I would like to give you a little background on Uganda's orphans and more specifically the orphans of Karamoja. Before we go any further I want to say that I am not an expert in this issue I am just telling you what I know and what I have seen.
According to UNICEF in 2005 there were 2.3 million recorded orphans making it the country with the most orphans. At least 25% of all households in Uganda look after at least one child orphaned by either HIV/AIDS or war. Hearing about such things are rather tragic. But once you see them it hits you hard. No I haven't witnesses these 2.3 million orphans however I did get an opportunity to visit a baby home in Kampala,that had 46 orphans. Reading their stories(all abandoned in a trash heap, pit latrine, or somewhere within Kampala) and hearing them crying because there isn't enough arms to hold them was one of the hardest things I have witnessed. Don't get me wrong, the orphanage seemed like a well run organization that was clean and efficient, but the needs far out weigh the demands. Most of these orphans will grow up and only know an orphanage. No one that they really attach to. No one that they call mom and dad. Tragic.
I don't have any great statistics for the region of Karamoja but I will tell you what I know. In this Northeastern region there are about 300,000 people, and currently no orphanage in the whole region. What happens to orphans then? This is were it gets upsetting. Some people sell them and they end up in Kampala on the streets selling items or themselves. Others are taken in by a family member but most likely are treated horribly simply because that family usually doesn't have the resources to provide for that child, or they are seen as less important than their own children so they are beaten, and mistreated. And if they have HIV or another disease it is worse. Many have fled to Kampala to search for a better life and some sort of work only to find themselves used as slaves by family members. We witness these children on the streets at night in Kampala and learned that if they don't bring any money home they are beaten.
The government in the past has tried to "clean up" what they would call a mess. You must know there is a huge stigma and bias against the people of Karamoja. They have tried to develop a "rehabilitation" place for these children where their conditions were not any better but they were moved away from Kampala. Our team members have witnessed this camp and over the last year the Karmijong kids have been taken somewhere in Karamoja. There are 2 kids from Karamoja that still remain at this camp. They have been there for 4 years now and say they would foster them to a family like the other kids but no one wants a child from Karamoja. The sad and ridiculous part of this is that most people have never been to Karamoja and only believe the rumors they have heard most of which are lies. The people of Karamoja are real people with real problems, and it is extremely irritating when a Christian nation like Uganda can turn their backs on them because they are different and make assumptions about them based on lies. (Sound familiar?)
Another solution they have tried is to load up all these street kids and take them back to Karamoja. Sounds somewhat good in theory but they don't take them back to their village or their family. We have heard they literally just drop them off. That is not a solution. Of course they will just go right back to Kampala where at least they can eat food from the street which is sad to say is a better life for them than at home.
I really encourage you to read more details about this from an article written. You can go to the website (http://karamojadf.wordpress.com/features/) or just read it here. If you go to the website you will have to scroll down to the second article.
ON THE TRAIL OF THE KARIMOJONG STREET CHILDREN
By Simon Peter Longoli
Television footages last week showed numerous Karimojong hounded on to KCC trucks on their way to the national rehabilitation center, Kampirigisa in Mpigi district.
Karimojong at the national rehabilitation center, Kampiringisa. In a yellow shirt with baby is Molly Nakut the 17 year old mother.
This came at a time when many were thinking that the number of Karimojong street Children was higher than ever in the streets.
Maureen Mwagale, a woman who organized a Christmas meal day with the kids told me the number has never been higher.
A Uganda Broadcasting Corporation presenter, a Karimojong, also told me fellow presenters had been telling him recently issues concerning the higher number of Karimojong on the streets. According to them, the kids had resorted to being forceful.
“I have also witnessed this. One day I heard them utter insults in Ngakarimojong at those who did not give them money,” he says.
On Christmas day, St. Balikuddembe Catholic church at Kisenyi held a special baptism ceremony for the Karimojong street kids. Fifty two were baptized and organizers said a substantial number had missed.
At 52 in a single baptism, the number of Karimojong children should be higher, considering all of them may not be Catholics.
