When Onotu lost her husband she was in despair about how to care for her children. With no one to earn money for the family she couldn’t see how she could keep her children at school. Then she had an idea. Painful as it was, she left them at the police station and snuck away. As she had hoped, a nearby orphanage took them in, giving them food and clothes and making sure that they went to school.
When Luwani’s parents died she and her two younger brothers found their way to a local orphanage. They enjoyed their time there immensely. There were lots of friends, enough food and they went to school every day in uniform. As Luwani was finishing high school, the orphanage started a programme to reconnect the children to their families. They found her uncle and he wanted the three siblings to come and live with his family. With some support in the transition, they went to live with their uncle’s family. I met Luwani and her brothers just this week. She said, “It’s amazing to be part of a family!” Sippo, her youngest brother said, “We are a family!”
We have changed the names, but both of these stories are true; and from Khayelihle Children’s Village (KCV) in Zimbabwe. They illustrate two facts about orphanages. Firstly, orphanages can pull families apart unknowingly, and secondly, that even when there is absolutely wonderful care, there is nothing like being part of a family.
There is a lot of research to back up these two facts and organisations like KCV are moving to a model sometimes called Alternative Care. The goal is no longer to care for children until they are 18, but to find the most family-like situation that is safe and supportive for them. The first priority is restoration to their nuclear family, then reconnection with their extended family, then adoption and fostering and finally residential care organised in family groups.
Over the last four years KCV has reconnected nearly half of the 100 children that it had. The process takes time, and families and the children need support, both practical and emotional, in the transition. Low incomes are a constant, and KCV has responded with a small livelihoods programme to help families earn a bit more money to support their enlarged families. Luwani’s family, for example, has started growing a particularly tasty breed of chickens – well worth the $10 asking price, if you get a chance to try one!