or paying money. We explained to them that the best way to prevent further pregnancies was a vasectomy. The things we learned during the question and answer session afterwards was incredibly educational for me, and the initiation I needed to devote my life to this culture.
The men explained they believed a woman was born with a set number of eggs and it was his manly responsibility to God to fertilize all of those eggs. Horror and shock spread across my face and theirs after I explained that a woman is born with billions of eggs. I trashed their theory with science. I learned later after discussing the problems with the women that they have no say in the marriage, and they are helpless in the hands of an authoritarian, demanding husband. That’s how I learned it is important to become friends with the young men and change their minds, help them learn to be the sort of husbands the bible describes as loving their wife more than themselves, as Christ loves the church. When a man is good at this the woman’s charge to respect her husband is so natural and enjoyable.
I know the west can’t come in and steer this culture 180 degrees like a cruise ship on stormy seas, nor is that ideal. But I also know God can work miracles and answer prayers and there’s more power there than I can ever comprehend. So, I continue to touch one life at a time hoping and praying one of these children grow to become a voice of truth to affect their whole generation. If we educate and help the children today the society of tomorrow can alter the ancient courses and set new paths in a way that gives glory to God. The children have the key to unlock the future and make new ways depart from the old, yet somehow preserve the culture.
I understand it’s not ideal for the children to stay in an orphanage. There are those who are extreme critics of building orphanages and I understand why they feel this way. Their stand might be that all the effort and cost to build ought to be used to place a child in a foster home and have a family. I am uneasy with that because culturally a child who is not blood related is second class. And I have many friends who confirm this truth. Even as George and Irene prepare to adopt a child, their biggest obstacle will be that everyone they know will treat that child separate from the blood born, even if the two of them don’t. They too will be working to turn around a cruise ship on stormy seas. They are willing to do it for the good of helping a child in their own country, and because they believe it is what God has told them to do. I hope we can find more young couples willing to adopt and be a voice of change in their culture. I hope families who are adopting from Uganda will consider raising funds to support a local adoption. (it costs a Ugandan $2200 to adopt a child to cover legal fees, and it can be done quickly)
But for the children in the orphanage we care for, I am not sure yet what God intends for us to do about adoption. There are only a few who really have no relative anywhere that cares about who they become and where they are. Most of them have an aunt who is happy to know they are cared for somewhere else, but she still cares, and this is culturally acceptable. She is unable to provide so if someone else can do it, she’s happy about that but unwilling to let them leave the culture and become a citizen of another country. And who can and will adopt a child in Uganda without turning the child into a servant of the household? I have a friend who met the child she knew God was telling her would be her daughter and the child was only three weeks old. She found a foster family to care for this baby until she could come for the adoption. She provided money to care for the child, but later found out that money didn’t actually keep the child healthy. When she got there the child was suffering terrible malnutrition. Where did that money go? It went to the blood relatives of the fostering family first, not the baby. What can you do? It’s not cultural for them to do it any other way.
With the group of children in our care in Kyengera, we have an opportunity to educate them, teach them about a Christian marriage and family, and protect them from cultural injustices. Is this better than finding them families? I don’t know. I say this is a terribly difficult dilemma to solve. I have mentioned before that everyone knows they can get money for themselves on the cause of an orphan from western sympathizers. I’m one of them. I’m pouring a lot of money into the cause of the orphan in Uganda, and I collect it from those who want to help and I’m promising it will go to the child. I have to be so careful that the money actually reaches the children and doesn’t make any other organization rich and prosperous. And I’m a tenacious little red head with a sharp eye, a devotion to God’s word, and incredible intuition (a gift of discernment) so by the best of my ability, and taking a slow walk into this, I can say, yes every dollar is reaching the children. But not without Adams and Elitia and those who help their ministry on the ground every day by measuring every scoop of food, and bartering every purchase from some who sniff a mzungu behind the buyer. Phiona is now there on my behalf and can help me understand in a day by day way how the children are doing, and where our money is going. It is exhausting trying to protect these children from having the money (which is donated to them for their benefit) lifted bit by bit to line the pockets of everyone else in Uganda who has need. Which is everyone and it’s sad we can’t help everyone, but I’ve been called to care for the orphan, and so I draw a clear line.
That’s why I trust God will inform us in a case by case manner if adoption is a solution for the children in our orphanage. Meanwhile we are going in the direction we trust will keep them protected, nourished, eduated, loved and hopeful for a future that exceeds their dreams. They shouldn’t suffer because their parents either died or abandoned them. If God provides new parents, he will use all of our collective intelligences to determine with prayer which way to proceed. For now, we are providing the funds to buy land and build them a better living situation, without turning them into westerners. I hope to preserve and protect their cultural heritage of being Ugandan but educate them about the universal truths God gives every person from His word. I hope and wait and pray to see if there is another way to go, but for now, we move forward in this direction.