The journey to the city
But just how do they make their way to Kampala ? What is the history of the Karimojong Street Child problem? Who brings them to the city?
I asked a number of Karimojong and found out how they make their way to Kampala . Rumour has it that the Karimojong are brought to the streets by Karimojong politicians who want to use them for political benefit but there is nothing yet to prove this.
Available evidence has it that the Karimojong are forced to the streets by poverty.
The very first famine that pushed the Karimojong to the streets of neighboring towns was in 1980. Faced with famine, they walked long distances and reached towns such as Sironko, Mbale, Tororo, Soroti, Iganga and Busia. Karimojong populations are presently high in these towns and they have permanent residence, most surviving out of begging or ransacking garbage bins, for bites. Karamoja MPs also attribute this to the insecurity in the region.
Facing extreme scarcity of food and other social and economic problems, their parents give them up and entrust them in the care of older persons who have been to the city. These older ones could be visiting the village or coming to check on others in Kampala or to get a share of the street collections.
Because transport companies do not usually have a transport charge for children, they come at no cost, having neither extra baggage nor extra money save a coin or more to be spent on food on the journey.
It has been said that some Karimojong even go to other families and literally ‘borrow’ children to come with to Kampala .
This should be easy because it is a significant budget cut for a parent in the face of hardships and lack.
City life and the struggle to survive
The difficulty of city life takes over as these children and adults set foot in Kampala . Katwe and Kisenyi are the two most likely destinations for these children, but only for accommodation. At day time, they are on Kampala road, Jinja road, Entebbe road, Kampala ’s alleys and markets, begging.
Aware of the difficulty of city life, those who ‘borrowed’ these children or those who came with them, some times their mothers, conscript them as beggars. Every thing in the city needs money, every day. This is the golden rule of city life.
One needs to jump over open drains and heaps of rotting garbage to reach to the places of abode.
A typical accommodation structure is a six-square foot wooden shack with a bare floor (Not cemented), often with a low iron roof.
The kids tell me that about 30 of them sleep in each of these shacks without explaining how they fit in.
Children pay Ushs400 each to sleep in them per night, while adults pay ushs700 each.
The requirement for food is another daily requirement for money. This is not a definite expenditure because the children can go without food. The requirement for accommodation is superior.
Mr. Emmanuel Tebanyang a student who has researched on street children says the children are not the direct beneficiaries of the money they get. There are adults watching them and will take all the money away from them.
“What happens when they have not got the money on a particular day is that they spend the night outside. If the money they managed to get on a particular day was, say ushs700, the adult will take this money, pay for her accommodation and the kid will still sleep out of the shack,” he says.
It is common to find the kids say something like “today again I will sleep outside”. To counteract this, clever ones will separate the money they get and cater for themselves in a different hovel as night falls.
In the city, children are exposed to such child labour and a host of other ills. Grown ups indulge in things like drugs and prostitution. Even girls have confessed to taking drugs for example inhaling petrol and or alcoholism.
A 23 year old Karimojong student who spoke to me on conditions of anonymity seriously suspects there are cases of sale of Karimojong children on the streets.
“One day I was going down Entebbe road and I found a young boy translating from non Karimojong ladies to a Karimojong mother of a child who must have been about two months old,” he told me.
“‘They are saying that you give them the kid and they will give you a lot of money,’ ran the translation,” he says.
The student says he was not emotionally strong enough to witness what would have transpired.
With people desperate to have children and with the rampant cases of child sacrifice especially in the city, these statements are too serious to ignore.
These and other forms of exploitation could be going unabated.
Francis Loware, the ‘LCI’ of Karimojongs in Kisenyi is a man who is about 30. He even speaks in what I would call good Luganda and can not recall when he came to the streets. He confides in me that there are many people exploiting the Karimojong.
“There are many fake organizations that have come here purporting to help us and then use the connection to enrich themselves, running away at the end,” he says.
Shall we go home?
Many street children loathe the idea of having to go back home. One of the middle aged women I talked to simply said “I can not go back home. The conditions at home are unbearable. I better stay here with my children and eat whatever we can find.”
On many occasions in the past, the Karimojong have been returned but a great number of them have come back to the streets.
Molly Nakut is a 17 year old girl, now nursing her one month old baby. During the 2007 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM), she was taken back to Moroto with others in what was a massive clean up of the city for the November 2007 meeting.
She has perpetually been on the streets, some times balancing between Kampala and Iganga where her brother, a former street boy, succeeded in establishing himself.
“I can not remember when I came to the streets. I only went home in 2007 and stayed there for two years, returning in December 2008,” she says as she suckles her one month old kid.
Nakut says she was born in May 1992 and if this is true then this girl who did not succeed to finish her primary school in 2006 was defiled. It was in Kampala that she was impregnated.
She alleges a well placed member of society is responsible for her pregnancy. Attempts to get him to help have since been futile.
A return to Karamoja remains the best for the Karimojong on the streets. This however is a return they are not anticipating.
At the national rehabilitation center, I joked to hordes of Karimojong that they would be taken to Karamoja in seven days.
“Let them come and take us,” one told me.
“The problem is they will take us home and not give supplies regularly.”
She explained to me the government gave them inadequate food when they were resettled in 2007 and this made a return to the streets inevitable.
Faced with the high number of street children, Kampala City Council authorities and the Ministry of Gender, Labour and Social Development often work out the solution. This includes taking them to Karamoja and taking them to the national rehabilitation center.
Kampiringisa national rehabilitation center is located about 15 kilometers from Mpigi town, off Mpigi-Masaka road. It is run by the Ministry of gender.
Kampiringisa put simply is run down and the last building renovated was in 2003.
On my day at Kampiringisa, the officers in charge do not speak to me, referring me to the authorities in Kampala .
On entry however, I meet the children and because they have seen me earlier the chorus of ill treatment starts:
“Yesterday we did not eat,” said some while others said the food was bad.
“Food is not well cooked and the beans are not served ready,” others said.
“My child is sick with malaria but the dispensary has given me just these pain killers,” a woman carrying a baby said, showing me sachets of paracetamol (panadol).
Because it was a day after the massive transfer to the camp, a one month old was at camp without its mother. The mother arrived later and reunited with her child.
One woman had left her child in a shack at Kisenyi and was in town when she was bounded on to the KCC trucks. She cried and asked for permission to get to Kampala to no avail.
“Kampiringisa is a transitory camp,” said a camp official who did not want to be named.
“The children are brought here for preparations before they are taken back to Karamoja,” he added.
What is not clear is if the children and other adults receive any kind of rehabilitation at the camp, to make it worth its name.
The future looks dark
What chances do the 52 children baptized on Christmas day and others of their age and condition have in the future?
Hon. Terence Achia (Bokora) admits a solution will be hard to find but says they are working hard as MPs from Karamoja to find one.
Karamoja has 14 area MPs, two of whom are Ministers of State and a line ministry of Karamoja Affairs under the Office of the Prime Minister.
“We are trying to source some funding for the children and also look for non governmental organizations to help them,” he said when contacted.
With ill health, child labour, diseases such as HIV/AIDS, poor accommodation, lack of education and a lack of food, the future is indeed not secure.
Finding a lasting solution to the Karimojong street child problem is a jigsaw puzzle.
“I was talking with the mayor today about the street children but he says he has no solution,” Maureen Mwagale told me some time last Tuesday.
A lasting solution indeed remains a Herculean task, many who have talked to the children will agree.
The future of these children and indeed the whole Karimojong lies in that solution. Until then, the future is not secure.
I can't say I have come up with a great solution but I can tell you if there is no where for orphans to go, no where for them to sleep and no where for them to eat, of course they will do whatever it takes to survive. This is a major reason we are here is to help this situation but it is not going to be something in our own power but in the power of God. As we continue to move forward in the completion of the orphanage we sometimes have more questions than answers and we ask that you would pray along side us. That we would have wisdom and discernment on dealing with these issues. Pray that there would be more labors and that we could develop a long lasting solution and not just hand outs.
Thanks for taking the time to listen. I know this one was rather long, but it is something you must know to understand better what is going on in the region we serve.
Love and Hugs,